An interview with Joyce Sidman

The first-ever winner of a Cybil for Poetry is Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow: Poems by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes. It was selected by the committee based in part on its wonderfully rich language and imagery. The book, a series of riddle poems in pairs, incorporates a variety of poetic forms, ranging from free verse to rhyming poems to a complex form known as a pantoum. 

Each pair of poems is followed by an answer to the riddles, complete with an explanation of how the animals and plants in the poems fit together in the ecosystem of the meadow. Beth Krommes’s scratchboard drawings use vibrant colors to track the activity in the meadow from dawn to dusk, and offer clues to the riddles found in the poems.

Kelly Fineman wrote the above introduction and interviewed Joyce Sidman for Cybils:

Kelly:  Butterfly Eyes is a collection of riddle poems about nature interspersed with answers and explanations in prose. Can you tell us a bit about how you arrived at this idea, and which you wrote first, the riddle or the answer? Can you say which was easier or more fun to write, the poetry or the prose?

Joyce: Oh, the poems always come first—and they are always the most fun, though “fun” is a relative term. They are thrilling, challenging, and much harder than the prose. When I get to the prose, I think, “Whew! Now all I have to do is condense all this information into a paragraph.” Which, oddly, I enjoy—but it’s not very exciting.

The riddle format arose in an organic way. This book started out in a similar format to Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems, except that I’d loosely grouped them in twos because I was interested in the interconnection of many of these creatures. My editor, Ann Rider, noticed that most of the poems were tending toward the riddle format—in other words, not saying what they were, just giving hints—so she urged me to try the whole manuscript that way. And it worked! Although there are one or two poems I think flowed better in the original version, I love the riddle concept.

Kelly: As a follow-up question, how did you arrive at the animals, plants and other natural phenomena (like dew) that ended up in the collection? And did you originally decide to start with morning and proceed through the day, or was that something that developed along the way? (I suppose this is really a "where did you get your idea" question in disguise, but it’s also about the process of developing the idea once you had it.)

Joyce: Back when I was working on Boatman, I envisioned a triptych of books about three ecosystems I love: pond, meadow, and woods. So the idea for a meadow book was always there. To choose my subjects, I go with my heart (which creatures have always fascinated and thrilled me?) and with research (which creatures are most interesting when I find out more about them?). Dawn to dusk seemed a natural progression for the meadow, because the activity level and the animals change so much depending on the time of day. Plus, I got the idea for a dew poem early on, and I had to include it.

Kelly: In a typical picture book, authors are advised to leave room for the illustrator to tell part of the story. Does that same sort of consideration apply in your poetry picture books, or do you write the poems without any real thought for what the illustrations will show?

Was the format of the text in the book the same as what you submitted (I’m thinking particularly of the poems about the butterfly, the snake and the toad, which echoed some characteristics of their topic – the butterfly text "flitted" on the page, and the snake and toad were more like concrete–or shape–poems)?

Joyce: I have to admit that as a poet, I don’t think much about what to leave for the illustrator to interpret. Poems are short, and there is so much unsaid anyway! The only book that was problematic in this way was MEOW RUFF, which is made up almost entirely of concrete poetry (shape poems), and that book drove both the illustrator and the design department crazy. But that’s another story . . .

The text in all the poems in Butterfly Eyes is exactly as I laid it out—that is always very important to me. Poems are like sculptures, and placement on the page is critical to impact and understanding. Houghton Mifflin is always very good to me in this way; they make sure I am happy with text layout.

Kelly: In 2006, your book Song of the Water Boatman won a Caldecott Award for the illustrations by Beckie Prange. What effect, if any, has the award had on you and your writing career?

Joyce: The award has made a great deal of difference in some ways. Although the award is truly Beckie’s, it was personally thrilling for me to know that my work was read and honored by such esteemed, knowledgeable people. I felt as though I had “arrived.”

Two very humbling realizations soon followed, however. Before Boatman, I tended to think of my books as primarily mine—my ideas, my work. The Caldecott made me realize that without my editor Ann Rider, who chose Beckie as an illustrator and guided the growth of the book; Beckie herself, who interpreted my poems so breathtakingly; and the design department at Houghton, which pays such attention to detail and quality; Boatman would never have garnered so much attention (especially given that it’s poetry). So I guess I realized I was only one of a team of extremely creative, knowledgeable people that created this book. This goes for Butterfly Eyes as well—I can’t believe the incredible, intricate art Beth Krommes created, and elegant design work involved.

Also, I had a confusing period of being a “public” award-winning person instead of a private artist, and my creative engine totally shut down. To tell you the truth, I still haven’t completely recovered. If you’re afraid to write a word because it might not be as good as the last thing you wrote, there is a lot of angst. I guess all writers need to be underdogs in some way, defying the odds, willing to take risks—and I am still working my way back to that.

Kelly: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the works already and, if so, can you tell us a bit about it? Do you have poems in any anthologies coming out that we should look for?

Joyce: There are a couple of books that were already written and in the Houghton Mifflin pipeline when the Caldecott was announced. One of them is coming out in April: This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness. It is about a group of 6th graders (living in my head) who write apology poems to the people in their lives—and then get those people to write back. This book grew out of my work as a writing teacher in public schools. It was both fun and harrowing to write, because I revisited a lot of stupid and hurtful things I’ve done in the past!

Another book in the works is called Ubiquitous: Poetry & Science About Nature’s Survivors, which is in the process of being illustrated by Beckie Prange. These poems highlight “survivor” organisms like bacteria, beetles, dandelions, and crows—and try to explain why they are so successful. I’ve seen some of Beckie’s sketches and they are just gorgeous. Wait’ll you see her scarab beetles!

I am working on a couple other manuscripts, but won’t jinx them by talking about them . . .

Kelly: Poet’s choice: If there’s something in particular you’d like to address, please do!

Joyce: Well, I will tell you that I loved Beth Krommes’ work so much that I bought one of the original pieces of art from Butterfly Eyes—the night spread at the end with the owl flying over the field. It evokes all the mystery of dusk in the meadow.

Also: I am grateful to all you wonderful Cybils people—for all your passion and dedication to this rich world of children’s books. It is truly a world limited only by the depth of our collective imagination.