Elmira resident Fred Karpala has been writing children’s poetry ever since his niece was born during his twenties. But this month’s release of his self-published collection, Shabalaba Zoo Diaries, marks the first time any of Karpala’s poetry has gone outside his immediate family.“I’ve probably lost more poems than I’ve kept,” laughed Karpala. “You scribble them on a piece of paper, and somehow the paper gets lost. It’s probably the good ones that are the ones that I’ve saved.”
While he never pursued it professionally, poetry always offered Karpala an enjoyable way to scratch the creative itch.
“I thought I wanted to be a fiction writer,” he remembered. “I tried to write things, but it would always get to a stage where I would tire of it. It would get to a certain point where I’d say, ‘It’s going to take forever to do this!’
“I started writing a few poems for my niece, and I thought this is great, because I could do a complete thing in one page, and it’s finished. I don’t have to slave over it for a very long time – that’s how I got into it.”
Karpala’s poems stayed in drawers and boxes in his house until 2013. “Last year I took cooking classes, I took dancing lessons, I took up cycling, and various other things as… I dunno, a late-life crisis. One of them was to do something with poetry.”
Shabalaba Zoo Diaries is the fruit of his labour: a collection of 15 poems chronicling such unusual subjects as a giraffe who lives in a tree (“I had to laugh when I did see / Jeffrey’s giraffe sitting in a tree”); a crocodile who is vulnerable to tickles (“If you dare to tickle him / Then say a prayer or hum a hymn”); and a rooster who has no qualms about waking folks up at the crack of dawn (“It’s not easy being a rooster / So won’t you be a rooster booster?”).
But it’s not all barnyard antics: Karpala’s book also includes an ode to birthdays, a space adventure (“I’m a little spaceman in my spaceman suit / I’m on my way to a spaceman shoot”), and a consideration of the dancing habits of the King and Queen of France (“Now the King of France still loves to dance but only with the Queen…”).
Each poem is accompanied by a full-page illustration by Kitchener artist Sanela Dizdar, who pulled double-duty as the book’s layout designer.
“The illustrations, I felt, were good enough to take up a whole page,” said Karpala. “We already have almost enough poems for a second book. I didn’t want to put them all in one book because we didn’t want to cram them into 32 pages. … The drawings looked great.”
In fact, it was Dizdar’s children, Neo and Len, who came up with the book’s unique name.
“She has two sons, one is seven and one is 14, and they liked the illustrations,” said Karpala. “One day she asked them, ‘What do you think would be a good title for the book?’ They were trying different things, and one of them said, ‘Shabalaba Zoo,’ and they were just killing each other – they wouldn’t stop. She said, ‘That’s it, that’s what we’re going to call it!’”
And yet one question remains unanswered: how could it be possible that Fred Karpala only began writing poetry in his twenties? Isn’t poetry a right-of-passage for any high school student?
“I did poetry when I was a teenager,” he admitted. “But those were… angst, and all that stuff.” He laughed, “Not very many survived.”
Karpala will be signing copies of Shabalaba Zoo Diaries on December 4, 5-7 p.m. at the Robin’s Nest in Elmira (29 Church St. W.). For more information on how to get a copy, contact Karpala at 519-669-0694 or firstname.lastname@example.org.