As the founding member of the alt-country band The Old 97’s, Rhett Miller has spent much of the last 25 years on the road. With limited time with his now seven-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter, and often separated by hundreds of miles, “I’ve been on tour their whole lives,” Miller admits. To stay connected, Miller sought novel ways to optimize those few minutes on Facetime that kept the family in touch. The fruit of that effort is No More Poems: A Book In Verse That Just Gets Worse, Miller’s first children’s book, which, as the title suggests, is a series of poems, a la Where The Sidewalk Ends. It turns out the book, in part, was inspired by Shel Silverstein, children’s book author, outlaw, and an established songwriter in his own right. We recently caught up with Miller to discuss his journey from country star to children’s book scribe.
I guess a good place to start is why a kids book? And why poems?
When I read with my kids, they really loved reading Shel Silverstein. He was the gold standard, we would read his poems before bed. I noticed that as we went through the poems and internalized them, we were starting to do our own version. The kids would riff on them and I would graft on my stanzas. When I was on tour I was thinking of ways to engage on Facetime, I would write stanzas based on some of our favorite poems and recite them.
So basically it came from focus group testing.
I figured out really early on that the best way to present the poems to them wasn’t as, “Hey, I wrote something for you!” but more like, “Hey, I need your help to make sure it isn’t stupid.” They loved telling me what I did wrong and what was dumb but they were really great editors.
What are some of the differences between writing poems for kids and writing songs?
With music, the music will suggest the meter and the rhyme. You got a lot of leeway in the rhyme. In kids poetry, the words have to do all the work. You have to make it clear to the reader what the rhythm and meter are. It’s almost as if you handed sheet music to your audience, like Beck. But even with sheet music, you have time signature and rhythm. There’s a lot of further instruction, it’s just the words.
As far as creating a narrative, I do a lot of stream of consciousness in my songs. You don’t have an idea what the story is, you can discover after the fact who are these characters. But with a poem like this, I found it important to establish first, who is talking, what is the audience, what’s the story. That provided enough of a delineation that I was able to keep them separate. I still thought meter and song. It’s been a blast.
How did your bandmates take to your newfound passion?
They were really supportive, but of course, they would roll their eyes. They’d see me working and say is it a song for us? I’d say it’s a poem for our kids. But when I tried them out on the guys, they would always seem so surprised and I was like, why are you guys shocked I’m not terrible at writing poems?? You are feeding your kids off my songs!