When I was a little boy, my German grandfather — usually after a Manhattan or two — would often lead me up the steps of his Brooklyn home to a large wall poster with colorful drawings, to give me a little German lesson. Ist das nicht eine schnitzelbank? he’d ask, pointing at a cobbler’s bench, or if it were Christmas, he’d point at a Christmas tree, saying Ist das nicht ein Tannenbaum? I’d answer faithfully, Ja das ist ein Tannenbaum, or whatever picture he’d point at. Sometimes we’d try to sing the chorus, O, Die Schoenheit an der Wand (O the beauty on the wall) — Ja das ist eine schnitzelbank.
It was fun, contributing to my early love of picture books and children’s poems (and maybe Manhattans). I particularly liked it when he’d point at the drawing of a schnickel fritz — a naughty boy — and say, giving me a poke in the ribs, “You are a schnickel fritz, Peter,” and I’d squeal in mock protest, "Nein, ich bin ein gutter junge!” He usually gave me a quarter, whether I was good or not. I certainly wasn’t a gutter singer.
As far as I can remember, I’ve always liked poems and picture books, and scribbled (nonsense of course) as soon as I learned to read and could hold a pencil. The Schnitzelbank song is my earliest memory of liking rhyme, rhythm and pictures together. I’m still a constant doodler, as my notebooks show.
Of course, my mother must have sung lullabies to us; she was a pianist with perfect pitch. But my memories of her are almost all at the piano. The first actual poems that still have their prints in my head are from three little books, When We Very Young and Now We Are Six by A. A. Milne, and A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Milne, of course, is best known for his Winnie-the-Pooh books — early versions of Pooh appear in his poems. The books we had were small, one red and one green, and, like the Pooh books, were brilliantly illustrated by E. H. Shepard. A theory of mine is that as a child, T. S. Eliot also loved Milne and Shepard, which is why he called himself, copying their practice, “T.S” instead of Thomas Eliot. (My early poems were signed “J. Peter Meinke,” but after a few years I dropped the “J” — for James — as looking too much like “J. Alfred Prufrock.”)
Shepard’s charming drawings are immediately attractive and accessible, and they look easy to do — but having watched Jeanne working on her own pen-and-ink drawings, I know that this isn’t the case. Like anything well-done, hard work, practice, and training — and a great deal of time — go into each drawing. When Jeanne was working on the elves in our latest book, it was amazing to see the metamorphosis of the little rascals as she worked on creating them. A lot of crumpled paper on the floor, and suddenly, there’s Pooh on a page, with his hand in the honey, or Jeanne’s elf doing a handstand on a bookshelf.
Where does creativity come from? The seeds go far back, to gruff grandfathers, beloved pets, early dreams, generous teachers — but the plants themselves need to be watered, trimmed, and
—Both quotes are from The Elf Poem by Peter Meinke, illustrated by Jeanne Meinke, published by the U. of Tampa Press, 2015. Peter and Jeanne will be presenting The Elf Poem at Inkwood Books in Tampa at 4 pm, Nov. 28; at Barnes & Noble, Tyrone Blvd. N., St. Pete, at 11 a.m., Dec. 5; at Haslam’s Book Store in St. Pete at 2 p.m., Dec. 6, and at Lewis House, Eckerd College, sponsored by ASPEC, at 2:45 p.m., Dec. 10.