A few weeks ago on Poetry Friday, I shared a poem from Pirates, a fantastic new poetry collection by David L. Harrison, illustrated by Dan Burr (Wordsong, 2008). (Just before that, Kelly Fineman at Writing and Ruminating posted an in-depth review of the book here.) I got a nice note from David, and we corresponded a bit. That ended with my wrangling him into an e-interview, and Dan Burr agreed to come along for the ride. Yea!
[Addendum: Sorry the layout is not pretty. I’m very frustrated with LJ this morning!]
David L. Harrison
David Harrison is the Poet Laureate of Drury University and is the author of many books for kids, including many poetry collections. I’m embarrassed to say the only one I was already familiar with wasbugs, which I enjoyed and wrote a bit about last year. And now, having read Pirates, I’ll be putting his other volumes on order, too.
Dan Burr is a sportsman, painter, and illustrator living in Idaho. He does commercial illustration as well as book illustration. I’m familiar with his work from his luminous work on Castles, a poetry collection by Rebecca Kai Dotlich and J. Patrick Lewis (two of my favorite poets!).
Here’s what David and Dan had to say. David will be in blue. Dan will be in maroon.
You said that some poems were a result of writing to Dan Burr’s idea for a visual scene, and others initiated with you. Could you give a couple of examples of each and talk about how the writing process differed depending on whether the idea for the poem came from you or from the illustration?
Prior to this book Dan illustrated a book called Castles: Old Stone Poems with poetry by the poets Rebecca Kai Dotlich and J. Patrick Lewis, so I was aware of Dan’s wonderful talent. When my editor Stephen Roxburgh sent me a pirate painted by Dan and asked if I would be interested in working with him on a book about pirates, all I needed was one look and I was hooked. With both hands gripping the wheel, pigtailed beard tossed by the wind, the pirate squints one-eyed into the sun. His gold tooth and ear loops catch the yellow light. Above him a full sail bellies out. His fierce face focuses on something in the distance over our right shoulder. A victim ship on the horizon? The poem almost wrote itself.
COMING FOR YOUR GOLD
You can’t outrun
a pirate the likes of me.
This boat’s the fleetest vessel
on the sea.
Soon I’ll board your ship
and take your gold.
I’ll plunder all the treasures
in your hold.
I’ll have your pretty baubles
by and by.
And you’ll go home
the poorer for it, aye.
–David L. Harrison, all rights reserved
Once Dan and I started tossing ideas back and forth, a typical conversation would be this one, taken from my files. I trust that Dan won’t mind my using it here to help explain how we worked.
From: Dan Burr
Sent: Monday, March 13, 2006
To: David Harrison
Subject: pirate fight
I am thinking about doing a scene where the pirates are thinking about fighting over a chest of gold on a beach, swords drawn and maybe a pistol or two, but not really engaged. I’m sure you could come up with some great words to go with it.
Let me know
From: David Harrison
Sent: Monday, March 13, 2006 6:50 PM
To: Dan Burr
This will be a very strong scene. What if the captain speaks sarcastically to his “gentlemen” crew, gathered around the bounty of a looting, and urges them to put away their weapons while the booty is divided? He then informs them that he plans to bury his share and anyone who follows him does so at his peril. That way we can have plenty of scowls and hands on weapons without the dreaded “bloodshed” word!
You’ll find that scene in the book just as Dan described it and the poem, “Gentlemen on the Beach,” unfolds the way I visualized it with Dan’s painting.
Among my suggestions to Dan that made it into the book were being marooned “Marooned”), boring days at sea (“Another Day at Sea”), punishment by whipping
(“Cat-o’-Nine-Tails”), and bad food (“Table Talk”).
Did the two of you already know each other before collaborating on this collection? Or did the editor pair you up?
We had never met but Stephen knew us both and had worked with us on other projects. It was his idea to bring us together for this one. I describe in the book how it happened. The opening lines of Stephen’s note to us were: “Dan, meet David, a poet. David, meet Dan, a painter. Dan has wanted to illustrate a book about pirates for a very long time.”
Copyright 2008, Dan Burr, all rights reserved
Can you tell Dan wants to be a pirate?
Dan, what about pirates drew you in and made you want to pursue a picture book about them?
Ever since college I have wanted to paint pirates, I did a couple of paintings almost 20 years ago but really did not have a sense of how or where it might go.
Pirates are a great subject and I love the historical aspect of the subject as well, but I just love the romantic side of the whole thing and the 10 yr old in me wants to be a pirate. I can’t be one so I painted them instead.
Can you briefly describe your artistic process in general?
Images come to my mind all the time, no matter what I am doing I seem to be day dreaming as well, once I become really interested in a potential painting I usually start sketching and come up with a design and concept that I like, them I will start the research for the painting. Accuracy is important to me especially historical accuracy,
so I dig in and learn what I need to know to make the scene believable. Then I will choose a model or models, dress them up and take photos. From the photos I will draw and then paint the image. It all starts with a daydream, or a good bunch of words.
Art for Sails in Sight. Copyright 2008, Dan Burr, all rights reserved.
David, you mentioned in an email that it was a challenge to "minimize the portrayal of outright violence while writing about people who lived and often died violently." Can you speak a bit about how this played out? Were there poems that were initially more violent that you needed to tone down? Or was it more that that concern was always in the back of your mind as you wrote?
The concern was always there and it influenced the subjects I chose and the way in which I presented them. Early in my reading about pirates I sent word to my editor that pirates were not nice people. They chose a life of crime, stole from others, and occasionally tortured, maimed, and killed their victims. I wondered how I could write poems for young readers about such rogues. My editor reminded me that I couldn’t portray violence in a children’s book. He basically said, “You’re the writer. Work it out.”
My eventual solution was to find moments in a pirate’s life that would give readers a glimpse of the lifestyle without dwelling on the moments of conflict and bloodshed. For example, one of the worst problems was boredom. Most pirates were single and in their twenties. Being cooped on a small, stinking ship for long periods between sightings of victims to rob often led to bickering and fights. Therefore, one poem is about boredom, one is about getting flogged for breaking a rule, and another reflects the excitement of spotting a sail on the horizon.
The opening poem tells about why some men signed on as pirates, knowing they would likely end on the gallows “dancing the hempen jig.” One describes the ship’s rules. In another poem, a captain mutters to himself as he readies a green crew for sailing. In this way I was able to focus more on the lives of pirates and less on the death and destruction they often caused.
Art for The King’s Gold. Copyright 2008, Dan Burr, all rights reserved.
What about you, Dan? How did this concern play out artistically? Did you feel restricted in the art? Were there certain lines that you didn’t want to cross?
There were images that I wanted to paint that didn’t make the cut, I wanted to address scurvy and make a painting about a dying pirate, the editors did not think it would be appropriate, they are probably right. I’m sure I will paint it sometime in the future, I still have the sketch and I like the design, I will have to paint it eventually.
Marketing concerns aside, what age kid do YOU think is the perfect reader for this book, David?
Poetry often finds readers at more than one level. Third graders will “get” the excitement and drama of pirates based on their prior experiences with books and movies that paint a dashing picture of the scallywags. I’m told that third grade curricula in Texas include an annual unit on pirates. Somewhat older readers should gain insight into the sad, often violent lives of men (and women) who risked their necks for adventure and the lure of stealing other men’s riches. Dan Burr’s glorious paintings will undoubtedly attract a wide audience of art lovers and I think an older audience may also consider the poems on their own merit. I hope to see teachers and librarians in elementary and middle schools add PIRATES to their collections. I included quite a bit of nonfiction prose about pirates in the book, which came from extensive reading on the subject. My intention was to make this book informative as well as entertaining.
Both of you, which poem is your personal favorite? Can you share a bit about its evolution?
Dan and I arranged the scenes and poems so that they almost tell a chronological story, or at least present an arc of experiences that begins with reasons why men became pirates and ends with the fate that eventually took the lives of so many of them.
One of my favorite poems and accompanying scene is “Signing on a Crew.” It gave me a rare opportunity to slip in a bit of humor to help lighten the saga of pirates and their tough lifestyles. One of the characters in this painting is a woman. Pirates were a superstitious lot and allowing women on board was generally forbidden for fear of the bad luck they would bring. It wasn’t unheard of though for women to dress as men and smuggle themselves onto a crew. Some women went on to earn reputations for their ruthlessness in battle.
SIGNING ON A CREW
Gather ‘round, ye scurvy mates,
I’m signing on a crew.
You there! Can ye tie a knot?
I’d say you’ve snatched a purse or two.
Does the thought of plundered gold
make ye shiver?
Make ye bold?
Ha! You’re rotten through and through!
Phew! You stinking, drunken lout!
You’d whack your uncle’s gizzard out!
Well step right up!
Beyond a doubt
–David L. Harrison, all rights reserved.
Art for Signing on a Crew. Copyright 2008, Dan Burr, all rights reserved.
The beauty of this book is that I got to paint all the scenes I wanted to paint. They are all favorite to me but… if I had to choose one, I think it might be… I can’t choose one, I like them all.
I guess "Another day at sea" is one that I might choose, the character is a friend of mine and the painting captures him and the mood I was trying to capture (potential trouble). I like the light and the color of the painting and the gesture of the
character is just right, maybe a favorite.
Art for Another Day at Sea. Copyright 2008, Dan Burr, all rights reserved.
Can you each share anything about the project you’re working on now?
Another of my favorite artists is Rob Shepperson, an enormously talented cartoonist who often appears in the Wall Street Journal and other leading papers such as the New York Times. Last year Rob and I collaborated on a book of small poems about small things, appropriately named bugs: poems about creeping things. The book was selected right away for the “Seeing Stories” exhibition at the Westchester Art Center and made the New York Public Library’s annual list of “Children’s Books – 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.”
Rob and I were soon at work on a second book, this one called Vacation, which is told through poems and drawings in the voice of a very boy-like boy who goes on a driving vacation with his family. This one will be out next year and I hope it attracts some new readers, especially among young boys.
Can’t wait to see that!
I am working on a project for Hoppes (a gun cleaning solution company), and the image is a nostalgic hunting camp scene. Really the characters are pirates… just dressed differently, maybe a little cleaner and in a different environment. I love painting historical subjects no matter what they are doing.
I will be getting started on a book for Easter 2010, I look forward to the subject of Easter and again the historical and spiritual nature of the subject.
Thanks, both of you, for taking the time to answer questions for us. It sounds like a fascinating way to work. I love Pirates, and I hope it finds a big, appreciate audience!
I know one and possibly both of them are traveling this week, but if you have any questions for David or Dan about their work, leave them in a comment, and I’ll try to bring them aboard to answer you.
The Poetry Friday round-up is at author amok today. Check it out!