Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Poetry Makers - Kenn Nesbitt

If you've ever been to the web site Poetry4kids, then you already know something about today's poetry maker. Kenn Nesbitt's site is a veritable treasure trove of poetic inspiration for kids, teachers and poetry lovers alike. You'll find it packed with things like original poems, podcasts, poems by e-mail, poetry lessons, a rhyming dictionary and much more. Kenn is the author of a number of books, including My Hippo Has the Hiccups: And Other Poems I Totally Made Up, a brand new book of poetry that is being released today! Huzzah!

I don't know about you, but I can't read Nesbitt's work without hearing Donald O'Connor singing in my ear. You know the song I mean—
Make 'em roar
Make 'em scream
Take a fall
Butt a wall
Split a seam

You start off by pretending
You're a dancer with grace
You wiggle 'till they're
Giggling all over the place
And then you get a great big custard pie in the face
Make 'em laugh
Make 'em laugh
Make 'em laugh
Sometimes I wonder if this is Nesbitt's anthem, as his work leaves me happily giggling. My Hippo Has the Hiccups is no exception. Before I share my thoughts about this brand new book, let's learn a bit more about Kenn Nesbitt and his writing.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Kenn: Completely by accident. I heard a recording one day of Shel Silverstein reciting his poem “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout,” and I just thought, “Gee, I'll bet I could write a poem like that.” So I sat down and wrote a poem. It was so much fun that, a week or two later, I wrote another one.

After a while this poetry-writing thing became something of a hobby. A few years later I decided to see if I could get some of my poems published, and was surprised to find that other people enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

Eventually I decided to see if I could write an entire book. Now writing poetry is what I do for a living.

Who/what made you want to write?
Kenn: Wait... didn't I just answer that? Well, it started when I read Shel Silverstein's books, but it wasn't until I discovered Jack Prelutsky's poetry that I really got inspired to try to write professionally.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
My father. When I was very young, my father used to sing a lot, around the house, in the car, and so on. He would also occasionally recite a poem or two. He had quite a few poems committed to memory.

I especially liked hearing the nonsense poems that he knew, and I memorized some of them myself when I was in elementary school.

By junior high I was scouring the library looking for more funny poems to read.

Of course, in all this time, it never occurred to me that I could write poems myself, and I never even tried to write a funny poem until I was 32.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
It depends on what you mean. I took one poetry class in college, but I think the only thing I learned was that I don't care for most adult poetry.

So I am mostly self-taught, but I would still call it formal training because I have read and studied the mechanics of poetry in great depth.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
I work mostly on a computer, where I have access to not just a word processor, but also to thesauri, dictionaries, rhyming dictionaries, etc. The hardest part is sitting down and forcing myself to write, especially when I'd rather be doing something else.

I usually start by making lists of topics and ideas, and I just keep at it until something comes out. Often I'll end up with several false starts (some of which may later turn into different poems) before I finally create something I'm satisfied with.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Mainly I enjoy cracking kids up. I think we all need to laugh just a little bit more, and I love being able to help with that.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Kenn: I sure do. My favorite is my newest book, My Hippo Has the Hiccups: And Other Poems I Totally Made Up. It's my biggest book to date; over 100 poems. And it is the first to have an audio CD included in the book.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Kenn: I'm working on several new poetry collections right now, but, unfortunately, none of them are far enough along to give you any details.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Kenn: Do I have to pick just one? In that case, I'll pick W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan). He wrote a lot of poetry in addition to the light operas he did with Sullivan, and I love his work.

Your favorite place to write?
Anywhere but home. There are too many distractions at home, so mostly I go to a coffee house or library to write.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Kenn: “You can't write poetry on the computer.” -Quentin Tarantino

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Kenn: Keep in mind that I'm not on the nominating committee, but I think it should go to J. Patrick Lewis. I can't think of anyone more prolific or more committed to advancing children's poetry today than Pat.

Even though today is the official release date for My Hippo Has the Hiccups, I've had an advanced reader's copy for a few weeks now, and have been listening to the poems at work and in my car. They are happy and snappy, bouncy and flouncy, funny and sunny, ... Oh you get the idea. My very bad rhymes merely serve to highlight one of the great strengths of Kenn's work. His mastery of rhyme is sublime. (Okay, rhyme NOT intended.) They are never forced nor out of step. They keep the poems moving happily forward and make them immensely readable and enjoyable. Here are two of my favorites. The first is full of word play. My son loves it for the line that resembles the riddle "Why is six afraid of seven?" Answer: Because seven eight nine.
When Vegetables Are Angry
When vegetables are angry
does it mean they're in a stew?
When morning says good morning
does it ask how do you dew?

When mountaintops are spying
would you say they're sneaking peeks?
When water spills on onions
does it turn them into leeks?

To be a good conductor
do you really have to train?
If Superman retired
would he live on Lois Lane?

If streets required clothing
would you buy your street a dress?
If restaurants were dirty
would you eat inside the mess?

Whenever you're impatient
does it mean you're losing wait?
If six bought lunch for seven
would you care how much he eight?

When cheese pots say good evening
do they bid a fond adieu?
When vegetables are angry
does it mean they're in a stew?
The second poem makes my scientific heart swell and would make a great introduction to a lesson on the layers of the Earth. It has a wonderful twist at the end that kids will love.
I'm Digging a Tunnel to China

I'm digging a tunnel to China.
A vertical shaft in the ground.
a passage bisecting the planet.
A cavern so deep, it's profound.

I've picked out the perfect location.
I've started out back in the yard.
I think it may take me all summer.
I'm certain the work will be hard.

I'm using a coal-miner's helmet
for working in darkness or shade.
My work boots are perfectly suited
for breaking the earth with my spade.

I'll pummel the rocks with a pickax.
Ill dredge up the dirt with my hands.
I'll suction the sludgy deposits.
I'll scoop out the pebbles and sands.

I'll shovel out mountains of gravel.
I'll excavate acres of soil.
I'll dig till I feel like collapsing
from endless and backbreaking toil.

I'll dig till I reach molten magma
and smash through the Earth's outer crust,
then don my protective equipment,
as onward and downward I thrust.

My tunnel will come out in China,
or maybe Tibet or Japan,
and people will come from all over
to witness it's breathtaking span.

And when my achievement's completed
I'll dust myself off with a grin,
then step to the edge of the tunnel
and throw all my Brussels sprouts in.
There are 120 poems in this book. In the CD that accompanies it you will find 39 of the poems read aloud by Kenn. Each poem is nicely delivered and often includes sound effects. Kenn's voice is clear and energetic with appropriate intonation to make each poetry track distinctive. Since poetry is meant to read aloud, this is a perfect addition to the book. This book is a must-have for classrooms and libraries, as well as home collections. Readers of all ages will find something to love in this volume.

In addition to having numerous poems in anthologies, Kenn is the author of a number of poetry collections including The Aliens Have Landed at Our School!: And Other Funny School Poems, My Foot Fell Asleep, Revenge of the Lunch Ladies: The Hilarious Book of School Poetry, Santa Got Stuck in the Chimney, and When the Teacher Isn't Looking: And Other Funny School Poems. If you are interested in learning more about Kenn and his work, be sure to check out these sites.
Hats off to Kenn for kicking off the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Kenn Nesbitt. All rights reserved.


  1. I'm so glad you're on the East Coast so my poetry days can start a little early! Great Q+A and great poetry, too. Can't wait for tomorrow's Poetry Maker!

  2. Dude: I am with him on the Brussels' sprouts. The best use of a hole to China EVER.

    I love these -- have heard the name of the poet but missed both of these great poems, and now am smiling, too. What a great start to the month!!

  3. This is going to be an awesome month.

  4. I love the word play in "When Vegetables Are Angry"! I was chuckling the whole time I was reading it aloud to myself. :D

    This is a kick-ass post. A whole month of this? ZOMG!

  5. Oooooo I really love Vegetables are Angry. I heart homonyms. And I heart a guy who says he enjoys "cracking kids up"...
    So excited for this month of interviews, Tricia!!!

  6. Wow - Prelutsky and Nesbitt as bookends to start the month. Very cool. We love Hippo, too ... a little 7YO I know loves all of the princess-y poems.

  7. These are hysterical! I like funny, silly poems...not a fan of nonsense poems. These are amazing. Look how much he packs in there! Wow.

    I've got to find me this HIPPO book. My library doesn't have it, and it's not even showing up as available on interlibrary loan. Time to order it from my indie.

    Thanks for a great start to NPM!

  8. I've been to Kenn's website many times, it's a great resource. I enjoyed the interview very much.

  9. I've been passing these on to the teachers at my school. It's really, really fun to walk into classrooms in the morning and see kids starting their day with poetry instead of some silly Daily Oral Language exercise!