Friday, April 24, 2009

Poetry Makers - Lisa Westberg Peters

Lisa Westberg Peters has authored nearly 20 books, most of which are not poetry. However, it was her book of poems about the earth that introduced me to her. Earthshake: Poems From the Ground Up is a collection of twenty-two poems that introduces geologic concepts through metaphor and word play in a variety of poetic forms.

Before I talk further about Lisa's work, let's learn a bit more about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Lisa: I started writing poetry as a teenager. My family had a summer cabin on the St. Croix River in Wisconsin and I would go off by myself and write. Poetry is a great way for teenagers to express their frustration, anger and fear, and I was no exception.

Who/what made you want to write?
Lisa: My parents were readers, but it wasn't just that our house was full of books. My father, especially, drew me into conversations about the ideas contained in the great books he had read. Those conversations encouraged me to reflect, to wonder, and eventually to write.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?

Lisa: I slid into poetry. My children's book writing career began with the birth of my daughters and the reading of hundreds of picture books. I loved the form because it demanded an economy of words, attention to language and to rhythm. From there, it's not a big leap to poetry. I started by reading everything I could find, focusing on poets I liked -- Douglas Florian, Kristine O'Connell George, Marilyn Singer, Valerie Worth, Karla Kuskin.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Lisa: I didn't have any formal poetry training. I graduated from college with a degree in journalism. That lack of formal training in poetry can work both ways. You have a steeper learning curve, a disadvantage. On the other hand, you don't know the rules, so you're free from having to obey them. I might add that the two extremes tend to play out simultaneously.

I learned a great deal about children's poetry from two friends, accomplished children's poets, Susan Marie Swanson and Joyce Sidman. Both live in the Twin Cities and I've picked their brains many, many times.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Lisa: It's different with each manuscript, so no!

I wrote the Earthshake poems with very little forethought. I just wrote them because I loved geology and had a vague idea that my notions about earth science might be worth writing about. When I finished, I didn't know what I had. The poems didn't resemble anything I'd ever read, so I stuffed them in a file and left them for two years. I finally hauled them out, read them to my writers group, and it was their enthusiastic reception that finally lit the fire under me.

A collection of whimsical volcano poems, to be published next year by Henry Holt, began with several trips to the Big Island of Hawaii. I had no specific project in mind, just knew that my passion for the place would inspire a writing project someday. Several years and an untold numbers of drafts later, I arrived at the version that worked for both me and the patient editors at Holt.

I should add that I always ask myself at the end of a first draft: is this something that only I could have written? If I can't answer yes to that question, then there's probably something wrong.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Lisa: I love to try to show children a new way of looking at the world, particularly the natural world. If I can do that with a bit of humor, so much the better.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Lisa: No. I have things I love about each project, but picking a favorite is an odd notion for me. It's something that people want to know, but I find hard to answer.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Lisa: I'm working on several projects. They're in various stages of completion or disarray. One is a collection of haiku, another is a set of poems written in tanka, an ancient Japanese form, and another project is what I'm calling my dog-based physics poems. I'm also working on several picture book manuscripts.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Lisa: Barbara Esbensen

Your favorite place to write?
Lisa: At home. My husband and I recently moved to a condo near the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. It has big windows that let in lots of light. I love to stare out the windows, watch the weather roll in from the west, sip tea, and sit in my comfy chair and write.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Lisa: Guindon, the cartoonist, said: Writing is nature's way of letting you know how sloppy your thinking is.

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Lisa: Someone who will inspire children and adults to read good children's poetry and to reflect on the ideas the poems explore.

As someone with a longtime love of earth science, this collection of poems has a special place in my heart. It is also one of the only poetry books on my shelf that can be used to teach about rocks, fossils, geysers, continental drift, and more. Here are a few of my favorite poems.
River Meets Crack in the Earth
A river crosses the San Andreas fault.
It turns right, then continues on,
a little shaken up.

Obituary for a Clam
Clam. Marine.
Age, 10 years.

Died 300 million years ago
in underwater landslide.
Native of the Tethys Sea.
Loving mother of 198 clams.
Lived a good life
in the shallow water
off the coast of Pangaea.
Survived by
daughter clams,
son clams,
uncle clams,
aunt clams,
clam, clams, clams . . .
She is missed dearly,
but is fossilized
in the limestone
of a back yard path
in Memphis, Tennessee.

Instructions for the Earth's Dishwasher
Please set the
continental plates
gently on the
continental shelves.
No jostling or scraping.

Please stack the
basin right side up.
No tilting or turning

Please scrape the mud
out of the mud pots.
But watch out!
They're still hot.

As for the forks
in the river,
just let them soak.

if anything breaks,
it's your fault.
There is another book of Lisa's I must mention here. October Smiled Back is a poem picture book that imagines each month of the year as a friend. Here's an excerpt.
Shy November looked out with your eyes puddle-gray.
I peeked in and whispered, "Come on . . .

. . . want to play?"

So December and I made a woolly white bear
Who could wink with one eye and had icicle hair.

But when January froze all her fingers and toes
We played jungle inside in our tropical clothes.
When October smiled back, I knew I would spend
Half the night throwing stars with a friend . . .

. . . an old friend.
If you'd like to learn more about Lisa and her work, check out the sites below.
A mountain of thanks to Lisa for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Lisa Westberg Peters. All rights reserved.


  1. These are so very sweet! I imagine a child seeing the earth as a friend, the months and season as friends, and feeling safer and loved and better able to urgently wish to protect that earth. Really nice.

  2. Yay! I love reading about two of my poetry buddies--both in one day!

  3. Earthshake would be such a great resource for Earth Movements science units. Wish I had known about it when I used to do that unit with third graders!

  4. Lisa's Earthshake is one of my favorite pb poetry collections. I can't wait to see her volcano poems.

    And how funny that we both chose Barbara Juster Esbensen as our favorite dead poet!