By Hugo Kugiya
Sunday, December 31, 2006
BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. The birth of the bananaconda was an accident of insomnia, cable television and tropical produce.
"Books happen in odd ways," said poet Jack Prelutsky, creator of the bananaconda, a constrictor with the skin of a fruit.
So it was one sleepless night several years ago that he descended the stairs in his home for a snack, a banana, and settled into an easy chair, too tired to write. He is a fan of nature programs, and that night he found a TV documentary on the giant snake from the Amazon. He noticed the coincidence of syllables, and inspiration struck. His poem begins:
Oh sleek bananaconda
You longest long long fellow,
How sinuous and sly you are,
How slippery, how yellow.
Soon, he had invented "broccolions" and "potatoads," and within a couple of weeks he had written "Scranimals," one of his best-known compilations and a perfect example of his brand of logic-defying verse.
"He once wrote a poem about a lion tamer and he's sort of like that," said Susan Hirschman, Prelutsky's former longtime editor. "He controls the language in such a brilliant way. And he never repeats himself, he never takes the easy way out."
Prelutsky was recently named the first-ever "children's poet laureate" by the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. It's a title, complete with $25,000 cash prize and an inscribed medallion, he will hold for two years, a sort of blessed community service that compels him to give two major public readings and act as adviser, ambassador and pollinator of his art.
This he has already done unofficially for decades as the preferred poet of two generations of children. He has written more than 35 books, which have been translated into several languages and become mainstays of school libraries everywhere. His anthology "The Random House Book of Poetry for Children" is considered a standard-bearer.
Prelutsky is lauded for many things: his cleverly silly wordplay ("It makes me sad when lettuce leaves, I laugh when dinner rolls"); then there's his surrealism ("Imagine if your precious nose / were sandwiched in between your toes, / that clearly would not be a treat, / for you'd be forced to smell your feet").
But ultimately, his poetry works because it is embraceable, because no matter how fun, how singable, it always empathizes. Consider one of his most popular poems:
Homework! Oh Homework!
I hate you! You stink!
I wish I could wash you
away in the sink,
if only a bomb
would explode you to bits.
Homework! Oh, Homework!
You're giving me fits!
Though his publisher had doubts, Prelutsky felt sure it would strike a universal chord among children. He was right.
Before he was the poet laureate, he likes to say, he was the "poet laminate." So often, he found his poems laminated and hung on the walls of schools, where he has given countless readings, always studying his audience.
What induces a uninterested stare? What causes eyes and mouths to open in delight?
He presumes his audience to be intelligent, unafraid and wanting to be challenged. So he uses words like "sulfurous," "cacophonous" and "arabesque."
His books have combined to sell more than a million copies (children's poetry vastly outsells adult poetry), making him one of the best-selling living poets.
"In 99 percent of my life, I'm the same as the next guy," said Prelutsky, 66. "I'm an average athlete, I go to ballgames, I have dinner with my friends."
What sets him apart, he said, is that "one little, bizarre part of my bean brain."
It is a most curious 1 percent that muses about crucifying homework, keeping monsters as friends, little girls who eat car parts, and imaginary creatures like the solitary spatuloon who resides in a blue lagoon and flips pancakes with its tail amid plaintive cries of "syrup!"
Today, he is as productive and as inspired as ever, as a third generation becomes his audience. He recently completed "Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant and Other Poems," a sequel of sorts to "Scranimals." Two more collections are due out in the spring.
Given his audience, it surprises some that he has no children himself. He was 39 when he married, his wife 34.
"I always thought I would have children," he said. "One day it was just too late."
He is an uncle to his wife's many nieces and nephews and honorary uncle to children of his friends, some of whom he has helped put through college.
Because he has never been a parent, perhaps Prelutsky never stopped being a kid.
"I write what I would have liked to have heard when I was 10 years old," Prelutsky said. "One of the problems is that people expect us [children's poets] to be Santa Claus. And we're not Santa Claus."
One of his books, "The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight and Other Poems to Trouble Your Sleep," was banned by some school libraries -- a point he notes with pride. He was once asked by the widow of another iconoclastic poet, Dr. Seuss, to complete one of his unfinished works, which in 1998 became "Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!," a mixture of their verses.
Monsters and dinosaurs were favorites of Prelutsky's in childhood. In his poetry, underwear, flatulence, boogers, the kid who gets picked on -- all can be funny.
"He's never winking at the parents over the heads of children," Hirschman said.
Prelutsky was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., lived first in a tenement supposedly owned by a gangster, and might have perished there as a baby had his uncle Charlie, a Borscht Belt comic who would become a big influence, not retrieved him from a fire.
Prelutsky grew up in the Bronx, the older of two boys in a poor, working-class family. His father hid their Buick from the welfare officer, lest they lose benefits. Prelutsky's immigrant grandparents labored for a living, scrubbing floors, selling goods from pushcarts.
On the strength of his talents as a singer, Prelutsky was admitted to the High School of Music & Art in Harlem. He was the only kid, as near as he could tell, who received a free lunch. He went on to attend New York's Hunter College.
It was 1958, and he went the way of many young bohemians, taking up a life of creativity and indulgence in Greenwich Village. He took odd jobs and lived in a loft on East 22nd Street. Among the struggling young talents he'd run into now and then were Bob Dylan, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and Joan Baez. He began writing poetry in his mid-20s, but struggled. To make ends meet, he drove cabs, picked fruit, built loft beds, moved pianos, sold works of photography, taught guitar lessons and performed in coffeehouses and clubs.
"There should be a plumber laureate," Prelutsky said. "Plumbers actually do something. I admire anyone who does a job well."
In school, he said, he had hated poetry, calling it the literary equivalent of liver and onions. He was inclined to music and singing, crediting his love of American folk music with inspiring his poems. To this day, he sets his poems to music to test the integrity of his verses, strumming a made-up melody on his guitar. He doesn't imagine he'd be very good at writing other things, such as novels, and he's never tried.
As for the value of children's poetry, he has this story: He once read to a class of second-graders from his book "Rolling Harvey Down the Hill," the most autobiographical of his books. One poem, based on an event from his childhood, tells of a boy who ate a worm. The teacher of that class later wrote him to report that several students dug up worms and ate them.
Poetry, he said, is powerful.
Another story, about his discovery as a poet:
He was nearly a pauper about 40 years ago when he arrived in an editor's office with 24 illustrations he'd done, ink drawings of creatures from his imagination. As an afterthought, he wrote poems to accompany them. The editor he showed them to was Hirschman.
She hated the drawings he spent six months on, but liked the poems that had taken him two hours to write. She took him out to lunch at a fancy midtown restaurant to discuss his work. He had to borrow a busboy's jacket and tie to eat there.
It was quite a contrast with his life at the time: He'd been given 48 hours to vacate his apartment, where he had no heat or electricity and drew power through a long extension cord stretched, past drunks sleeping in the hallway, to a neighbor's outlet.
That night, he wrote six more poems and then, lacking money for train or bus fare, walked them to Hirschman's office. She agreed to take five.
"Can you pay me?" he asked.
She laughed. "It doesn't really work that way."
"Susan, you don't understand. Your young poet is going to be on the street tomorrow if I don't come up with some money."
A rudimentary contract gave him an advance of $500, and when she learned he had no checking account, she raided petty-cash drawers in the office to come up with that amount. With it, Prelutsky paid his back rent, gas bill and electric bill and took his friends out for dinner. Within three days he was flat broke again -- but he had a career.
He always spent his advances quickly, giving much of it to friends who were worse off. So Hirschman insisted they open a joint checking account and put him on an allowance, $130 a week. She also promised him lunch out every week if he gave her a poem.
"I thought of it as bullying, but I guess 'caring' is a nicer word," said Hirschman, who would remain his editor for the next 37 years until she retired.
Prelutsky moved to Seattle in 1976, and a few years later met the woman who would become his wife. He did a program at a library in New Mexico where she worked. Smitten and characteristically impulsive, he asked her to marry him the day after they met.
The breakthrough of his career came in 1984 with the publication of "New Kid on the Block," which has now seen 50 printings. Ironically, the creation of the book followed one of his career's great disappointments, the cancellation of a contract to write several books of poetry based on the Muppets; a book about Kermit the Frog hadn't sold well.
Although Prelutsky demurs when talk turns to money, it is clear his poetry has made him millions. Today his advances are befitting of a best-selling author, and yet his attitude toward money seems no different from 40 years ago when he spent his small advances on his friends. It seems as if not having had much of it growing up, he never got too attached to it.
He and Carolynn, his wife of 27 years, recently sold their home on Mercer Island and purchased a loft studio apartment near downtown Seattle (the couple has lived in the area since 1990), though he continues to do most of his work in a rented two-bedroom apartment above a detached garage on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride away. Simplicity of housekeeping and proximity to good food are the things they care about now.
Prelutsky is a passionate eater, and eating is a recurring theme in his poems. "Twickham Tweer" is typical:
He sometimes dined on apple cores
and bags of peanut shells,
on cottage cheese containers,
cellophane from caramels,
but Twickham Tweer passed on last year,
that odd and novel man,
when he fried an egg one morning
and then ate the frying pan.
The island apartment has a view of Puget Sound and, apart from the barking of the large resident dogs, the tranquility of a deep-woods retreat. Among the few furnishings are some of great personal value -- an actual bed of nails, for example, a gift from friends. There are a few chairs (none of them overly comfortable), a desk for his Apple computer, a guitar for strumming, a wood-burning stove.
The second bedroom is a workshop of ephemera, machine parts and knickknacks, inspiration for his art. Prelutsky keeps them in bins labeled "plastic mermaids" or "itty-bitty plastic people." He is, by admission, a pack rat.
He and Carolynn, who is a librarian by profession, are opposites -- left-brain/right-brain.
A creative genius he may be, but Prelutsky cannot manage the ledger of his checkbook. He cannot keep straight the last four digits of his phone number. He is easily distracted and prone to tangents.
As "tickled" as he is with the title of children's poet laureate, he said he carefully avoids attention, having routinely turned down interviews until his latest honor obliged him to give them.
"Men my age basically want to be left alone," Prelutsky said.
Other things worth knowing about Jack Prelutsky:
He is an expert player of Pac-Man, has seen every episode of every "Star Trek" series, and holds season tickets to Seattle Mariners baseball games; he says he has eaten at every Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle and attended every performance of the Seattle Opera for the last 15 years.
As a boy, he thought he would become a cantor someday. Ask him to sing and he will gladly belt out the aria "La Donna e mobile."
His favorite kind of food, far and away, is Asian, perhaps an influence of his Pacific coast residency and his Korean American wife.
In fact, her family makes more of his professional accomplishments than his own does.
One memorable review came from his maternal grandmother, to whom he was reading from one of his books when in the middle of a poem, she got up and walked away to use the bathroom.
Puzzled and a little hurt, Prelutsky reminded her this was his book he was reading. "For the kids it's fine," she said, "but I don't care much for it."