Friday, March 20, 2009

One Poet’s Process: Douglas Florian

Douglas Florian is a poet who doesn’t simply swim through the water, he flies using the water-wings of his imagination to create the kinds of poems that have earned him a reputation over the years as a favorite of poetry fans.

From his very first efforts at poetry, Florian preferred not to follow a straight line but to zigzag and pun his way across the pool using a variety of strokes and words, some of which had never been invented before he came up with them.

“In poetry you can pull or push words, s t r e t c h words, shape words, invert words, invent words, use bad grammar, bad spellllling, or anything that makes the poem better,” Florian says. “That's poetic license, and I get mine renewed every Thursday.”

The former cartoonist, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, says it took him ten years of writing and illustrating non-fiction, such as A Painter (Greenwillow), and illustrating the work of others --Dorothy O. Van Woerkom’s Tit for Tat (Greenwillow) was his first in 1977-- before he found his own niche writing poetry for children.

Since diving into the pond of children’s poetry with Monster Hotel (HBJ), his first collection of poems, he’s written many, many more books--including Comets, Stars, the Moon and Mars (Harcourt), zoo's who (Harcourt), bow wow meow meow (Harcourt), mammalabilia (Harcourt), Omnibeasts (Harcourt), Handsprings (Greenwillow), A Pig is Big (Greenwillow), and insectiopedia (Harcourt)--and his work has earned him a slew of prizes, including the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award.

His newest book, Dinothesaurus: Prehistoric Poems and Paintings (Simon & Schuster), which was released this past week, has already been hailed by Publishers Weekly in a starred review as “a giganotosaurus delight—perhaps his best work ever.”

Florian lives in New York City, and recently was kind enough to take a moment from juggling his various projects to tread water and respond to Wordswimmer’s “aquatic questions.”

Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming... how do you get into the water each day?

Florian: I never get out! I'm a Piscean, two fish, so I'm always swimming. I try to keep open to ideas and images wending my way when I least expect them. Whether walking, driving, diving, eating or sleeping, I jot down things that strike my fancy or get my wheels turning, or fins finning. Things I hear or see on TV, radio, billboards, trucks, or from students, teachers or friends can inspire a line or a key word in a poem. I also work in a studio, separate from my home, so I don't encounter much distractions.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat?

Florian: My love of poetry and nature keep me swimming. That plus much research. As Branch Rickey, the baseball king, said: "Luck is the residue of design." The more I understand my subject, the easier it gets to write a poem or paint it. So, for Dinothesaurus, I made several trips to the American Museum of Natural History and read many primary source books by paleontologists. My editor, Andrea, is like a life jacket, keeping my head above water when I get bogged down. She has a clear vision and supplements my research with her own. And my designers, Ann and Michael, keep the pictures moving downstream with brilliance through the occasional muddy waters.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Florian: Fortunately, I don't have many dry days as nature is a veritable wellspring of information, changing and evolving day to day. There's even web sites that detail new advances in science like And I always try new media and techniques in my artwork. Of course creativity is a fickle thing and there are days when all I can do is get a good night's sleep and wait for tomorrow.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Florian: Sometimes while writing or painting I hit a wall or logjam. I can get stuck on a word or concept that just doesn't seem to have a solution. Sometimes there seems to be a missing piece to the puzzle that's hard to find. At those times I may go back to a reference, use a rhyming dictionary, or just go out for a cup of coffee, or to read the newspaper. Reading something funny in a book or magazine can help create a certain mood in my head, a zone, as they say, where other funny things happen. Humor is contagious, after all.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Florian: Time can be my best friend. I can spend a whole day searching in vain for a solution then come back to it later with an instant obvious solution.That's the way the mind works. You have to break a pattern of thinking, and, perhaps, distance from the problem helps. Keeping a very open mind works wonders and being receptive helps. The title Dinothesaurus actually came from a review of another book of mine by a writer in Clarkesville, Tennesee... Mike Shoulders. He imagined that someday I'd have a book with such a title and I liked the idea. Just the other day I solved a problem while talking to my editor Andrea. And with an editor and designer I never really swim alone anyway.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming you love the most?

Florian: I love it when I dive underwater and surprise myself with a new word, a new way of seeing, or a fresh perspective. For example in the poem Tyrannosaurus Rex in Dinothesaurus, I was thinking about the fact that T rex is extinct, and my mind combined those words into one new word, T-rextinct. That can happen in the art also. The rough tough dinosaur Ankylosaurus became a tank, and the humongous dinosaur Seismosaurus became as large as a lake.

For more information about Florian and his work, you can visit:

or check out his blog:

(he’s also got a website displaying his artwork:

For additional interviews with Florian, check out:


jama said...

Wonderful interview! Loved learning more about Doug's work.

Anonymous said...

Great interview - thanks for this, Bruce and Douglas!

(Just got a copy of Dinothesaurus in yesterday's mail, and am happily reading through it!)

Kelly Polark said...

Excellent interview! I enjoyed swimming in the mind of a great poet!

laurasalas said...

Terrific interview, you guys!

This new book rocks. I'm enjoying it so much.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

I enjoyed reading that. I love love love his books.

I'll be interviewing him in April and will for sure link to this fabulous interview.