Poetry, Puffins and Little Handmade Books
In honor of National Poetry Month we invited Kate Coombs and Meilo So, the creators of Water Sings Blue, a stunning illustrated book of poems about the sea, to share a conversation about their inspiration, creative process, and influences.
Kate: How did you wind up on the Shetland Islands? What other islands have you lived on? Do you hang out with puffins much?
Meilo: When I first heard about the place, my husband said I would hate it (and it was his idea!). Being a born and bred city creature (I was born in Hong Kong), I had been going out to breakfast in different cafes and restaurants every day since I was three years old. I thought I would find living in a community with only one shop and one bus—which takes nearly two hours to get to the nearest city—daunting.
The local shop and post office in Shetland.
But what persuaded me was the little rural primary school, only five minutes’ walk from the house. My daughter was two and half at the time, and I liked the idea of her going to a little school with only a few children. So the community more or less brought the children up together.
Culivoe Primary School.
When my husband and I lived in Hong Kong back in the 80s and 90s, we lived in Lamma Island, which is a bit like Shetland, too, but it had the benefits of both worlds: You could move from an idyllic rural area where there was still land with rice paddies and no cars, off the island to the busyness of the big city in a 30-minute ferry crossing. It was actually rather bizarre.
I am afraid I don’t hang out with puffins. Once I saw a sticker on a cafe window in Shetland saying NO PUFFIN, and I thought people ate them here. (Turned out to be a no smoking sign.)
Kate: Wow, you paint pictures with words, too! I’d love to know how you researched ocean animals and shells so you could illustrate them.
Meilo: We have a beach just a couple of minutes away from the house, and I do go there often when I need something—like finding some seashells, picking up empty urchin shells, looking at the waves, or just for ideas.
“Ocean Realty” from Water Sings Blue.
Oystercatchers are commonly seen around here and so are arctic terns, but there isn’t a lot of chance to see a blue whale or a gulper eel, so I have to do my research elsewhere. Although now and again you can find whale bone and teeth on the beaches.
The North Sea view outside Meilo’s window.
Music plays a very important part in my life: I wonder if you like any of the sea music that has been written? I love Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures. Where Corals Lie, one of the songs in this cycle, paints a most seductive picture of the depths of the ocean.
Kate: Mostly I have to turn the music off when I write so I can listen to the music of the words. I don’t use traditional, tight meter so much as I count downbeats like in music. For me, the best music relative to Water Sings Blue is the great rhythm of the sea, of the waves striking the shore.
“What the Waves Say” from Water Sings Blue.
One more question: I was such a bookworm as a child and started writing poems and stories and plays in grade school. I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very young age. Can you remember some art projects from when you were young that especially mattered to you?
Meilo: When I was in Brighton College of Art learning how to make illustrations, I started to make a set of what I called “little books.” With simple brush drawings from memories and very minimum text to go with each illustration, I recalled stories of my childhood, my parents, my boarding school life in an English school, and some special friends. All the little books are 16 pages, reproduced by photocopying and sewn together with a traditional Chinese bookbinding technique. I did a lot of them only for myself, but then my private tutor in college read some of them. He told me how much he liked them and that I must do more, as he would be looking forward to the next episode. I was so touched that someone would be interested in my stories that I married him.
Kate: Thanks for talking to me, Meilo—it was so nice to go to the Shetland Islands in my mind’s eye and watch the waves with you!
Purchase: Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems.
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