Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Poetry & Popular Culture Heroes: An Interview with Emily Benson of StarMark Pet Products

A few weeks ago, one of P&PC's poetry scouts wrote in with exciting news: she'd just purchased a bright orange StarMark Everlasting Bento Ball toy for her newly-adopted dog named Ayla (both pooch and product pictured here) and had discovered a little 6-line poem printed on the back of the toy's packaging:

Think you've seen it all?
Nothing like this half a ball...
Twice the fun and super strong;
It's quite a ball—you can't go wrong!
Dental dimples for the cleanest smiles,
Once filled with treats they last for miles.

Panting with anticipation and curious about how and why poetry came to appear in such an unexpected place, P&PC put its sleuthing nose to the pavement and tracked down Emily Benson, Marketing Director for StarMark Pet Products, a retail arm of the Triple Crown Dog Academy which is the largest, most comprehensive training, behavior, and pet-related event center in the world. With a 100,000 square-foot facility, a 200-kennel boarding kennel, and a two-mile training trail located in Austin, Texas, Triple Crown obviously knows man's best friend quite well. But could Benson give P&PC readers something to chew on? Or did the poem have us barking up the wrong tree? Here's what Benson had to say about dogs, cats, poetry, doggerel and the unfortunate fact that the poems are in the process of being phased out.

Poetry & Popular Culture: Poems on chew toys? How did the idea come about?

Emily Benson: Our product line originally started with training items, and then our next generation of products were more along the lines of interactive and treat-dispensing toys. The idea of the poems seemed to fit the fun, whimsical aspect, and simply the joy, of playing with your dog.

P&PC: Who writes them? Like, do you have a poet on staff or something?

EB: I actually wrote the poems. We had a few toys that were being dog-tested around the office and were working on text for the packaging. I came up with the poem for the Foam Ball and ran it by our president as an alternative for the usual packaging claims, and he actually liked it!

P&PC: Last time I wrote poetry on the job, I got reprimanded, so I quit and went to graduate school. What advice would you give other cubicle poets when it comes to making poetry part of their work?

EB: I think allowing for creative thought in the workplace is important, whether it's poetry or any other idea. Poetry itself is a writing form you don't normally see in many industries, but it certainly has a place. If you're not able to express yourself through poetry as you like at work, then it should definitely still be pursued on a personal level.

P&PC: What's your favorite chew-toy poem?

EB: The poem for the Fantastic Foam Ball (pictured here) is my favorite:

With a roll and a bounce
What makes your dog pounce?
What floats in the water
To fetch like an otter?
What's soft in his jaws
And not easily mauled?
It's a fantastic Foam Ball!

It was the first poem I wrote, and the imagery of the otter just seems fun and carefree. Otters always look like they've having a good time.

P&PC: Plus you get to rhyme "otter" and "water." What would you rhyme with "rhinoceros"?

EB: A rhyme for rhinoceros is preposterous!

P&PC: The poems are written from different points of view and for different audiences. The poem for the Everlasting Treat Ball (being gnawed on in the picture here), for example, is from a dog's perspective and addressed to other dogs:

Where is this new toy, this new bringer of joy?
A toy that's soft but still strong is all that I long...
It wobbles and rolls, and what good things it holds—
Filled with food and capped with one treat or two,
This toy it seems is only in my dreams!

The Fantastic Foam Ball, on the other hand, is addressed to dog owners. How much of this is doggone accident—and how much cool calculation?

EB: This was all a purebred accident. It was more a feel for the toy that drove the poems, and perspective evolved after the initial base idea.

P&PC: What sort of test marketing did this require?

EB: It was pretty basic. We mostly passed them around the office with our staff and our trainers to get their input and made edits from there as needed.

P&PC: How have customers responded?

EB: They seem to enjoy them. They fit with the overall look and feel of the packages.

P&PC: So no one's accused you of writing doggerel?

EB: Maybe just a few mixed verses and tales.

P&PC: Um, P&PC has an office cat. What are StarMark's plans for a feline product line?

EB: Our roots are based in dogs, but we're working on product ideas for cats and other animals. We do get feedback about some of our toys, the Everlasting Fun Ball in particular, where people fill them with cat treats or catnip for their cats to play with. We have also heard of them being used by parrot owners, and even big cats and other animals at a handful of zoos.

P&PC: If I'm correct, you've now used poems on three products in addition to the Foam Ball (the Bento Ball, the Treat Ball, and the Everlasting Fire Plug). Can you give us a preview of what's in the works?

EB: We are actually in the process of redesigning all our ball packaging for a more professional look to better reflect our background in training and behavior. So this means the poems are being phased out and in their place is an image of one of our staff or client dogs along with their story.