Sunday, September 18, 2011

Beach Talk with Janet S. Wong and Julie Paschkis

More and more writers and illustrators are discovering the mysterious interplay between art and yoga, and how yoga seems to serve as a catalyst for creativity.

It was yoga that inspired illustrator Julie Paschkis and poet Janet Wong to collaborate on Twist: Yoga Poems, a collection of sixteen poems and illustrations which explore a variety of yoga poses. The book, which was named a Bank Street Book of the Year, is the third book that they've worked on together, and it grew out of their close friendship and their mutual affection for yoga.

Julie Paschkis, the illustrator of more than twenty books for children, including Monica Brown’s Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People; Julie Larios’ Yellow Elephant, and Margarita Engle’s Summer Birds, started practicing yoga in 1994 to help her recover from surgery.

Janet Wong, whose poems have been displayed on 5,000 subway and bus posters as part of the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority's "Poetry in Motion" program (and who was was one of five children’s authors invited to read at The White House Easter Egg Roll), started practicing yoga in 1991 after walking past a yoga center that had interesting-looking people streaming in and out. “I thought, "I want to be one of those people!" Janet says.

About the origins of Twist, Janet says the book “... was inspired by the fact that Julie is a devoted yoga practitioner. I wanted to write poems that would be a gift to her, and my son had also been nagging me to write animal poems, so this topic (with the various animal poses – Down Dog, Cat/Cow, Cobra, etc) seemed a natural subject.”

Both Janet and Julie were kind enough to take a moment from their work to share their thoughts with wordswimmmer’s readers on how yoga inspired their work and how their work inspired their yoga practice.

So pull up a beach chair or find a place on the blanket, and join us for the conversation. (And if you feel like stretching into Down Dog while you're listening, that's great!)

Wordswimmer: What kind of yoga do you practice?

Julie: Hatha yoga.

Wordswimmer: What is it about yoga that you enjoy most?

Julie: Breathing deeply. Sometimes when I am in the poses thought goes away and I feel filled up and free.

Janet: What I love most about yoga is when I'm able to get a whole gym full of kids to do a pose in one of my poetry assemblies at a school. The energy of 400 kids discovering yoga is amazing--especially during the unlikely venue of an author assembly. They hear "poetry" and half of them are ready for the worst--then I surprise them with yoga. I usually have them do Downward-Facing Dog or Lion pose. They love sticking their tongues out! There is a buzzy chaotic energy immediately afterward, and ten seconds later they settle into a super-alert state and are really tuned into my poems and stories.

Wordswimmer: When did you start practicing yoga?

Julie: I started practicing yoga in 1994. I was recovering from surgery and I wanted to feel good in my body. I remember the teacher saying "Feel the ground under your feet." I had never heard language like that and I loved the idea. Yoga felt good and I have kept doing it since then.

Janet: I started practicing yoga in 1991 because I used to spend time walking up and down the street in little Larchmont Village (in Los Angeles), and there was a yoga center there that had the most interesting-looking people streaming in and out. I thought, "I want to be one of those people!" But I only did yoga there for a little over a year, stopping shortly before my son was born. I like to joke that I stopped doing yoga "50 pounds ago"--too true. But every once in a while I'll do a yoga stretch or tap into what I learned about breathing (and breathing through pain).

Wordswimmer: What’s the hardest part of your yoga practice?

Julie: Sometimes the poses feel hard and uncomfortable. My mind bolts and my body wants to bolt.

Janet: Getting past The Belly!

Wordswimmer: Does yoga stimulate your creative process?

Julie: When I am deep in my work or deep in a yoga pose I am calm and contented. When I am doing yoga I want to just be doing yoga. And I find that I am creative when I am creating. That sounds stupid but what I mean is that for me ideas come from the act of making art. I need to be actually drawing to develop the ideas, not just thinking about drawing. The ideas come from my hands as well as my mind.

Wordswimmer: Did you practice more yoga during the time you were working on Twist?

Julie: When I was working on Twist I did a lot more yoga than I usually do. I thought about the poses while I was painting and about the painting while I was practicing yoga. I looked a lot at everyone else's bodies in the poses which I don't usually do. I think my observation was heightened as much as my creativity. I approached my yoga in a more abstract way than I usually do.

Wordswimmer: Can you describe the process that you used to “find” the poses that you wrote or illustrated in the book?

Julie: Janet chose the poses to include but I kibitzed on that, and I helped to arrange them in a sequence that would make sense in a practice (Triangle before Half Moon, etc). I think the fact that many of the poses are named after animals resonates with kids, and I emphasized those metaphors in the illustrations. The illustrations tell stories based on my ideas about the poses. The only pose I added on my own was Savasana. I thought the book needed to end with that pose as all practices do, but the editors didn't want a poem called Corpse pose. So there is a picture without a poem there.

Janet: I remember giving Julie more poems/poses than we needed for the book because I wanted her to have choices. After reading the manuscript she told me that I was missing one of her favorites, Lion pose. I had never heard of it, so she showed it to me. Instantly I knew we needed it! I think it's a great introduction to yoga; kids love that pose. I'm also quite proud of one of the "poses" I made up for the book. In "Finding the Center," I talk about how "she" (thinking of Julie) is Scorpion, Shooting Bow, Frog, Wheel, etc...while I am...Doughnut. Is there a Doughnut pose? If not, I think there should be one: you'd fill your belly with air, make yourself round and soft, think sweet things, and rise.

Wordswimmer: Did the experience of writing or illustrating the poses enhance or change your understanding of the poses?

Julie: Yes, lots. It seemed that when I was working on the book the teacher I was working with (Shannon McCall) would often do an in depth class that focused around the pose I was painting at the time. I felt lucky! Usually I think about poses from the inside out and while I was working on the book I also thought of them from the outside in.

Janet: Just before I started the book, I took my son with me to a yoga class. He was about 10, and one of the first things the instructor told us to do was to "breathe into your groin." Well, you can imagine that we lost him at that. He turned purple to keep from laughing, and I did, too. After our "purple episode," I was too embarrassed to go back. I didn't continue with the class, but instead practiced yoga at home, surprising myself by remembering poses from 11 years earlier. I'm sure my dog thought I was sick, the way I'd roll around on the floor and talk to myself, then struggle to get up and dash over to the computer to type like a madwoman. I'd do a pose, talk out possible phrases for a poem, scribble notes or type, then do the pose again.

Wordswimmer: Some of the poses–Half Moon, for instance, and Low Crow–and some of the poses illustrated in Finding the Center (Headstand, for instance)–are extremely challenging poses for adults, and I’m wondering what prompted you to include them in a children’s book?

Julie: Some poses that are hard for adults are easy for kids and vice versa. Once I was with a group of kids and I started talking about Low Crow. They all tried it and most of them "flew" instantly. They are light, flexible and less afraid of falling than many adults. They approach the poses with playful spirits.

Janet: I think I chose those two particular poses just because they are so visual--and "poetic." What poet could resist the rhyme of Low and Crow and the allure of the moon?

For another interview with Julie and Janet about Twist, check out Elaine Magliaro’s blog, Blue Rose Girls:

You can find more information about Janet at her website:

And you can check out Julie's website, too, for more info about her and her work:

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