Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Poetry Makers - Joseph Bruchac

The author of more than 70 books for children and adults, Joseph Bruchac has been writing poetry, short stories and novels for more than 30 years. His work reflects both his Abenaki Indian heritage and the traditions of Native Americans.

I was first introduced to the work of Joseph Bruchac in the late 90's when I was teaching environmental education workshops and came across the book Keepers of Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children. Since then I've become a fan of his picture books, traditional stories and poetry.

Before I talk about one of my favorite collections of Joe's poetry, let's learn a bit more about him.
How did you get started writing poetry?
Joe: I first remember writing poetry—or trying to—when I was in 2nd grade and writing poems for my teacher Mrs. Monthony. I kept writing poems all through grade school and high school—but never with any formal instruction or as a class assignment. I just did it because I loved it. I also memorized poems constantly. In my high school English classes I’d be in the back of the class reciting the last lines of classic poems (Shakespeare’s sonnets, Milton’s “On His Blindness,” Frost’s “Stopping by Wood on a Snowy Eve”) from memory as my teacher Mr. Swick was trying to read the first part of the poem in front of the class. As you might imagine, I was often both the bane and the delight of Mr. Swick’s life.

Who/what made you want to write?
Joe: Reading poetry and hearing it read aloud (by my grandmother before anyone else) seemed to touch something very deep in me. The music and the messages of poems gave me ideas of my own that I wanted to share.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
I’ve always loved nonsense verse and children’s poetry. I still know by heart such poems from my own childhood as of A A. Milne’s perfect example of trochaic meter: “Christoper Robin goes hoppity, hoppity, hoppity, hoppity hop. . .and many others. Then, when I had children of my own, I rediscovered the pleasure (and remembered the importance) of writing poems for younger readers.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Until college, I was self-taught, a voracious and constant reader. In fact, I was a Wildlife conservation Major for 3 years. (I’ve always loved the natural world and will always feel a deep connection to it—and I didn’t see how I could make a living as a writer!) Then I began taking Creative Writing courses at Cornell University, taking poetry workshops from Robert Sward, David Ray and A.R. Ammons. And I switched my major to English. I won a Creative Writing Fellowship at Syracuse University where I did my master’s degree and had such wonderful teachers and lifelong mentors as Grace Paley and Philip Booth.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Word come to me and I write them down as quickly as I can—sometimes in a journal, sometimes on my computer. Then it is like opening a window and I begin to see other words through those I’ve written, a poem begins to emerge. I usually continue writing until I feel I have a finished first draft. That make take minutes or hours and when I do this on paper I’m crossing out words, writing other words in, slashing out sentences. And I do even more of that after I’ve transferred that draft to the screen. When I have that first draft done, I usually print it up, then put it aside. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes a few days. Then I come back to it, read it aloud and begin the process of further revision. Every poem I write is revised many times and is often much shorter when it is completed than when I started. From two pages down to ten lines, at times.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
The writing of the poem and its completion are joys in and of themselves. I love the process of creation. But I take equal joy in sharing my thought, my emotion, the journey of the poem with other readers—young or old.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Joe: I’ve written many of poems and have, by my best guess, had about 1,000 published over the last 4 decades. My favorite is always the poem I’m trying to complete. But I do have a special fondness for a picture book of poems that my good friend Jonathan London and I did together with the superb artist Thomas Locker—THIRTEEN MOONS ON TURTLE’S BACK.
**NOTE - You can hear Joe reading some of his poems on the main page of his web site . (I quite adore Spring Peepers.)

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Joe: I’m currently working on a series of poems with my younger son Jesse, who has become quite good in the Abenaki language (See his website at <westernabenaki.com>) and now has two small children of his own—Carolyn (3) and Jacob (1). We’re attempting simple, sometimes narrative, poems that are written first in English and then translated into Abenaki or vice versa. Jesse does the Abenaki side, I do the English. (When Jesse was about 7 years old he was walking through the upstairs hall of our house--where I had covered one wall with poetry postcards and he said "I could just live for poetry." I asked him two weeks ago if he remember that day almost 30 years ago. "Of course," he said. "I still feel that way. Poetry is the highest form of human expression.")

Joe was kind enough to send along one of the poems he wrote with Jesse. It is below. Once you've read it, visit Western Abenaki Radio and click Episode 8. Near the beginning you can hear the poem read. (If you're wondering about the use of the number 8, visit this site about the Abenaki alphabet.)
My Grandfather / N’Mahom

walks with me
Pemosa spiwi nia

through the forest
Z8bka kpiwi

When Grandfather
Chiga mahom

walks with me
Pemosa spiwi nia

I am not afraid
Nda n’jajibamalsiw


leads me

up the hill

From the hill

I see

a long long way
Pita nopaiwi



a song to me
lintow8gan wji nia

It’s a song

I will sing

again and again
Mina ta mina


is never
Nda kizi wd’ao

far away

My Grandfather

is the wind.
ao Al8msek.
Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Joe: None of my favorite poets ever died! From Shakespeare and Lord Byron and Emily Dickinson on down to Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and William Stafford, they’re still alive.

Your favorite place to write?
On paper. (And when I am in the midst of writing, I usually have nothing else in sight other than the page where those words are appearing.)

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Joe: If you want to be a poet, write. If you want to be a poet whose poems are read by others, revise! (That’s my quote.)

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Joe: Gary Soto or Naomi Shihab Nye

The book Joe mentioned as one of his favorites, Thirteen Moons on Turtle's Back: A Native American Year of Moons, is one I use regularly in my teaching. Illustrated by Thomas Locker, the book is a collection of poems corresponding to the thirteen moons recognized by some Native American people. It begins with an Abenaki man teaching his grandson that "There are always thirteen (scales) on Old Turtle's back and there are always thirteen moons in each year." Each moon has its own name and its own story. In the authors' note at the end of the book, readers learn that not all Native American people talk about twelve or thirteen moons, largely because they observe the seasonal changes where they live, so places like the far north and desert southwest have very different seasons. They also make it clear that even among Native American nations that speak of moons, they may not all use the same name for that moon. Each of the thirteen moons contains a reference to the Native American nation from which the name and story comes. Here is an excerpt of one of the moon poems.
Moose-Calling Moon
(Ninth Moon - Micmac)

In this season when leaves
begin to turn color,
we go down to the lakes
and with birch-bark horns
make that sound which echoes
through the spruce trees,
the call of a moose
looking for a mate:
This book is an important one to include when teaching about the calendar, as students should understand that there are many ways to view and count the passage of time.

I want to include an excerpt from one more poem here. It comes from the book Home to Me: Poems Across America, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. This wonderful collection introduces readers to the enormous variety of places where people across this country live. Bruchac's contribution is hard to read, but it's a wonderful poem for opening discussions with students about native peoples and where and how they live today.
Rez Road

The place we live isn't very big
compared to all that once was ours.
This reservation we call home
is ten miles long by six miles wide.
But even though it's not that large,
a nice new state superhighway
cuts through the middle of the maple forest—
hunting grounds where we found medicine plants.
Yeah, things seem different
than they did long ago.
Some of our own people
don't even know how
to speak our language,
though we teach it in our school.
Some hit the road and don't come back.
But some of us, like Grampa Bigtree,
know that hidden roots still give you strength.

There will always be another day.
Four winds will always remember our names.
No matter how many roads they build,
Mother Earth is always beneath our feet.
You can learn more about Joseph Bruchac at these sites.
If you are interested in using books by Joseph Bruchac in the classroom, visit Web English Teacher for a wealth of lesson ideas.

I'll end this with something Joe said in his talk at the 2008 National Book Festival.
"When you write for young people it is the most important writing you can do because you are writing to the future and for the future. We must always listen. We must always observe. We must remember, and we must share."
Let's hope Joe continues to listen, observe, remember and share with us his gifts for writing and storytelling for many years to come.

Many, many thanks to Joe for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Joseph Bruchac, except My Grandfather/N’Mahom ©Joseph Bruchac and Jesse Bruchac. All rights reserved.


  1. It was nice to see Joseph Bruhac in person years ago at a conference; he's a really interesting person and storytelling seems to come to him naturally.

  2. I was fortunate to interview Mr. Bruchac in person several years ago. He is an interesting person and a wonderful storyteller!

  3. "None of my favorite poets ever died!"


  4. Good God, I am such a sap:

    Seven-year old Jesse saying --I could just live for poetry.

    And a wall, a whole wall, covered with poetry postcards.


  5. Whoa - the story about Jesse and his love for poetry was made of awesome. I think I'll quoteskim from it for Sunday.

  6. This has been my favorite answer for the favorite dead poet question!

  7. Whoa. "My Grandfather/N’Mahom" blew me away.