Saturday, April 18, 2009

Poetry Makers - Joan Bransfield Graham

I found my way to Joan Bransfield Graham while planning a unit on the subject of light. (Yes, that science-poetry connection has come into play again!) Flicker Flash is a book of concrete poems about light it all its various forms. In 23 different poems the book explores natural and man-made light sources, including the sun, birthday candles, an incubator bulb, lightning, a firefly, and more. Here's one example. Keep in mind that these are CONCRETE poems, so they may not reproduce particularly well here.

one flick
I am the SUN,
I chase the shadows
one by one, growing scary,
jagged, tall - with brilliant beams
I ' L L    M E L T    t h e m    A L L !
Finding Flicker Flash led me to Splish Splash, an earlier publication of concrete poems about water. Before I talk more about Joan's poetry, let's learn a bit more about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Joan: I’ve written poetry for as long as I can remember. When I was little, I used to make my own cards—word gifts—for my family and friends. I still do that, only now I use my original photos on the front. Poetry was always my way of sorting out the world and my feelings . . . and connecting with others.

Who/what made you want to write?
Joan: My mother read to me, my grandmother (who lived with us) sang songs, my father told my brother and me stories about a family that traveled and had adventures. Growing up on a barrier island along the southern coast of New Jersey, I listened to those lovely, rhythmic waves washing in and out. To me, poems are waves of words that wash over you, lift your feet off the ground, and let you float off into your imagination.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Joan: I adored books and reading. When I was three years old, I begged my mother to read ‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS over and over. One night, when she was feeling tired, she skipped over a few places, which I proceeded to supply. “Do you know this?” she asked. I recited the entire poem. She had read it so many times I had it memorized. Later, as a teacher and a parent myself, I loved sharing books and poems with my students . . . and my two daughters.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Joan: I won some writing contests in elementary school and felt encouraged, took a creative writing class when I was working on my degree in Education, and published poems in literary magazines. Wherever we’ve lived I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to attend poetry readings—at the Library of Congress (an incredible array of Poet Laureates), the Huntington Library (an Academy of American Poets soiree), the Pacific Design Center, the CSLA Jean Burden Poetry Readings; it’s wonderful to hear poets read their own work. I published my first poems when we were living in Virginia. When we moved to California, I was fortunate to be able to take Myra Cohn Livingston’s Master Class at UCLA with an amazing group of delightful poets.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Joan: The creative process is thrilling. When I am in that poetry zone, I pretty much lose track of time and place. If I suddenly have to think—how do you spell that?—I realize my “editor” is asleep and I’m going to ride that wave of inspiration as far as I can. I tend to work on several poems at the same time. Then I’ll put them aside to look at later in the cold light of another day and make revisions.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Joan: Children are so imaginative, inventive, ready to have fun! I love visiting schools and inspiring students to write their own poems. When I was a teacher, one of my favorite things to do—besides reading to my students—was seeing them leap beyond knowledge into creativity. My poems go out and live their own lives; sometimes they write home (and send checks!). You never know where your poems might take you—I ended up at the Casablanca American School in Morocco!

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Joan: Students often ask me that. I tell them it’s the next poem—the one that’s teasing me to write it right now.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Joan: I have a variety of manuscripts in the works, including DOUBLE DELICIOUS, a collection of food poems, THE POEM-THAT-WILL-NOT-END, several projects incorporating my photography, and much more. In 2009 SPLISH SPLASH will be celebrating its 15th Birthday (a teenager!), and FLICKER FLASH will be 10. I think I’m going to throw them a Birthday Book Bash.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Joan: Valerie Worth is such a master of metaphor. I always enjoyed David McCord’s and Eve Merriam’s wordplay. Barbara Esbensen saw things so uniquely and wrote the insightful Celebration of Bees; Myra Cohn Livingston’s Poem Making continues to be a great resource. All their vibrant words are very much alive.

Your favorite place to write?
Joan: I enjoy writing outside in the quiet of my yard. But there is a wonderful sound—a small waterfall that flows into our pond. Actually, it used to be our Jacuzzi, but my husband turned it into a . . . pond. We have water lilies that bloom in the summer and gold fish. Horizontal thought can be very productive. Before I fully wake up, before the editorial side of my brain rises for the day, I like to take advantage of that twilight state and engage in some horizontal thinking. Next to my bed I keep paper and pencil. I could also answer—“in my head.” Poetry is portable, and you can be working on it anywhere and everywhere. I cannot go to an art museum without being inspired.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Joan: At the beginning of his book, The Pedaling Man, Russell Hoban says, “Time tries constantly to take the world away from us, and, in the end, of course it does. Any poem is the writer’s attempt to hold on to what world he has and grab a little more if he can.”

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Joan: Well, you came up with an amazing list of nominees! I have so many friends who are poets—we really have a wealth to choose from.

Here's another poem from Flicker Flash.

miles away I bring
you this dynamite, ring-
a-ding day. I'll shout in
your window and bounce
near your head to solar
power you out of
your bed."
You can see some examples of additional poems from this book with the artwork at Google Books.

Splish Splash opens with this poem about water.

Water is a magic potion,
it can fill a glass, an ocean,
raging river, tiny tear,
drops of dew that disappear.
Water often spells surprises
with its changing forms and sizes,
rain and snow, ponds and brooks,
water has so many looks,
sounds and moods and colors—yet
in every shape, it's always WET!
You can see some examples of additional poems from this book with the artwork at Google Books.

Joan mentioned she took a master class with Myra Cohn Livingston. In the book I Am Writing a Poem About . . . A Game of Poetry, Livingston wrote about three of the assignments she gave to the students in this class. The book is accompanied by examples from her students. Here's the poem Joan wrote using the word rabbit.
In the flower bed
next to the rabbit's ears, a
tulip grows shorter.
One of the assignments Livingston gave was to write a six-word-based poem. Here is a description from the book's introduction.
About the last assignment—a six-word-based poem—there was some debate. Everyone agreed that hole, friend, candle, ocean, bucket, and snake presented possibilities, but a few preferred the word scarecrow to bucket, so a choice was given. Hole, friend, candle, ocean, and snake were mandatory, but one could choose either bucket or scarecrow as the sixth word.
Here's the poem Joan wrote in response to this assignment.
Celebration by the Sea

My friend
and I scoop out
a hole in the sand,
a bucket to capture our own small

We build
a castle cake.
Water snakes through its halls.
Mud turrets rise and on top—one
In addition to her poetry collections, Joan's work appears in a number of anthologies. She has a fabulous villanelle in Paul Janeczko's book A Kick in the Head. Two poems I regularly use in my teaching appear in anthologies by Lee Bennett Hopkins. The first poem can be found in Marvelous Math: A Book of Poems.
Nature Knows Its Math

the year
into seasons,
the snow then
some more
a bud,
a breeze,
a whispering
the trees,
and here
beneath the
orange poppies
This second poem comes from the book Got Geography!
Awesome Forces

The earth is
it would seem,
for here and about
it lets off
lava flows,
geysers gush,
canyons are carved
        by a river's
The earth's old crust
cracks and creaks,
shakes and
        shoves up
Ice caps recede
glaciers advance,
ever in motion—
        a global dance.
        Will it ever
stand still?

no chance
More recently, Joan's poem "Wish for Peace" was used as the Prologue in America at War, an anthology of poetry about war selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins. The poem also appears on the back cover. It is a concrete poem in the shape of an ink bottle.
Wish for Peace

that war
could only
rage upon the
battlefield of page,
and not a drop of blood
would flow, just ink, and
everyone would know
the word—freedom.
At the end of her interview Joan wrote:
Tricia, thank you for this invitation to celebrate poetry. Like Miss Rumphius, we, as poets, get to plant some poems that, hopefully, will go on blooming and add something beautiful to this world.
Planting something beautiful indeed. What a lovely way to think about poetry.

To learn more about Joan and her work, visit these sites.
Three cheers for Joan and a heartfelt thanks for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Joan Bransfield Graham. All rights reserved.


  1. I have always loved Joan's poems. She is one of those hidden treasures. Thank you for shining a light on her work.



    Joan can take any known subject and
    turn it into a surprising new entity.

    Each time you read one of her works
    you find or see new meanings. She
    is in a clas by herself.

    I adore her and her work.


  3. I love Flciker Flash. so do my students. Thanks for featuring her today.

  4. I love SPLISH SPLASH and FLICKER FLASH. The poems in both books are a delight to read and share with children. Joan's concrete poems are truly in a class by themselves. Those two thematic collections are exceptional books of poetry for children.

    Like you, Tricia, I love the poetry/science connection in Joan's books.

  5. I love the game of poetry poem -- and the imagery of multiplying poppies. All of these have so much energy and imagination in them.