I’d like to know a thousand things about this book because you’ve opened so many doors for my imagination. I’ll restrict myself to only a few of those questions, primarily to help students who are drawn in by all the stories within this photograph and the poems you’ve written about it.
You have been a journalist and a music critic. You’re a picture book writer, a biographer, a nonfiction writer. This is your first book written in poetry. How did you learn about poetic form so that you had confidence to write this book?
I wrote a couple of sort-of poems and thought they might work as a way to tell the story of the photograph “Harlem 1958.” Then I started reading poetry, and I attended a poetry retreat. Mostly I just kept writing.
How long did it take you to write Jazz Day? Is that more or less time than it normally takes you to write a picture book biography?
I’m not sure, maybe a year and a half. Less time than my picture book bios, but that’s not counting the time I spent trying other forms in which to tell the story. That’s always the hard part for me, figuring out what the story is and how I want to tell it. That period can last many months.
How did you find the right place to ask permission to use Harlem 1958 in your book?
I went through the Art Kane estate.
You wrote “This Moment” in the form of a pantoum. That form uses four-line stanzas. The second and fourth line from one stanza become the first and third line of the following stanza. How long did it take you to get this poem just right?
Not long. It’s like a puzzle. But I wrote that poem near the end, when I was already familiar with the story and the people in the photo.
Do you recall when you first learned about the pantoum form?
At the poetry retreat, from the teacher, a poet named Lesléa Newman.
Did you end up being happy you’d chosen to write the book in poetry or deciding this is the last time you’ll do this?
Absolutely, yes. Poems turned out to be the perfect way to write about this photograph, jazz, a Harlem street, the 1950s — the whole thing.
How do you decide the subject of your next book?
I follow my nose, I guess. What interests me. It doesn’t always work; I have a few books which I spent a lot of time researching and writing, and in the end, they didn’t work. My next book is not about music or the arts, and I had to muster the courage to tackle something completely unfamiliar.
Were you drawn to this book because of your love for jazz or photography or the 1950s? What pulled you into the project?
Jazz pulled me in, but I’d known about this particular photo ever since I began learning about jazz.
What difference did it make to the book that you were able to interview a primary source, the photographer Art Kane’s son, Jonathan Kane?
A big difference because there are lots of versions out there of what happened that day, whose idea it was to take the photo, etc. I basically used Jonathan Kane’s version of events.
You had no idea how your poems would be illustrated, how they would make that leap from separate poems and illustrations to integrated double-page spreads that work together to help us understand a time, a place, a feeling, a group of people. Did you find yourself altering your poetry to allow room for the illustrator to make his own contributions to the book?
No, not at all. The way it works is that I complete the manuscript, revise it together with my editor, and then the finished text is sent to an illustrator who has been chosen by the art editor. I may have changed a word or two to suit an illustration or layout, but that’s all. I was sent sketches and invited to comment, which I did, but for the most part, Francis and I worked independently. We didn’t even meet until after the book was published. That’s pretty much the norm.
Your list poem, for example, “What to Wear (from A to Z)” is illustrated brilliantly in list fashion as well. Were you aware of including items in your list that could be easily illustrated?
No, I don’t imagine how my words will be illustrated. I guess that’s why I am a writer, not an illustrator!
You state in the author’s note that you researched why some of the most famous jazz musicians aren’t in the photo. What drew you into doing this “extra” research? Or do you view it as extra?
It wasn’t extra, not to me. I knew many “greats” were missing: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, on and on. I thought it might be fun to focus on one of the missing people, and maybe figure out what he or she was doing instead of being at the photo shoot. It was also a way of talking about the jazz life; most of these guys, and gals, were on the road all the time.
Roxane, thank you for taking the time to share your insights with our readers. Your book has received six starred reviews from the major review journals … it’s hard not to fall in love with Jazz Day.