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Interview with Charles Ghigna

by Penne J. Laubenthal

Charles Ghigna (aka Father Goose) is the author of more than 5,000 poems and 30 award-winning books of poetry. His books have been featured on ABC-TV’s "Good Morning America" and NPR, selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Parents' Choice Book Award. He is a poet, children’s author, speaker, and a nationally syndicated feature writer who helps promote the love of children’s literature throughout the world. His poetry appears in numerous textbooks, magazines, newspapers, and anthologies as well as in the national SAT and ACT student testing materials. He has served as poetry editor of The English Journal for the National Council of Teachers of English and has presented his poetry programs at the Library of Congress, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the American Library in Paris, the International Schools of South America and at hundreds of other schools, colleges, conferences, libraries, book fairs, and literary events throughout the U.S. and overseas. His poems for adults have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Rolling Stone, McCall’s, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Guideposts, Ladies' Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and in many other magazines, literary journals, anthologies, and textbooks. His poem "The Alabama Elm" was included in the recent anthology Whatever Remembers Us. Ghigna lives with his wife Debra in Homewood, Alabama. His son Chip attends Auburn University.

I met Charles Ghigna in the spring of 1977 when he came to Athens State College for a poetry reading. We have remained friends over the past three decade.  From 1977 to 1993, Ghigna returned often to Athens State. The most memorable occasion was the 1984 Sigma Tau Delta Regional Conference at Athens State where Ghigna appeared on the program with James Dickey, William Bradford Huie, and H. E. Francis. He and I still reminisce about that star studded weekend.

This week I spoke with Ghigna about how he made his way to Alabama and about his metamorphosis into the internationally known children’s author, Father Goose.

You have not always lived in Alabama, have you?

No, I was born in New York in 1946. My family moved to Fort Myers, Florida when I was five years old. I grew up there and moved to Alabama in 1974 when I was twenty-eight years old.

1974 was an important year for you. You came to Alabama where you have lived for the past 33 years, published a poem in Harper’s, and began an eighteen year teaching career at the Alabama School of the Fine Arts in Birmingham. Tell me about the poem you wrote when you first arrived in Alabama, “The Alabama Wiregrassers.”

I received a two-year grant from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1974 to begin the first poet-in-the-schools program for the state of Alabama. I left my post-graduate studies at Florida State University in Tallahassee and headed north to Birmingham-Southern College where I began my residency at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. On my drive up, just south of Dothan, I passed through the wiregrass region of the state and saw a field of workers with their machetes raised high in the air, the sun just beginning to set behind them. I stopped the car and took notes for what later became “The Alabama Wiregrassers.” That poem appeared in Harper’s magazine and became the first of many poems about Alabama. Little did I know that my two-year residency would turn into a thirty-three year love affair with sweet home Alabama. She has continued to spark the inspiration for many of my poems over the years, including most of the poems in the collections: Returning to Earth, Speaking in Tongues, and Plastic Soup:Dream Poems.

When did you first realize that you wanted to write?

I think I always wanted to be a writer, but didn't know it. I wrote a silly story in the third grade about a talking freckle on a boy's face. My teacher made a big deal about it. My parents used to make me stand in front of the couch and read it to their friends when they came to visit. The story caught on and kept getting longer. I was invited to read it on the air at the local TV station. When I got back to school some of the kids made fun of me. I stopped writing and started playing baseball. I played baseball all through school, on my high school baseball team, and on the local American Legion Team. I loved baseball. I even went to spring training camp in Fort Myers, Florida and tried out with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I'm still waiting to hear from them. In the meantime, I've been writing poems.

Yes, we recently featured your poem “Baseball Dreams” (about a  Yale University second baseman who was drafted into WW II) on Swampland. You have an entire book of poems devoted to subjects that would be of interest to boys. I can imagine it is not easy being a boy and wanting to write poetry. Is that why you wrote the poems in the collection, A Fury of Motion?

Yes, most of the poems in A Fury of Motion were inspired by my boyhood memories and by my son and his friends. There are not too many books of poetry out there for teenage boys. I wanted to see if I could reach them with some poems whose subjects might touch their lives.

Your poem “Hunting the Cotaco Creek” is another poem that deals with conflicts that young people may have, particularly boys, who really do not relish the idea of using a gun to kill a creature. In fact in Returning to Earth you have more than one poem about guns. Tell me about the genesis of “Hunting the Cotaco Creek.”

I was faced with a bit of ambivalence the day my father-in-law invited me to go hunting for ducks with him. I had never been hunting before and the thought of blowing mallards out of the sky with a shotgun held very little appeal to me. I accepted his invitation and told him I would prefer carrying pen and pad into the woods rather than guns and ammo. The early morning arrived and I found myself sitting under a tree watching a brilliant sunrise fill with ducks. I was taken aback by their magnificence and began making notes. I watched closely as my father-in-law set his sights on the ducks. I never told him, but in the battle of man versus nature, I was clearly on the side of the ducks. Unfortunately we lost, except for the remains of the poem “Hunting the Cotaco Creek.” The original draft of the poem was in free verse, but something did not seem right to me about it. Something was missing. I felt it needed a lyrical lift, but I did not want to use rhyme. Instead I tried a few lines of blank verse and suddenly I heard the music that was missing. Rewriting the poem in blank verse tightened it up and added a dramatic dimension to it that had been missing in the free verse version.

You have mentioned free verse (which, as T. S. Eliot observed, has “a ghost of a meter behind it” and blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter), but you have also talked in other interviews about writing prose poems. What is a prose poem?

The prose poem is a kind of free verse with a strong narrative line. It's like a vignette or a very short story. Often the most important element of the prose poem its creation of mood.. The syntax, style, typography, use of sparse imagery and understatement of the prose poem share a closer relation to poetry than to prose fiction. The prose poem lends itself to any subject and theme, but its format is especially suited for writing the dramatic, narrative poem.

I know you have written light verse all your life, but it was the late ‘80s before you actually began writing poetry for children. Did that have something to do with the birth of your son, Chip, in 1988?

Yes, that did it! His coming into the world inspired me more than ever. I started writing poems for him before he was born. He’s been a big part of most of what I’ve written for children.

In 1992 you signed a contract with the Walt Disney Company and became Father Goose. Do you feel that you can touch the lives of young readers through your poetry? I am thinking of the huge number of children who have no father figure in the home. I know Bill Cosby has brought this issue to national attention. Can you share some of your thoughts on this topic?

Writing for children, fatherless or otherwise, is a great honor and challenge. The greatest reward for a children’s author is in knowing that our efforts might stir the minds and hearts of young readers with a vision and wonder of the world and themselves that may be new to them or reveal something already familiar in new and enlightening ways. It is especially important, I think, for children who have to face new challenges every day, whether it be from an underprivileged background or a physical challenge. Poetry brings solace into their lives. It is often a child’s first introduction to the joy of language and to the enchanted world of books. Poetry’s lilting rhythms and rhymes, their short, simple sentences and their clever repetition of key words and phrases start children's eyes, minds and hearts dancing along the exciting lines of poetry and into a lifelong love of lyrical language. It is the joyous power of poetry that turns listeners into readers and readers into writers. Once young people sample that world they will want to be a part of it and eventually will want to share that with their own children. Now if we can just invent a giant remote control and turn off all the TVs, we’ll have it made!

People always want to know where authors get their ideas. Instead of asking you where your poems come from,  I would like to know what writers you look to for inspiration.

These poets influenced much of my early writings: Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie, Sara Teasdale, Ogden Nash, Richard Armour, James Dickey, John Updike. These poets continue to inspire me: Debra Ghigna, Aileen Fisher, Rachel Field, Constance Levy, X. J. Kennedy, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Myra Cohn Livingston and many others.

You have been a guest author four times at the prestigious Writing Today Conference at Birmingham Southern College. In 1990, in 1993, and in 1997 (along with Clifton Taulbert who was featured on Swampland this April) and again in 2004. What has it been like to lead the life of a writer?

Each time I have a new book published, it is as though someone handed me a magic carpet. It takes me away to places I never dreamed I might visit. I get to meet new people and experience new adventures. My books have carried me all over the world, from Europe to South America, and all across the U.S. from Alaska to Florida, from New York to Southern California and places in between. I always return home with renewed inspiration to work on my next magic carpet.

Do you have any new books coming out in 2008?

Yes, I do: Snow Wonder, a 32-page picture book from Random House, and Score! 50 Poems to Motivate and Inspire, a 56-page picture book for all ages from Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

I am sure being Father Goose is a full-time job (not to mention being a father to your own children, Julie and Chip), but what a wonderful life. Congratulations!

Thank you! It’s been a pleasure. You’re not only a great friend, but you’re a great interviewer as well. Hope your readers have nearly as much fun with this as I did.

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