I was initially encouraged to contact Susan from a friend who was helping me with a rhyming poetry project I was working on. This friend informed me that Susan’s ear for rhythm and her uncanny knack for rhyme made her an invaluable asset and a tremendous source for poetry and other forms of writing. After a little internet digging and a short digital conversation, I found myself slurping coffee and exchanging stories with this benevolent and intelligent woman. She has since helped me with several current side projects and I’ve found endless inspiration from her love of storytelling and our mutually shared fondness of rhyme. I am blessed with the continual opportunity to pick her brain, learn from her, and enjoy her work.
I’m proud and humbled to play host to the talents, wit, insight, and humor of Susan Blackaby today on this week’s Sunday Showcase. There’s no doubt that her writing, teaching, and speaking have touched countless hearts of children and adults alike. Grab your mid-morning coffee, a ‘Brownie’ for breakfast, and enjoy this interview with Susan.
Tell us a little bit about your journey thus far. What led you to write poetry? How did you get started? What was your initial attraction to rhyme? Is there a type of prose you strongly prefer?
I had been writing for the educational marketplace for several years when I tried my hand at a picture book of my own. Rembrandt’s Hat was critiqued at an SCBWI Oregon conference by Ann Rider at Houghton Mifflin and got picked up shortly thereafter (thanks to her expertise and encouragement). Poetry is a DNA thing—my mom had a keen ear and crazy wicked if unexplored talent. I wrote rompy rhymes in grade school and angst-charged drivel in high school (it was the 60s) before I studied it more seriously as an adult. I have taken lots of workshops along the way, including a seminal week with Ursula LeGuin at Malheur Wildlife Refuge about 20 years ago and a workshop with Ann Paul at Haystack. Little by little Nest, Nook & Cranny took shape—particularly as it was rejected and revised and rejected and revised. My attraction isn’t to rhyme, necessarily. It is more of a distillation thing. The thoughtful and compelling kind.
In your opinion, what is the largest obstacle for writers attempting to write in rhyme? It seems like several ‘experts’ strongly urge and recommend not starting out this way.
The reason rhyme is discouraged (and discouraging, for that matter) is that it is extremely difficult to execute with absolutely seamless precision and accuracy, and bad rhyme is a lot worse than bad anything else. So out of the gate, a rhyming manuscript automatically raises a big red uh-oh flag. Editors will stop reading when they come to the first bump, hiccup, cheat, or stretch if they are willing to read a rhyming manuscript at all. In addition, not every story begs to be told in rhyme even it if is aimed at the tiny tot audience, and as an author it is important to approach a text with open-minded objectivity in that regard. This isn’t my opinion, actually, nor is it a capricious whim of “several experts.” It comes from legions of professionals who see thousands of manuscripts a year. My advice is to study masters of form and function. Mary Ann Hoberman, Deb Lund, Heather Frederick, and Rosanne Parry are excellent exemplars. It can be done, but only if it is done perfectly. That is a tall order.
I see that you have been selected to participate in the 2014 March Madness Poetry competition presented by Think Kid Think. Is this your first year competing? Have you ever done any competitions similar to this one before?
This is my 3rd year in the competition. The first year I made it to the Final Four. Last year I got axed pretty early. For work I’ve had plenty of occasions when a deadline loomed and I needed to come up with a poem in short order, but the challenge and adrenalin required for March Madness is unparalleled and unprecedented.
Are you strictly a writer? Do you ever illustrate, paint, doodle, or create any artwork beyond your beautifully crafted words?
I doodle and dabble for my own amusement but I’m not an illustrator. I’ve got nothing but admiration, awe, and a little shard of jealousy for fine artists of any stripe.
I’m a big fan of your work and always get a chuckle from your imagination and creativity. If you don’t mind sharing, what’s on the horizon for Susan Blackaby? Can we expect to have another visit from Rembrandt, or Brownie Groundhog, or are you working with entirely new characters?
Most picture books don’t inspire or require a sequel. Brownie was an exception, and she may be revisited one more time. Otherwise I continuously coax and shepherd along new characters, so there is always a merry crowd skittering around my brain. To say nothing (and I mean nothing) of the glacial YA novel. Yikes. Coming out in October is The Twelve Days of Christmas in Oregon, part of a state-by-state series.
What are your largest inspirations to write and create? When you find yourself in an artistic slump are there any specific people, places, or things you turn to for motivation?
As many writers will agree, the creative impulse is mostly compulsory to one degree or another—which is why not doing it causes so much anxiety and guilt and bad juju. Lucky for me I live in Garden Home, which is lousy with commiserating children’s book authors who are funny, insightful, helpful, and passing generous. Fresh air and exercise and a loop around the neighborhood are always inspiring in a pinch. I try to keep in mind that it just takes one wacky dog to wag your imagination back onto the high road. And I get cranky if I don’t get time to do my thing, as anyone in my family can tell you.