Amanda West Lewis: On Not Being a Poet

May 25, 2024

Author Amanda West LewisWelcome to Cantastic Authorpalooza, featuring posts by and about great Canadian children’s book creators! Today’s guest: Amanda West Lewis. Take it away, Amanda!

For most of my life, I’ve actively avoided writing poetry. There are SO MANY bad poems in the world.

But poetry has always been a huge part of my life. I studied calligraphy when I was young, eventually becoming a full-time calligraphic artist, spending countless hours lettering beautiful poems. I also trained as an actor, which included voice work with vibrant poems of all genres, spoken, memorized and incorporated into performances.

But compose a poem? Never.

When I studied for my MFA in writing for children and youth (VCFA), we were assigned Stephen Fry’s book The Ode Less Travelled. This deliciously funny, wicked, irreverent book on writing and reading poetry forced me to realize that my years of reading, lettering, and speaking poetry had left a mark. Words were deep in my cells –– the look of them, the sound of them, the rhythm, skip and beat of them, the feel of them in my mouth, lips and chest.

Words are the building blocks for any writer. As a writer for young people, I needed to embrace my role as a creator of meaning from little bits of sound. Children learn language by playing with words, and I needed to rediscover a sense of play. I needed to get over myself and try to write some poetry.

As I read more picture books, I discovered the American poet, Joyce Sidman. Sidman writes nature books, combining information with the language of poetry. Her book Caldicott winning book Dark Emperor and other Poems of the Night is a masterful combination of sound that explores the world of night creatures. This is fabulous, I thought. Maybe I can write non-fiction poetry. I like boundaries, and poetry that needs to convey real information will keep me from writing free-for-all-wallowing-in-self-centred-bliss poetry. I just needed to find my subject.

I’m a regular listener to the CBC radio show Quirks and Quarks. Every week, there is something new –– some beetle, some volcano, some newly discovered moon of Jupiter, some surprising discovery that connects us to the universe around us. I began trolling through Quirks and Quarks for interesting subjects, doing further research. I wrote poems about the Wandering Glider, Zombie Beetles, Mites, and newly discovered dinosaurs. But when I heard about new findings from Pluto I went crazy.

Poor little Pluto, bouncing between classifications as a Planet and a Dwarf Planet. Yet according to images we received from the New Horizons Space Probe, little Pluto has a red, heart-shaped plateau on it that ebbs and flows as though it is a beating heart! It has skies that are bright blue! Who couldn’t fall in love with that?

A Planet is a Poem by Amanda West Lewis

But how to actually structure a poem about Pluto? This is where Stephen Fry came in. At that point, I was working through his book and trying new forms. I had just discovered the Pantoum. Voila! Alliteration! A Pantoum for Pluto! It was a marriage made in poetry heaven.

I started discussing the idea of a book of poems about new discoveries in our solar system with Katie Scott and Kathleen Keenan at Kids Can Press. Because of my background in poetry, we came up with the idea of choosing a different poetic form for each planet. The characteristics of each planet would influence the choice of poetic form. Young people would learn about the planets AND learn about poetry. Brilliant, I thought. I get to learn more about poetry while I am learning about the planets! Bring it on!

Had I had ANY idea of how hard it was, I would have run away screaming. I am not a scientist nor am I a poet. What on earth was I thinking?

Eight years later, A Planet is a Poem has come out from Kids Can Press. The book combines the logic of poetic forms with the wonders of the solar system. The discipline of art is married to the mystery of science.

I am thrilled, and of course terrified. I’m confident in my facts (if you can’t trust NASA, who can you trust?), but aware that to aspire to good poetry is to aspire to divinity. You can see it, you can love it, but you can never achieve it.

I’m still hesitant to call myself a poet. Writing poetry is a sacred trust. It is the purest form in which we can convey ideas, and I haven’t yet achieved that effervescence, that translucence that I aspire to. But I am no longer afraid to try. I will always love the bounce, thrum, wobble, and slither of language, the puzzle and agony of working with words. It’s how I can try to make sense of the world.

A Planet is a Poem, Kids Can Press, is available NOW.

1 Comment on ‘Amanda West Lewis: On Not Being a Poet’

  1. What an amazing story Amanda and it’s wonderful that through your love of words, you’ve come up with
    such an intriguing idea! I can’t wait to pour through this book!

    Reply | 

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