Sunday, April 12, 2009

Poetry Makers - Marilyn Singer

I discovered Marilyn Singer in the late 80s when I was teaching science. My fifth grade students were studying adaptations and I wanted to share some animal poems with them. While browsing in a local bookstore I came across the book Turtle in July. This collection of nature poems includes poems that pair animals with the months of the year as well as four seasonal poems focused on the bullhead (a type of catfish). My worn, dog-eared copy died long ago, so I was thrilled when the very generous Elaine Magliaro at Wild Rose Reader sent me a few books she had multiple copies of and in the mix was a copy of this book.

Before I talk more about this book and a few other poetry titles of Marilyn's, let's learn a bit more about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Marilyn: My parents read to me a lot, and among my favorite books were Little Golden collections of poetry. In addition, they sang me to sleep with the popular songs of the day, the lyrics of which were written by greats such as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Yip Harburg, etc. The wit and style of those songs influenced me a lot. So, poetry/lyrics attracted me when I was very young. I started writing my own poems in first grade. Writing GOOD poems came somewhat later. ;-)

Who/what made you want to write?
Marilyn: I’d say that those good poets and lyricists made me want to write and that my teachers and parents were encouraging. When I actually began writing poetry for children, my husband and editors were extremely supportive.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Marilyn: My first books for children were picture books and novels, and most of the former weren’t even in rhyme. My first full poetry book was TURTLE IN JULY. It started as a prose story, which didn’t work, and that’s when it hit me—I could write in my favorite genre for KIDS. That was an amazing revelation! And it’s changed my reading, as well as my writing. I’d had some of my adult poems published in college journals and small press magazines, and I’d read a fair amount of poetry by well-known poets. Now Barbara Genco and I co-host the ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children) Poetry Blast at the ALA (American Library Association) conference every year, where poets read their work aloud. To prepare for that, I get to read a lot of poetry for children and young adults, which is a great treat.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Marilyn: I majored in English in college, but took mostly literature classes. In the one creative writing class I took, my teacher said that my poetry was good, but the rest of my work wasn’t. Later for him! Other than that, I’ve had no formal training. However, I have gotten good teaching from friends and editors. Their comments have really helped me write better.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Marilyn: My poems are generally sparked by questions that I want to answer, by images that surprise me, by the need to play with language, and by characters whose voices I hear in my head (not literally!). My collections are largely thematic, but I don’t usually feel that there IS a collection until I’ve written a minimum of five poems on that theme and firmly believe that I can write a lot more.

I tend to write on legal pads or scraps of paper and revise until I’m satisfied, and I can write anywhere (and I do mean anywhere). When I’m on a roll, I will write several poems each day, spending much of the time staring into space and playing with language—or, as my husband puts it, “poetizing.” It’s a pleasant state to be in, but most particularly when I’m sitting outdoors in the country on warm days with few distractions.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Marilyn: Writing poetry allows me to answer questions, to play with words and images, and to surprise, amuse, and even—at the risk of sounding immodest—move myself, all things I find enjoyable. Poetry is largely meant to be read aloud, so it’s easy to share, and, if you love literature, I believe you enjoy sharing it. I know that I do.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Marilyn: TURTLE IN JULY, poems in the voices of animals, is probably my favorite of my books so far. I’m sad to say that it’s o.p. Fortunately, the “companion” to it, FIREFLIES AT MIDNIGHT (S&S) is still in print. I have a forthcoming book from Dutton, still title-less, which features a form that I invented called the “reverso.” You read the piece down, and it’s one poem. Read it up, and it’s another. All the reversos in my book involve fairy tales. It may become my new favorite. We’ll see.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Marilyn: Besides the reversos, I have a number of other poetry books coming out, including one about dog holidays (Dutton), another about games and play (Clarion), and THE BOY WHO CRIED ALIEN (Disney-Hyperion)—a “silent movie” in the form of poems. For that one I made up an alien language and wrote poems in that. Then I translated the poems into both literal English and poetic English. Disney-Hyperion is also publishing my two wacky works, MONSTER MUSEUM and CREATURE CARNIVAL, in paperback soon.

My most recent published poetry books are SHOE BOP! (Dutton), poems about shoes, and FIRST FOOD FIGHT THIS FALL (Sterling), poems about school in the voices of kids from one class.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Marilyn: Shakespeare is my favorite author, and he was a grand poet. I also love Dylan Thomas.

Your favorite place to write?
Marilyn: I write poetry in a lot of places because it’s portable. I’ve written it in coffee shops, in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, at the Bronx Zoo, on the subway, on airplanes, by my pond in CT, in my apartment in Brooklyn—everywhere. Writing on the subway is fun because it makes the ride go a lot faster!

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Marilyn: I’ve always loved Coleridge’s quote: “Prose: words in the best order; Poetry: the best words in the best order.” I totally agree with it.

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Marilyn: I’m not gonna go there. I have too many good friends who also happen to be good poets.

One of the things about Turtle in July that works so well is the pairing of the animals with the months. For example, October is the Canada goose, January the white-tailed deer, and March the brown bear. My favorite poem is the book is for the month of September.
Timber Rattlesnake

Summer it still is
September stones
Warm bones
Warm blood
Strike I still can
Snare and swallow the harvesting mouse
                            the shuffling rat
But slant they do the sun's rays
Shorter grow the days
Soon September stones
Chill bones
Chill blood
Stiff shall I grow
And so below I'll slide
Beneath stones
Beneath soil
Coil I still can
Sleep safe
Sleep sound
Snake underground
Marilyn followed up this effort with the book Fireflies at Midnight. Instead of describing animals throughout the year, this one is focused on a single day at different hours. Can you guess which animal is an early riser?

Up cheerup I'm up
Let me be the first to greet the light
First cheerily first
Hello day, good-bye night

Up cheerup I'm up
In this tree soon chicks will hatch
Soon cheerily soon
Down below are worms to catch

Up cheerup I'm up
Hail chicks and worms and sky!
Hail cheerily hail
Morning robins are not shy
The great thing about these books is that Marilyn has conceived of and written the animal voices and thoughts in such convincing ways. She talks about this in Paul Janeczko's book Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for New Poets.
Why do I have animals and people speak poetry, when we know that in real life they don't? For me, poetry is they're saying inside—their true thoughts and feelings. And it's not just what they'd say, but how they might say it. You know that some folks are more down-to-earth and have a plainer way of talking while others use fancier language. I think, if they could talk, some animals would speak in many different ways, as well. A turtle, for example, might talk slowly and use few words. A dog, on the other hand, would probably blabber excitedly. He'd also use slang. At least, that's how I imagine these animals would sound. In my poetry, I get to know these people and animals—and I hope you do too.
As you may have noticed, I am quite fond of animal poems, but Marilyn has written about many diverse topics including water, fire, nature, shoes, the Mississippi River, and more. One book about beasts of legend and fable, Creature Carnival, was named an honor book for the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. Another book (released in September of 2008), First Food Fight This Fall: And Other School Poems follows a group of children as they learn and grow over the course of a school year. These poems are written in the children's voices and fairly sing about the highs and lows of school. Here's what Laksmi has to say about poetry at the beginning of the year.
What I Think of Poetry
by Laksmi

Poetry makes me
sleepy: lullaby words in
a warm, quiet room
Here's what she and Kwan thought a bit later in the year.
When Ms. Mundy Read Us A Poem
by Laksmi & Kwan

I fell asleep as
usual. Only this time
I dreamed of flowers.

On the
grayest fall day,
all the maples outside
were bare, but in our room cherry
trees bloomed.
In addition to a growing body of work in poetry, Marilyn also has written a number of nonfiction books, many of which I use in my teaching. If you haven't taken the time to check out her work, you don't know what you're missing. So, what are you waiting for?

To learn more about Marilyn and her work, visit these sites.
Beaucoup thanks to Marilyn for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

**P.S. - If you are heading to ALA Conference this summer, don't miss the Poetry Blast that Marilyn Singer and Barbara Genco will be hosting. The ALSC Poetry Blast 6 will take place on July 13, 5:30-7:30 p.m. (location TBA in May). The line-up of poets is: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, David Harrison, Bobbi Katz, Laura Purdie Salas, Jon Scieszka, Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Singer, Hope Anita Smith, Susan Marie Swanson, Joyce Carol Thomas.

All poems ©Marilyn Singer. All rights reserved.


  1. Boy, the robin poem makes me chuckle, as I have one of those guys here, and boy, howdy, is he "cheerup, I'm up!" very, VERY early!

  2. Wow. I've read Turtle in July (and it was ages ago), but I see now I have GOT to get my mitts on permanent copies of more of Marilyn's work. I love FIRST FOOD FIGHT.

    I love reading about poets who work in such a huge range--silly, serious, gorgeous, wacky...Thanks for sharing this great interview.

    P.S. That Gollumy snake voice is slithertastic!

  3. I bet kids are going to love the reversos!
    Thanks, Tricia, for all these interviews.

  4. Marilyn Singer for president. Or at least never let her stop doing the poetry presentations at ALA and elsewhere.


  5. TURTLE IN JULY is one of my all-time favorite collections of children's poetry. (I own thousands of children's poetry books--so that's really saying something.) It's a book that should definitely be put back in print.

    I own nearly every poetry book Marilyn has published--including TURTLE IN JULY and FIREFLIES AT MIDNIGHT. Three of her other poetry books that I love are FOOTPRINTS ON THE ROOF, HOW TO CROSS A POND, and CENTRAL HEATING. They are wonderful thematic collections.

    I just wish I could attend that Poetry Blast!

  6. (Timer Rattlesnakes or TIMBER Rattlesnakes?)

    I'm way way behind in these Poetry Makers and LOVING them all! Kind of fun to read them in a chunk!

  7. OOPS! Thanks for catching that typo!