Hey, friends! So happy that we have an interview today with poet/artist/performer Barbie Angell. Barbie’s book of children’s poems, Roasting Questions (with her own illustrations & layout) is being issued through Grateful Steps in Asheville, North Carolina, & I’m really excited by this.
You can view Barbie’s book at this link to its dedicated website (& other links throughout the post!)—but not only can you view the book: you can pre-order your copy (or copies), & also sponsor the book to help raise money for the printing—Barbie explains that process in the following interview. I will say that this is a particularly good time to pre-order &/or sponsor, because Barbie recently received a $500 donation with the stipulation that the amount be matched during the following week, which runs from Monday 10/15 until Monday 10/22.
If you’re a regular reader here, you don’t need me to tell you how delightful, witty & downright fun Barbie’s poems & art both are. So here’s a chance to get to know this wonderful artist just a little bit better!
J: I’m so happy about Roasting Questions, & I know you are thrilled too. The publishing process through Grateful Steps, which is a publishing house in Asheville, may be unfamiliar to some readers—it’s a bit like Kickstarter isn’t it? Could you go over that so people get a feel for the process & how they can participate?
B: Absolutely. Shortly after Grateful Steps came to me about doing a book of children’s poetry, they became a non-profit publishing house. Because of this, they raise the money for printing costs from the pre-sales orders. Since people have been asking me for some time to sell audio files, prints of my art and such, I decided we could offer those as a Kickstarter-style incentive as well. There are a lot of fun extras starting at $1 and, as with Kickstarter, each level includes all the offers in the previous levels. I know that people are more likely to buy something they can hold right away and getting the pre-sales orders in as quickly as possible will help get the books in the hands of the readers that much sooner.
J: I have the advantage on many of the readers, because I at least know the broad outlines of how you began writing—& it’s a fascinating story. Could you tell us a little about that, & specifically, when you first knew you wanted to be a writer?
B: I always wrote songs as a child, parodies actually, but I never wrote poems. I wrote puppet plays too and I’m certain that Broadway producers would love to get their hands on the original script of Raggedy Andy and Square Bear. When I was 13, I went to Mooseheart, a school for children who had no place else to go.
My first Christmas there I was given a diary, and since a diary is not really a safe place for ones thoughts in an institution, I used it to write poetry. While I struggled with punctuation and other English composition rules, I excelled at creative writing. Often my teachers would ask me to read my stories to the class and, as a senior, I won my first award for writing a Memorial Day speech.
When I went to college I was pre-law. I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was 6 years old. I know, straight from ballerina to lawyer, I was an odd child. My theater director was also my advisor and, after making myself quite known on the campus with my “How to” paper in English 101, my advisor sat me down for a serious talk. I thought it was because I had taken the standard assignment and caused controversy. My paper was entitled “How to abstain from having sex on a date.” In fact, he wanted to convince me to change my major. He felt that if I could make myself so well-known, on a campus with over 500 students, by merely not taking the easy route and writing the typical “How to make ramen noodles in a 4-cup coffee maker,” then I really had no choice but to become a writer. That man, Jerry Dellinger, would go on to make certain that I did realize what my passion was. He stood behind me and urged me forward, as he so often did when I acted in his plays. In essence, he directed my life. . . and I think he did a pretty excellent job.
J: It’s safe to say that anyone with your talent for children’s poems must have read a lot when she was young. Please tell us about a few of your own favorite books from childhood!
B: My favorite books when I was a child were all of them. I was allowed to stay up late if I was reading and I was always reading. Anytime a subject fascinated me, I read about it. Reader’s Digest usually sparked my interest in new topics—for instance, I remember my mother being rather disturbed when I started reading everything I could about the holocaust. I didn’t know at the time that her family was Jewish and it seemed a bit harsh for a seven year-old, but there I was, learning all I could. I’m often told that even my children’s poetry has an introspective side to it that hints at something deeper. I think that’s because I was so determined to learn about all aspects of life, not just the happy stories that my friends read. Of course, I was an enormous admirer of Shel Silverstein. I knew most of his poetry, and a great many of his songs, by heart. I wrote rhyming songs all the time, often in the meter of his work. My other big influence was Lewis Carroll. I completely related to the idea of a girl falling into her imagination. His wordplay and obscure references always entertained me. I think he and Dr. Seuss are two of the best at creating nonsense language that makes perfect sense. While I don’t do a lot of that anymore, I used to incorporate quite a few nonsense words into my work. I am such an admirer of Lewis Carroll, that my writing room is full of Alice memorabilia and the walls have Wonderland murals painted on them.
J: Many people who read your poems are struck by your use of personification—you use abstract qualities as “characters” & “objects” in ways that really bring them to life—one of your greatest strengths as a writer. Do you have any ideas on why this particular technique is so prominent in your writing?
B: One of my favorite books as a child was Little Pilgrim’s Progress, by Helen Taylor. In fact, it’s one of the few things I still have from my childhood. It was based on John Bunyan's story and all the people in the book were named for their most obvious characteristic. Children named Obstinate and Pliable. A city named Destruction. I think this is where I first associated with the personification that I’m sort of known for in my writing. I’ve also always been mesmerized by language. Common sayings like “holding a grudge” take on an entirely new meaning for me. I like to take a different view whenever I can.
J: You also illustrated Roasting Questions. I love your eye for color & the way your drawings both focus on one aspect of the poem & also create a whole other world of imagination thru their detail. Could you talk a little about your illustrations—about the process & the techniques? Do you ever start a poem from a drawing, or is it always the other around.
B: I call my work “refrigerator art” because it’s the sort of thing a mom would hang on her fridge. The scenes usually have a sun in the corner, a tree and something else. Kind of like a child’s drawing would. My older brother and younger sister are brilliant artists. I felt I could never achieve what they can, so I looked at things from a different angle and tried to create my own style. I have only ever drawn one piece which inspired a poem from me. It’s the art and poem for the Hop Ice Cream Cafe. All the others I struggled to find just the right way to accent the poem with the art. I have incredibly high standards for my own work. I don’t seek perfection in anything I do, but I always try to do my very best.
J: I know you consider Shel Silverstein to be a major influence. What do you think you’ve learned from his poems that has carried over to your own?
B: I do consider Shel to be a major influence. I think he & I have something very strong in common in the way we address our audience. People tell me all the time, and always have, that my work reminds them of Shel’s. When I actually read his poems though, we sound nothing alike. The similarity, I think, is that neither of us really wrote for children. I don’t have them in mind as an audience I need to please when I write and I don’t think he did either. And I think that is the best way to write for children. When I perform a children’s show, I’m always terribly nervous. They aren’t going to laugh if I’m not funny. They won’t pay attention if I’m not interesting to them. They don’t respond positively to condescension. Because of that, I think that trying to write to please them would be an insult to the purity and integrity they show to the arts. I’m not saying that they aren’t polite, just that they are more honest with their responses. When a child laughs, or thinks, or is mesmerized because of my words, that means far more to me than an adult having the same reaction because I know that I’ve worked harder to garner that response. Does that make any sense at all?
J: There are a lot of food references in your poems—what do you think about that? & more importantly, what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?
B: There are a lot, aren’t there? I don’t know why that is. I’m not a big fan of food—I’m one of those people that can go the entire day without realizing that I haven’t eaten. My favorite flavors of ice cream are all from Hop Ice Cream in Asheville. The owner and ice cream creator Ashley Garrison has a way of taking her creations to the next level. . . and then the one after that. Salted Caramel is a given, but I also love everything she makes with coconut in it and I’m a huge fan of her Cannoli ice cream too.
Thanks so much for the interview & your participation in Robert Frost's Banjo, Barbie Angell! & once again, friends, do yourself a favor & order yourself a copy of Roasting Questions—& consider getting some of those lovely extras by sponsoring the process too!
Photos of Barbie Angell at her book launch show at Asheville's Altamont Theater are by Erin Scholze of Dreamspider Publicity & Events—thanks, Erin!