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Bike ride inspired Dennis Lee's poem 'Alligator Pie,' which is now onstage

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TORONTO - Toronto poet Dennis Lee, a.k.a. Canada's Father Goose, has famously written about alligator pie but he's never eaten it.

Well, he did try the giant reptile's meat once during a radio interview for his classic 1974 children's poetry collection "Alligator Pie."

"It tasted like fairly tender chicken, but that's the closest I've got (to alligator pie)," Lee said in a recent interview to discuss the new Soulpepper production of "Alligator Pie" that began previews on Friday and opens Nov. 6 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Rather, what inspired his popular poem "Alligator Pie" was a bicycle ride to a local store at a time when he was trying his hand at writing nursery rhymes for his young daughter.

"My feet are going around on the pedals, and as they go up and down I start to hear these idiotic words in my head: 'Alligator pie, alligator pie, if I don't ... I think I'm gonna cry. Give away the blah blah blah,'" recalled Lee, who's written over 20 books, including the Governor General's Literary Award-winning poetry collection "Civil Elegies."

"So it was all murky, but it wouldn't go away, and I got further down the street and started getting another little string: 'Alligator stew.'"

Lee returned home to jot down the catchy rhyme just to get it off his mind, figuring "it was obviously hopeless, it was not going to go anywhere."

"I went inside and wrote down as many of these silly little snatches as I could think of then headed off to the store saying 'Thank goodness that's behind me, I won't have to worry about it anymore and I can do the real work of getting the day's shopping done.'"

But "it did not die a natural death," he added.

"And I discovered when I got back home and did play around with it a bit more that my older child enjoyed it and more kids enjoyed it, and then kids at school started enjoying it and it took on a life of its own."

"Alligator Pie"'s latest life form is the Soulpepper stage show that incorporates not just the rhymes from the crocodilian pastry-titled collection but also those from several other of Lee's children's poetry books.

Ins Choi, playwright of the Soulpepper smash "Kim's Convenience," is among the show's creators and performers.

Actors Raquel Duffy, Ken MacKenzie, Gregory Prest and Mike Ross round out the creative team, who wear zany costumes they made themselves and sing the poems to music and choreography.

They also play the tunes using various instruments and simple props, including balls, staplers, scissors and ripped paper.

"Invention, I think, is kind of the thing we were after," said Ross, who was also in a Soulpepper production based on Lee's "Civil Elegies."

"How can we make something magical, something artful, something fun out of things that anybody, including the kids or families that are going to be coming to this show, have access to in their house?"

Such was Lee's wish: a production that captures the human heart of the poems.

"This show is just what I wanted to see, manly low-tech, high imagination," said the Officer of the Order of Canada, who was Toronto's first poet laureate.

"I think that's how a child should be engaged."

And indeed, many children have been engaged by the timeless "Alligator Pie," which has sold more than half a million copies since its initial publication and has spawned several other stage productions. Its other beloved poems include "Willoughby Wallaby Woo," "Wiggle to the Laundromat" and "Skyscraper."

Lee said it took him about nine years to write the collection, during which time he also ran House of Anansi Press and the now-defunct Rochdale College.

When it hit stores, Alligator Pie was "one of the first illustrated books published about Canadian children and featuring Canadian place names," says HarperCollins Canada, which recently released a classic edition of the book.

Lee came up with the title after doing a reading at a public library and hearing that most of the children left skipping and chanting the "Alligator Pie" poem.

"I never dreamed that it would become a kind of anthem of the sort that it eventually did, but the kids did vote with their feet and their skipping to make that the title."

He figures the poem is so popular in part because the word "alligator" "kind of lollipops its way around on your tongue."

"Somebody told me they think 'Alligator Pie' was so successful as a poem because of the way the mouth shapes as you say it."

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