Welcome to Monsterville
I’m so excited that we at MUF got an early peek at Laura Shovan’s new poetry collection called Welcome to Monsterville. And we got to talk to her about it – even better!
About Welcome to Monsterville
Where the residents are anything but ordinary. The monsters here are “friendly! Thoughtful! Shy and scary,” much like their human neighbors. Readers will meet a monster house who plays hopscotch and makes the sidewalks quake, laugh at a bubblegum-headed monster’s epic tantrum, and cry with a monster called Sadness.
Interview with Laura Shovan
MUF: Hi Laura! Welcome back to From the Mixed-Up Files … we’re so glad you’re here and excited to talk about your newest book, a collection of poems called Welcome to Monsterville. What a great title and a wonderful book! I’m still smiling as I think about lines like “Bubblegum head fell out of bed…” What prompted this collection and your partnership with illustrator Michael Rothenberg?
LS: This collection began with a simple gift between friends. I went to visit Michael and his wife Terri in January of 2020. Michael, a poet, was still reeling from the death of his son the year before. Unable to write through his grief, he turned to art therapy. He showed me some of those illustrations, which tended to be abstract.
When I got home, there was a surprise waiting for me. Michael had painted a blue creature with red fish lips, a crown, and six pink feet. I knew my friend was feeling low, so I wrote a poem that began, “A monster bought the house next door.” I recorded the poem and sent it to Michael, hoping it would cheer him up. I should have known the exchange would be the start of something. Michael was a force. He loved collaborating with musicians, artists, and poets on creative projects but also on social justice work.
MUF: Another line that really resonates with me is the opening to the poem “Costavablink,” where you say
High on a mountain
there lives a shy monster
who knows how to shrink
What are you hoping readers will take from this poem in particular?
LS: I hope this poem honors introversion. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking opened my eyes to how much I – an introvert! – had absorbed American culture’s preference for extroversion. When I was growing up, my father was an extreme extrovert. I remember that feeling of wanting to shrink and get away from all of the talking and activity. I view the Monster of Costavablink is a poet. She uses quiet as an opportunity to think and appreciate the natural world.
MUF: (I love Susan Cain’s book — it has taught me so much about the introverts in my life. Invaluable!) Each poem has a child interacting with different monsters. Why use monsters as the common thread?
Monsters Represent Big Emotions
LS: There would be no book without the monsters. Our process was that Michael would create a sketch first. He said, “I found that drawing gave me oxygen, breath, allowed me out of myself to express emotions without narrative, without direction. It was colors and shapes, emotions. I didn’t have to interpret what I was saying … As we proceeded Laura saw something in them, and wrote poetry that motivated me to do more. I remember telling her that I was stunned by her imagination as she gave the creatures a voice and her reply that it was my imagination that was inspiring.”
We were both coping with a great deal of loss and anxiety while working on this collaboration. The Covid-19 lockdown happened about five weeks into the project. Eventually, we recognized a theme, that the monsters represent big emotions and what it’s like to welcome them.
MUF: Is there a poem in particular you wrote for yourself?
LS: That poem is “Green Cave.” I can’t tell you why Michael’s colorful bird monster reminded me of the forsythia bush in my parents’ back yard, but that’s the magic of the monsters. The forsythia bush is where I used to hide as a kid when I was overwhelmed by emotions. I love the idea that a magical bird might come along and show an upset child how to self-soothe.
MUF: Your imagery is just lovely … purple-blue moons and tears that crawl on fuzzy legs … when you’re crafting a poem, what is your creative process? Any craft tips for those of us aspiring to such stunning imagery?
LS: Those details are both Michael’s inventions, my poems simply pick up on his images and build little stories and characters around them. I love ekphrastic poems, which are responses to specific works of art. Because Michael’s monsters are so unexpected and rich with detail, my process for this book was to trust whatever strange idea popped into my mind and see where it led me. For example, Bubblegum Head’s toothy expression inspired me to write about his major tantrum. When the invented words in that poem came, I invited them in without judging them or saying, “That’s too silly.”
There were times when it was challenging to bring all of the elements in one of Michael’s illustrations together. The carrot-like monster in “Underground,” who is holding up flowers underneath a purple moon, took many drafts to get right. It was the emotion of the picture that eventually unlocked the poem for me. I began to ask myself how it would feel to be a Root Monster who “lives without sunshine or air.” On one level, it’s a silly story, but on another, this is a poem about coping with depression.
MUF: Can you talk a little bit about art therapy?
LS: I only know what little Michael shared with me, but I hope readers will check out the introduction to Welcome to Monsterville. It was written by Dr. Mercedes Ballbé ter Maat, who is a past president of the American Art Therapy Association.
MUF: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
LS: I’d love to see the monsters that your readers come up with. Here is my suggestion: Doodle, draw, or paint a monster first. Next, ask yourself, “How is Monster feeling?” Once you’ve identified the emotion, give a poem a try!
MUF: Thanks so much for giving me a chance to read your book and chat with you, Laura. It’s been a pleasure!
LS: Thank you, Heather. It means so much to me that you enjoyed the book!
About Author Laura Shovan
Laura Shovan is a novelist, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. Her work appears in journals and anthologies for children and adults. Laura’s award-winning middle grade novels include The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and the Sydney Taylor Notable A Place at the Table, written with Saadia Faruqi. Laura is a longtime poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council’s Artist-in-Education program. She teaches for Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in writing for children and young adults. Her latest book is Welcome to Monsterville
About Illustrator Michael Rothenberg
Michael Rothenberg was a poet, editor, artist, and publisher of the online literary magazine BigBridge.org, co-founder of 100 Thousand Poets for Change (www.100tpc.org), The “Read A Poem To A Child” Initiative, and co-founder of Poets In Need, a non-profit 501(c), assisting poets in crisis. Before his death in 2022, he published over 20 books of poetry, most recently The Pillars (Quaranzine Press) and Drawing the Shade (Dos Madres Press). His editorial work included several volumes in the Penguin Poets series: Overtime by Philip Whalen, As Ever by Joanne Kyger, David’s Copy by David Meltzer, and Way More West by Ed Dorn. He was also editor of The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen published by Wesleyan University Press. He served as Florida State University Library’s Poet in Residence. His book of poetry, In Memory of A Banyan Tree, Poems of the Outside World, 1985-2020, (Lost Horse Press) was published in 2022. Welcome to Monsterville is his first book for children.