Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Poetry Makers - Ralph Fletcher

In Paul Janeczko's book Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for New Poets, Ralph Fletcher wrote:
When I write poems I try to get at the mystery of my subject. When I use that —mystery—I mean the truth about the subject that isn't obvious, that's under the surface. I try to dig down to the rich layer of mystery.
If you've read Fletcher's poetry you'll know that he's accomplished this mission. But in addition to truth, Fletcher's poems are filled with strong, tangible emotion.

Before I talk more about Ralph's poetry, let's learn a bit more about him.
How did you get started writing poetry?
Ralph: I have always loved the music of words, their flow, their surprises, the multiple meanings… In my book POETRY MATTERS (HarperCollins) I talk about how my brother’s death (he was 17) stirred up a hornet’s nest of emotions in me. I needed a container to hold those feelings, and poetry gave it to me. I read a lot of poems around then and started writing them, too.

Who/what made you want to write?
Ralph: There was no one person who lit the fire, though I did have some fine English teachers in high school who encouraged me.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Ralph: I can’t precisely say, though I loved reading the old nursery rhymes to my kids when they were little. And the poetic language in books by Jane Yolen (Owl Moon), Myra Cohn Livingston (There Was a Place), Richard Margolis (Secrets of a Small Brother), and Cynthia Rylant (all her books) had a profound affect on me. Those books made me realize that writing poems for kids could be important, challenging, yet satisfying work.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
I earned a Masters of Fine Arts in writing at Columbia University in New York. My main focus was fiction, but I took lots of poetry classes, too. I was lucky enough to study with poets C.K. Williams and Richard Howard, among others.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Usually I jot down an idea in my writer’s notebook. It might be a thought, an insight, an image, or a fresh way of looking at things. Writing a novel is like running a marathon but writing a poem is like a sprint. I write my poems quickly, and they encompass one mood. But I often go back and tinker with the poems. As I do so I read the poem out loud to make sure each line sounds how I want it to sound.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
I want to write about what intrigues or moves me, what I care about: love, loss, loneliness, jealousy, moving, family. “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader,” isn’t that what Robert Frost said?

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Ralph: I’m fond of this poem, “Owl Pellets,” from my book I AM WINGS: Poems About Love. (Out of print)
Owl Pellets

A month ago
in biology lab
you sat close to me
knee touching mine
your sweet smell
almost drowning out
the formaldehyde stink
which crinkled up
your nose
while I dissected
our fetal pig.

Now I take apart
this owl pellet
small bag that holds
skin and hair and bones
little skeletons
what the owl ate
but couldn’t digest
and coughed back up.

You sit with Jon Fox
ignore me completely
laugh at his dumb jokes
let your head fall onto
his bony shoulder
while I attempt
to piece together
with trembling hands
the tiny bones
of a baby snake.

Certain things
are just about
to swallow.
Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Ralph: I have just written a new collection of original poems—If Summer Was a Song—which is being read by an editor right now. Also, I have a collection, “Bedtime Poems,” published next year by Henry Holt.

Pop Quiz!

Your favorite dead poet?
Ralph: Whitman, Ginsberg, Yeats. It’s hard to name just one.

Your favorite place to write?
When I’m home I love my office, which looks out onto woods. When I travel I like coffee houses with tall windows, lots of light. I like to be around people and hear the hub-bub of noise and chatter, but I can’t write around people I know and who know me. I need to be anonymous.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Ralph: The secret wish of poetry is to stop time. - Charles Simic

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Ralph: J. Patrick Lewis. What an astonishing, multi-faceted writer!

Ralph is also one of the former teachers turned poet in this series. He taught in New York City classrooms as part of the Teachers College Writing Project (now the Reading and Writing Project) where he helped teachers develop better ways of teaching writing. Since that time Ralph has written novels, picture books, poetry and nonfiction. He has also written series of instructional writing books for young people. Included in this series are the titles Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem From the Inside Out, A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You, Live Writing: Breathing Life Into Your Words, How Writers Work: Finding a Process That Works and How to Write Your Life Story.

As much as I love these highly readable, thoughtfully prepared books, it's Ralph's poetry that gets me. In Moving Day, Ralph gives readers a series of free verse poems in which 12-year-old Fletch describes his family's move from Massachusetts to Ohio. Here's one of my favorites from this collection.
Defrosting the Freezer

One container of spaghetti sauce
Grandma made before she died.

Two pieces of old wedding cake
you couldn't pay me to eat.

Three snowballs from last winter
slightly deformed, no longer fluffy.

Four small flounder from the time
Grandpa took me deep-sea fishing.

Everything coated with a thick
white layer of sadness.
In Relatively Speaking: Poems About Family, Ralph has written many of the things most of us probably wish we could say about our relatives (at least that's how I read them). The themes here are universal, even if your particular family structure is different. Here's one that makes me think of my brother. I still snicker every time I read it.
My Brother's Girlfriend

She's amazingly cute but
what could she possibly see
in a kid like my brother?

They stop over the house
on the coldest winter day,
two hickeys on her neck.

Mosquitoes are awful bad
this time of year, I tell her
and she makes a face at me.
My favorite poetry book of Ralph's is called Ordinary Things: Poems From a Walk in Early Spring. Last year as part of my April celebration of poetry I reviewed it. You can learn more about this book and read an excerpt at Poetry in the Classroom - Ordinary Things.

You can learn more about Ralph at these sites.
Let's have a rousing cheer of thanks for Ralph for participating in the Poetry Makers series. Thanks, Ralph!

All poems ©Ralph Fletcher. All rights reserved.


  1. That Owl Pellet one is a stunner.

  2. I love what Ralph has to say about mystery - he's absolutely right.
    Under the surface, that's where poetry lives. Great interview! And I'm going to start looking for a copy of ORDINARY THINGS.

  3. I love Ralph Fletcher's poety (and his writing books). A Writing Kind of Day is one of my favorites, and also Buried Alive. He captures teen love wonderfully! And lots of other topics, too, of course.

    Love that Owl Pellet poem. Great ending!

  4. Ralph is one of my all-time favorite poets (and writers). ORDINARY THINGS- POEMS FROM A WALK IN EARLY SPRING is my favorite, favorite, favorite books of spring poems. Thanks for including him in POETRY MAKERS today.

  5. Until these poems, I hadn't read any Ralph Fletcher, and I am floored and grateful to have read his Owl Pellet poem -- I'll have to find a copy SOMEWHERE of that book. He has a gift for the inner mind of a person struggling. Lovely.

  6. "I needed a container to hold those feelings, and poetry gave it to me." What a great quote.

    I agree with Adam - that Owl Pellet poem is a stunner.

  7. I got to meet Ralph Fletcher right after he published his first book of poetry, Water Poems. My favorite poem from that book is "How to Make a Snow Angel." I believe that poems appears in some of his other books too.

  8. Love the Charles Simic quote...

  9. "Owl Pellets" rocks!!!

    And... “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” OH MY.