I met George Ella Lyon, Kentucky’s Poet Laureate for 2015-16, at a writing retreat in north Georgia where one afternoon we set off down a narrow trail above a woodland waterfall. As I inched along through what I imagined might be my last moments of life, she scrambled nimbly ahead. Award-winning children’s book writer, poet and novelist – George Ella is like that: taking risks, finding a path for herself over rugged publishing terrain. Our conversation below took place in May 2012. – Carol Polsgrove
Some of your books take on topics that I’m surprised school libraries will accept. For example, in your newest book, Which Side Are You On?, a coal miner’s kids hide under the bed dodging bullets during a strike. I wonder if you’ve had any feedback from libraries or teachers about whether they are reluctant to give these stories to kids who in their own lives may actually be dodging bullets – not from union wars but from other things.
I haven’t, but last fall I spoke at a conference in Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where one person accused me of grandstanding and manipulating kids. I showed slides of mountaintop removal and then talked about the tradition of protest and got the group singing “Which Side Are You On?” There were two hundred people singing “Which Side Are You On?” I was exultant, until this teacher came up to me and said she hoped I wasn’t allowed to do this with kids. It turned out there’s a big mining issue going on up there that I didn’t know about. There was a big banner downtown, and it said, “Support the Union – the People Who Brought You the Weekend.” When you talk about unions it makes people nervous. And sometimes people say, “You shouldn’t say, ‘Which side are you on?’ We’re too polarized already.” But I think there are some core issues where you have to pick a side.
You’ve taken on other issues that I can imagine being controversial in children’s literature. There’s With a Hammer for My Heart, in which a young girl is involved with a man in a friendship, then he’s accused of having an inappropriate relationship with her. Has the book gotten good response from schools and libraries?
That was published as an adult book but it got reviewed as a crossover, and so I’ve been, for instance, to a school in Cincinnati where it was an all-high school read. I was surprised. I was surprised that they would choose it for freshmen, but we had some great discussions. If I’m a book fair and people pick up that book and say, “I want to get this for my fifth grader.” I say, “Well, I really think that’s not the best choice because of the subject matter.” And they say, “Oh, but he’s a great reader – he can read anything.” And I say, ‘But I mean emotionally – it’s not a matter of reading ability or stamina.” So I sometimes talk people out of buying books. Or I say, “You read it and then you decide.” But that book has not been a problem. I had a book about a girl getting her period (The Stranger I Left Behind), which was banned.
It was actually banned by a school system?
I went to schools where they said, “We won’t sell that book because we can’t put it in our library.” It was for middle grades, not young adults, but I thought when I was writing it – this book came out in ’94 – kids may find it hard to believe that people were so secretive about this, that the main character Sumi has no information and nobody to talk to – because everything is so out there now. And lo and behold, the attitudes were still like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I thought Judy Blume had fought that fight for us.
And then I have a picture book called Who Came Down That Road?, which goes back through time on a buffalo trace. A four-year-old asks his mother, “Who came before that? Who came before that? Who came before that?” And she answers. The ending is, “Fish swam in a sea so warm and shallow you could have waded across, but of course there wasn’t any you when water lay over that road.” And some people banned it because they said it taught evolution. But the rest of it is “What came before the sea?” and it ends up: “The mystery of the making place – that came before this road.” So some people thought it was too religious.
And then there’s Dreamplace, where women have breasts, which we know kids would never know if it weren’t for picture books.
When you and I met at Hambidge, you read from a novel in verse that you’re working on, which deals with an actual sexual assault against a young girl. How is that book coming, and do you think you’ll have trouble publishing it?
It’s been rejected, just a couple of weeks ago by my editor at Farrar Straus. She felt it was too dark, and she felt there were too many connections with my young adult novel Holding onto Zoe, which she is publishing this July. I think they’re very, very different.
Holding on to Zoe is about a girl who gets pregnant and wants to keep her baby.
Yes. But if you go to a bookstore and look at the Young Adult novels – they’re very dark. Maybe it’s different kinds of darkness.
Well, look at The Hunger Games – it’s not exactly a walk in the park.
No, no. And I think the darkness and the chaos of our world at the moment is part of where that’s coming from, plus the fact that in this culture, we want people to be numb, and people want to feel, and so that’s part of a sensationalizing, I think – to try to feel alive. And to try to connect with something elemental, because most people are so far from the earth, and from their ground, from the cycles, and from feeling that they have a place.
One picture book I have – called No Dessert Forever! – has a line in it where the child is fussing at her doll in the way she has been fussed at, and she says if the doll doesn’t pick up her room right now, there’ll be no going outside. The marketing people said in New York, “Kids don’t go outside. You should take that out. They don’t go outside.” I wouldn’t take that out. Then I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Go outside, the graphics are great.”
I was just talking with a friend today about how we used to climb trees, and I don’t ever see kids in trees anymore. That’s partly because they cut the lower limbs off of trees so it’s harder to get up, but I guess it’s partly because either they’re not permitted or they’re inside, watching television. But climbing trees – that’s in our nature.
And spending time in trees, reading in trees.
Eating fruit in trees.
Escaping from people in trees.
Escaping from adults in trees –
Who can’t climb there. That’s very sad to me, and I don’t see how we can work to heal the earth and rebalance things if we don’t feel connected, if we don’t understand that we’re of the earth and it’s all about all of us. I saw a sign at an Indian mound museum in Illinois, and the sign said, “Imagine that you were a person totally dependent upon the earth for your survival.” And I said, “Imagine! What! You think that’s over?” This was engraved on a plaque. It’s insane. But that attitude allows you to do anything to the earth, if you believe that – that you’re above it all, beyond it, that in olden days people were dependent on the earth, but not us.
I very much feel that your work – for instance the book of poems called Back, where you have a number of voices speaking from the past – is a personal spiritual journey. I wonder how hard it is to balance that way of working with the need to earn enough a living, whether you ever feel the commercial impulse nibbling at your heels, so you bend the work a little bit to fit the market? Or is that an issue?
I don’t think I could be commercial, even if I tried. I had one picture book that the marketing people changed the title of and changed the cover. When they changed the title, they moved one of the interior illustrations to the cover. They thought that would sell the book, and for me it distorted the book. And while it’s the only picture book I’ve written that was picked up by Pottery Barn Kids, it hasn’t done all that well. The thing is, it doesn’t feel like my book. I’m not comfortable with it.
Many of your books are picture books – your illustrator for Which Side Are You On? was Christopher Cardinale, and I wondered if you two came together to work out the concept for the book, which is really interesting: we have both a narrator and we have cartoon-like dialogue in bubbles. Or did you just decide what to do and then tell him what to do?
Neither. I wrote it without ever having met or heard of Christopher. I wrote it with all the dialogue in it, but it wasn’t written like a play – it had the dialogue attributed.
“He said, she said.”
Right. So Cinco Puntos, who published it, suggested Christopher as the illustrator, and I looked at the other book he had done with them. I thought he would be great, and it was just natural to take out the attributions and use the speech bubbles, because of his whole style, which I think really fit the drama of the story. No, I didn’t work it out with him, but his vision expanded it, really, and gave it a liveliness that I think is perfect for it.
It seems such a perfect synergy.
And that’s what you want in a picture book but it doesn’t always happen. I think it’s rare for an artist and illustrator to work on a concept together.
Usually the book originates with the writer?
And then it’s the editor who finds the illustrator, and then the editor and the illustrator work together and they only consult the writer if there’s a question.
But there’s one illustrator that you’ve worked with quite a bit –
Was he someone provided by the publisher?
Yes, he had done other books with Dick Jackson, mye ditor at Atheneum, and Dick suggested him for Cecil’s Story, the first one we did together, which is a Civil War story. And I couldn’t believe how perfect his illustrations were. We were working on our fourth book, Mama is a Miner, and he came down to Harlan County so we could go through a mine together. And he and his wife and daughter, we all stayed in my mother’s house. Later Peter was talking with his mother who lived on Long Island and told her he had been down to Harlan County. There was this strange silence on the line, and he asked what was wrong, and she said, “Peter, your grandmother was born in Harlan County.” His great-grandfather was a miner, and left because he was a union organizer, and it got to be unsafe for him, but Peter only knew his great-grandparents when they lived on a Tennessee ridge, so we have a deeper connection that he didn’t know about.
A lot of your work, maybe all of it, seems to have roots in your Harlan County childhood. The voices in your work often seem to me to come out of eastern Kentucky, out of mountain speech. At what point did you realize that you wanted to draw on the speech of your home community – in your fiction and your poems?
It was in graduate school at Indiana University.The first semester in the poetry seminar with Sam Yellen I met a poet named Michael Allen, and he wrote about his rural Ohio roots, about his grandmother, about the farm, and I thought, “Wow, you can do that!” Because I had really up until that point thought of poetry as having a culture from somewhere else, and I thought I should sound like I was from somewhere else, preferably a man from somewhere else, because, you know, I majored in White Men’s Studies.
So I began to come a little closer to my roots through Michael, hearing Michael’s poetry and his critiques of my poems and so forth, and we got to be really good friends. Then the next year Ruth Stone came to lead the poetry workshop, and the very first day when she walked in and said, “I’m Ruth Stone and this is my poem,” and she recited her poem “Advice,” which I recite to students now. I knew this woman would change my life, because Ruth embodied the spirit of poetry, and the power of poetry, and she wrote so completely as a woman. So suddenly not only could I write out of where I was from, but I could write as a woman. That shifted everything. And she listened so deeply to what you wrote – she didn’t just suggest judicious emendations. There’s something about having that kind of ear that permits you to write.
After Bloomington we moved to Nashville, where my husband had a job writing country music, and I was writing my dissertation. I discovered a magazine called The Small Farm, edited by Tennessee poet Jeff Daniel Marion. I submitted some poems to him, and he rejected the first several batches, but he wrote me, and he wrote these wonderful letters, which I still have. I don’t know if it was through Danny or it was just at the same time that I found out Appalachian Journal had just started, Appalachian Heritage was just starting. There was this burgeoning of writing from the mountains, and so I began to find other voices, speaking from different sides of the mountains.
I was in Nashville for a year and then I moved to Lexington (Kentucky) in ’76, and then in 1980, Gurney Norman asked me to work on the Appalachian Poetry Project. He had a grant through the Appalachian Center here. Gurney is a walking community creator – he just brings people together, and is so inclusive and creates conditions for things to happen. So he got me connected. My job with the Appalachian Poetry Project was to find poets in the southern Appalachians to lead workshops in their home areas. We started out with five states but we wound up with six, and I found out about the Southern Appalachian Writers Coop, and so many of them became dear friends.
You thought of yourself mostly as a poet during this period. How did you discover that you could write books for children that are essentially poems? I was reading your book about the water cycle, All the Water in the World – it’s a poem that has illustrations with it.
Before I got to children’s books, I got to writing monologues, and the monologues led me to writing a play, and then the play led me to begin to explore fiction. When I found out I could actually write all the way across the page, and come back and write again all the way – it was like, “Wow! Things could happen here.”
I was teaching part-time at University of Kentucky, but I worked on the UK Women Writers Conference, and I got to host Nancy Willard when she came in 1984. Her main craft talk was about how picture books – which she writes as well as poetry and essays and fiction – arecloser to poems than to any other form. She gave this wonderful talk, and I loved it. I had her over to the house for tea, and I asked her all kinds of questions and drove her around and took her words to heart. I had done books for my son Benn and my nephew Lane and my goddaughter Katie, but hearing Nancy Willard really made me see picture books, made me understand something I didn’t know at all – that picture books are so close to poems.
Right before she came, I had this weird illness for three weeks – nobody could figure out what it was. All I could manage to do was go teach and come home and get in bed, and I read Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift, and I suddenly understood what he describes as the dilemma of an artist working in terms of gift exchange and living in a market economy, and I understood that my problems were not just my problems, that this was the nature of the situation I was in, and that I was going to have to fund myself in some way. Nobody was going to come along and give me permission to do what I felt called to do, although in fact somebody did come along and really open a door. In May of ’84 I had some poems in an anthology edited by Paul Janeczko. It was for junior high and high school kids. When my copy came, there was a note in it from Dick Jackson, who was Paul’s editor at Bradbury Press, and Dick said, “I have a letter that you wrote to Paul, which he sent to me, in which you describe how you got your name, and I love the way you write, and I wonder if you write for kids. And if you do, please send me something, and if you don’t, please think about it.”
Well, I knew that was a miracle, because it had taken me eleven years to publish my first book of poems. So I wrote him right back and said, “No, I don’t, but I will try.”
Hearing this story, there are two things that strike me. There is this serendipitous element of how things come together but also the real importance of community – the people you met, the people you read, your work in helping other poets in that project.
And out of that, you began to see how you could have a writer’s life that was not tied to teaching freshman comp.
Right, and that I was not isolated. I understood that from reading The Gift, I understood it from connecting with poets like Jo Carson and Lee Howard and Betsy Sholl and Maggie Anderson, Sidney Farr, and Bennie Lee Sinclair – so many people. For two years I was able to bring eight Appalachian women poets to the Women Writers Conference. Then I got a grant for the Grassroots Poetry Project, where I brought poets into the schools in their home place, whether they still lived there or not. They did a workshop with students, a workshop with teachers, and they did a reading, and then they all got videotaped at the University of Kentucky, and those videos went back to the schools.
You yourself do a lot of workshops and talks. I looked at your schedule online and you’d been in three states all over the country in the past month.
I got back from North Dakota Sunday night. I met this literacy coach who rides the radio and writes haiku and quilts. She grew up riding the rodeo, starting when she was five. They’re called showdeos for little kids.
She writes haiku.
And ropes goats.
You’ve had a chance to see how words and stories, spoken and written, matter to people across the country.
It’s powerful. It’s very powerful to be in a room and invite people to write, and just give them a little something to go on, and out come these amazing pieces, and these glimpses into the wealth of material that’s there, and the power of stories to tell us who we are and show us how we’re connected.
Your newest book of poems is She Let Herself Go, just published. I wonder if you would share a short poem from that?
This is a short poem, and it’s called, “Some Big Loud Woman”:
I need some big loud woman to listen to
Her voice like
A waterfall of kettles
Her head back eyes shut
To roar that music out
I need the brass and bramble
Of her low notes
The trembling windows
Of her high
Bare feet planted on the floorboards
Green dress a summer canopy
The wail in one line
A scar on the air
I need to listen to a big loud woman
Pounding on my table
Fire in the hearth
I need the avalanche
of her laughter
of her truth
I need to listen
To some big loud woman
I need some big loud woman to listen to
Read George Ella Lyon’s poem “The Day After Election in Kentucky” here. For more poems drawn from her poet’s life, see Many-Storied House and She Let Herself Go. Picture of George Ella Lyon by Ann W. Olson.
Write to George Ella Lyon or Carol Polsgrove