Happy Poetry Friday! (Wondering what Poetry Friday is? Click here.)
Last month, I shared Kate Coombs’ gorgeous new picture book, Breathe and Be (Sounds True, 2017). I think a lot of you connected with that post and the book, and I’m happy to share a bit more from Kate. We both had other blogligations (yep, making that word up right here!), so it’s been a month, but that’s ok. So often, it takes my seeing a book several times over a period of a month or two before I actually remember to put it on reserve at my library!
Today, I’m sharing another favorite spread from the book, plus Kate’s hysterical and revealing answers to some questions I sent her. I hope you’ll stay and read the interview. Whether you’re a teacher, a writer, or someone new to mindfulness, I feel you’ll find something to chuckle at and relate to!
I watch the stream.
Each thought is a floating leaf.
One leaf is worry,
another leaf is sadness.
The leaves drift softly away.
–Kate Coombs, from Breathe and Be, all rights reserved
I want to give this book to so many kids facing unfathomable worry over life circumstances. So often there’s nothing practical we, in the moment, can do. But I swear this book would help.
OK, on to the interview, which I have edited slightly, but not much, because I love Kate’s answers!
1) How did this book come about?
One day an author friend of mine invited me to lunch. When we got together, she explained that she was the new children’s book editor for what I fondly call a yoga publisher based in Colorado. They usually publish adult nonfiction, but they had had success with two picture books and wanted to do more. Jen asked me if I’d like to write a book for them on spec. Of course I said yes, and she gave me a few topics, including mindfulness.
As I left I had to laugh. Me? Write a yoga-type book? I’m the most tense person you’ll ever meet, and the closest I’ve come to yoga is Pilates.
But I was also fascinated by the idea of mindfulness, so I started doing some research. This turned out to be nerve-wracking in its own way because I learned that mindfulness was sort of a grand, almost mystical concept. At least that’s how it seemed to me at first.
So that worried me, and I had a related fear, which was that I would depict mindfulness incorrectly and all the yoga teachers in the U.S. would rise up as one to pummel me with their yoga mats.
Deciding to write the book as a collection of poems was comforting. Having chosen tanka as my form (because haiku are too short), I sallied forth.
2) Since these poems are practically mini-meditations, I’m wondering if your writing process was any different for these poems as opposed to, say, your ocean poems (see Kate’s Water Sings Blue).
I took the ideas I wanted to express about mindfulness and started writing poems about them. At first my poems were too abstract as I tried to conquer the concepts. These ideas would be hard to explain to adults, let alone children. Then I remembered good old “show, don’t tell.” I realized images, metaphors, and little scenes could convey the ideas successfully. For example, being aware of your thoughts is like watching little multi-colored fish swim past.
As I wrote, the poems began to create a mood that felt like mindfulness, which confirmed I was on the right track and just plain made me happy. I have not needed or felt this kind of mood with any of my other projects. Here it was essential.
3) Could you share a little about how you thought about line breaks in these tanka? I especially noted that several times you have a transitional word (Yesterday, Here now, Instead…) at the end of a long line. That had the effect for me of making those poems even more meditative—oddly, because at first it felt weird not having a complete thought/phrase on a line since most of your lines are a thought/phrase in its entirety. But then it made the lines all flow together in this very calming chantlike way. Sigh. Just wondering how you think about line breaks in general with tanka and how they were any different or not in this collection.
I am not a fan of precise syllable counts for haiku and tanka, especially considering they’re a form in translation. That’s why I prefer the idea of “short, long, short, long, long” to 5,7,5,7,7. That said, I started with those numbers and then varied them here and there as needed, only by a syllable or two.
Which brings us to line breaks. Whenever I write poetry, free verse in particular, I redo the line breaks over and over to see what works. That experimenting also helps me drop unnecessary words, tighten the poem, and find more specific phrases and images along the way. (One of the best exercises I’ve done for tightening a poem is actually writing something with 20 or 25 words and paring it down for Laura’s 15 Words or Less workshop!) [Happy to be of service!]
I tend to like line breaks that end on phrases, and a lot of the lines in these poems end that way, as complete little parcels of thought. But doing that every single time can get boring, and besides, some spots seem to call out for something different. In the poem that begins, “Some days I bark and snap/like a little dog. Instead/I will be a tree,” the word “Instead” followed by a line break turns the meaning, hooking the poem over from the dog to the tree. In the same poem the word “patient” ends a line and inserts a pause right there, requiring a tiny bit of patience from the reader before the next line is discovered. I created line breaks for those purposes subconsciously, but I can see why as I look back. [Isn’t that one of the joys of poetry–realizing after the fact why you made a choice?]
The poem beginning “Tomorrow’s an egg” had special challenges. Really huge time concepts—the entirety of the past and future poised against just one day, in fact just one moment—must be anchored somehow in a very small poem. That’s what the bird metaphors are for. I’d like to think the phrase “the true wings” evokes a burst of wingbeats as a bird flies upward or at least just one wingbeat as a bird crosses the sky, capturing a precise moment in time.
As for those line breaks, I would say the pauses at “Yesterday” and “Here now” help the reader leave one huge time frame and leap gracefully to the next.
Overall, I feel like the pacing of the lines in these poems is a slow walk, with the reader looking around at the trees and down at the grass, feeling the sun and enjoying the day. In spite of one poem beginning “How I rush, rush, rush!” these are not rushed poems. If anything, the poems reflect the idea of “I breathe slowly in, I breathe slowly out.” In mindfulness, breathing is a big deal, and I hope the line breaks help evoke or even elicit that kind of mindful breathing.
4. So, have you figured out mindfulness for yourself, then?
I was about halfway through writing the first draft when I had an epiphany: I may not have taken a yoga class, but I had experienced mindfulness! Being outside in nature had done it for me. Most memorably, my family had gone on vacation to Sequoia National Park every summer for several years.
We stayed in what they called “rustic” cabins, we hiked, we splashed in pools near the waterfall, we toured the caves, we watched for bears. Sometimes the bears chased us off our porch and ate the dinner we had cooked on our wood-burning stove.
Most of all we looked at trees, wide and towering sequoias like something out of a dinosaur movie—only these trees would have dwarfed the dinosaurs. The trees, the green meadows, the wildflowers we didn’t know the names of, the summer sky…all of it brought peace. And clarity. And focus. And a letting go. Mindfulness.
Trees have continued to bring me a sense of peace over the years. I am often tense, but trees still calm my soul, bringing me a sharp awareness of the immediacy and wholeness of the world.
Anna Emilia filled Breathe and Be with trees, wonderful trees. She even added an inscription at the beginning of the book:
The trees are the lungs of this planet Earth.
Let’s take care of them, so they breathe for us.
I set out to write a beautiful, mindful book, and I’m hopeful that it worked. The funny thing is, I read the poems myself and feel calmer!
It did work! Thank you, Kate! I loved learning more about the origins and process of this book.
Readers, you can find it through your favorite indie bookseller or Amazon. I hope you love it as much as I do. And if you’d like to spread the word about it, I’d love for you to share this post on social media. I bolded a few of my favorite phrases, but of course you can share any bit of it you’d like to!
Educators, check out the lovely Breathe and Be story hour guide prepared by Kate and the publisher! And you can also find more about this project with Irene Latham and Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, both of whom hosted Kate and her book on their blogs, too!
And for lots of wonderful poetry today, don’t miss the Poetry Friday Roundup with Jame at Alphabet Soup!