Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Poetry Makers - Alice Schertle

Today the amazingly talented Alice Schertle is celebrating a birthday. This then, is the perfect day to celebrate her work. First published in 1977, Alice has authored more than 40 picture (including book length poems) and poetry books. Her first poetry collection, How Now, Brown Cow?, was published in 1994. This year Alice was honored as the 2010 recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. for her book Button Up!: Wrinkled Rhymes.

I'd like to start by sharing some of Alice's thoughts about writing poetry. Here's what she had to say in her letter of advice in Paul Janeczko's book Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for New Poets.
I used to think that poems could be found only in "big" subjects like beauty, wonder, birth, death, love. Now I like to find the poems that lurk in unexpected places--on a slice of pepperoni pizza, perhaps, or floating down the gutter after a rain. I once found a pretty good poem in the ear of my cat. Oddly enough, I sometimes find the big subjects lurking somewhere within the little unexpected poems.
Before we explore more of Alice's poetry, let's learn a bit more about her.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Alice: One of my earliest memories is of following my mom around the house while she’d entertain me by reciting nursery rhymes. I soon knew them too, of course—rhyme and rhythm take a child by the hand and just swing her along—and sometimes my mom would say the first part and I’d chime in with the rhyming line. At bedtime she’d recite Rossetti’s Who Has Seen the Wind, which seemed entirely mysterious to me; downright spooky, in a very satisfying way. Another favorite was The Cow, Stevenson’s friendly bovine who “gives me cream with all her might.” I still relish that line. So I was hooked at a very early age.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Alice: Kids are the best audience in the world. A funny poem will have them almost rolling on the floor. Read them a poem that touches them with beauty or mystery or its own startling vision and they’ll look at you with eyes full of wonder. Who wouldn’t want to write for an audience like that?

Who/what made you want to write?
Alice: Originally, it was L. Frank Baum. My dad read the Wizard of Oz to me before I could read myself. I did that young-child-thing of losing myself so completely in the words I was hearing that I was Dorothy on the yellow brick road to the Emerald City. Even the movie, which terrified and thrilled me about equally, couldn’t measure up to the experience of listening to the story as my dad turned the pages. Maybe that’s because the book put me in charge of conjuring up many of the images myself, the mental pictures that were mine alone. A poem calls upon a reader to do that, too.

At any rate, I wanted to learn to read. My plan was to write a book as wonderful as The Wizard of Oz and poems like the ones my mother read and recited. I entered kindergarten on a motivational high.

Nothing I’ve ever written is remotely like the story of Dorothy on the road to Oz. But becoming a kid who coveted books is what put me on the road to being someone who writes them. Ask most writers why they do what they do and they’ll mention the books they’ve loved.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Alice: I actually remember the first poem I ever wrote. (Wrote as opposed to making up a little hum like Pooh, which I think I did much earlier.) Here are the first two lines of that third grade written effort:
    The seagull flies high, the seagull flies low
    Over the treetops the seagull will go…
Sister Elizabeth Ann liked the rhymes; she said I had a knack. That’s all I needed to hear--I was off and running. Or rhyming. When she read us Whittier:
    Blessings on thee, little man,
    Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan
and told us to notice that the poet was talking to the subject of the poem, I revised my opus:
    The seagull flies high, the seagull flies low,
    Go seagull, go seagull, go seagull, go.
I don’t remember if that was received as an improvement, but I can still feel the light dawning as I tinkered with the lines: I could enter a poem from different directions, use different voices. This poetry business was going to be fun.

That was elementary school. I had almost no formal experience of poetry in later school years, with the exception of assignments to memorize things like The Highwayman and Lochinvar. Very romantic stuff; I still have them by heart (nice expression) and love the swash and buckle. In college I read a fair amount of poetry by choice but, again, had no formal training in it.

Years later, after having published about twenty picture books, I took Myra Cohn Livingston’s UCLA class in writing poetry for children. I actually went into that class unable to decode iambic pentameter or to say how many syllables were in a traditional haiku. Myra fixed that, and threw in a lot of support and inspiration, too.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Alice: I usually start out longhand, scribbling lines on a legal pad. I cross out and circle things and draw arrows to direct a line or stanza to another place in the poem. Sometimes I make notes to myself: clear enough?; way too long; ho hum. All the while I’m trying to decide on an ending—if I don’t start with one. It’s not unusual for me to have a notion of how I’ll end a poem and then write something that will get me there. I think endings are terribly important and a crackerjack conclusion is a real gift. Doesn’t always happen, but it’s always worth looking for.

I used to do the whole thing, including finishing and polishing, in longhand, and then type up the completed poem. Now I get it into my word processor at an earlier stage. It’s just too tempting to put it where I can manipulate it so easily, moving lines around, cutting and pasting and—deleting. Oh, oh. I try to stay away from hasty deletions, but sometimes I do zap a line or phrase when I feel certain I’ve got something better, and occasionally I wish I could remember what the original was. One thing about the legal pad is that I can still see all the crossed out stuff.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Alice: I think it would be truer to say I have favorite poems from among those I’ve written rather than favorite books or collections. Sometimes my favorites change, too, but here are some that I like: Bob’s Bicycle Helmet and Jennifer’s Shoes from Button Up!; Who Found the Moon from Lee Bennett Hopkins’ Sky Magic; Mostly from Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear; Taradiddle from How Now, Brown Cow; A Lucky Thing from the collection of the same name; Iguana from Advice for a Frog; Walk Softly from Keepers, The Cat’s Version from I Am the Cat. Making that list reminds me of why I dislike picking faves: I’ve just thought of some others and I want to start over.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Alice: I‘ve been writing a lot of poems about words and language lately. I don’t know if I’ll develop it into a collection, but I’m having fun with it. I have a picture book text going, too and am tinkering with a character whose story wants to be told in rhyme, like Little Blue Truck. Beyond that, I’ll probably not say much. I’m a bit spooky about talking very specifically about projects in the chrysalis stage, as if I’ll put the spoke-too-soon curse on them and they’ll hatch into botflies instead of butterflies.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Alice: Only one? Impossible. I watched the Academy Awards recently, where people clutch the microphone and try desperately to thank everyone who’s ever instructed or inspired them before the music cuts them off. So here goes with a few formerly alive poets.
Thank you to:
  • Dylan Thomas for Fern Hill
  • Gerard Manly Hopkins for Pied Beauty
  • A.A. Milne for James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley for Ozymandias
  • T.S. Eliot for The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
  • Edward Lear for The Owl and the Pussycat
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay for Wild Swans
  • e. e. cummings for anyone lived in a pretty how town
Okay, I hear the music, I’ll stop…but there are so many more.

Your favorite place to write?
Alice: Most any place as long as there are walls and a roof. I’d love to be able to go outdoors and spend the afternoon under a tree, writing poems. There are, in fact, woods right outside my office window with lots of lovely spots to settle down with pencil and notebook at the ready. But I find the outdoors immensely distracting. I’d spend the entire time watching ants climb up a stem or birds flit through the branches or staring at a weird fungus or a vein of quartz…the notebook would remain untouched, the pencil used only to poke a mushroom. Of course a mushroom poem might happen later, but I’d be sitting at my desk to write it.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Alice: The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.
—Mark Twain

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Alice: Not telling.

I have a special place in my heart for How Now, Brown Cow?, having grown up with a dairy farm just a stone's throw away from home. I've always been enamored of cows, and Alice does such an amazing job capturing the world from a cow's point of view. Here are two of my favorite poems from the book.
A Cow Looks Down the Highway

Poor silly things
        they never see
a thistle
        or a bumblebee;
closed up inside
        their shiny shells
they cannot know
        how clover smells.
I wonder why
        they hurry so.
Why do they think
        the have to go
so fast--as if
        the grass won't last
until tomorrow?



She landed hard,
they say,
and afterward was slightly lame.
For several days
the curious came to stare,
and many hoped
that she would dare
to try the trick again.
They went away dissatisfied.
She never tried
to jump again,
but gazed for hours at the moon.
They never found the dish and spoon.
Amazing, aren't they? Alice writes animals with an uncanny sense of what they might see and know. Here's an excerpt from the poem I Am the Cat. I can hear the cat speaking to me. Can you?
I Am the Cat

I am the cat in the easy chair--
                velvet arm, and a cushion where
I scratch my claws and groom my hair--
                Mine, alone, is the easy chair.

I am the cat in a puddle of sun--
                isn't a sun puddle wonderful fun?
Doesn't the light make my dark coat shine?
                Isn't it right that the sun is mine?
Here's one more animal poem, this one from A Lucky Thing.
Invitation From A Mole

come on down

live among worms awhile
taste dirt
                on the tip of your tongue

                the sweet damp feet of mushrooms
listen to roots

press your cheek against
the cold face of a stone

wear the earth like a glove
close       your       eyes
wrap yourself in darkness


what you're missing
Alice has written a number of book length poems, or I suppose you could call them picture books in verse. I had the great pleasure of hearing Alice read them last fall, and fell in love with both Little Blue Truck and The Skeleton in the Closet. Here are the first few stanzas from each of these books.
Little Blue Truck

Horn went "Beep!"
Engine purred.
Friendliest sounds
you ever heard.

Little Blue Truck
came down the road.
"Beep!" said Blue
to a big green toad.

Toad said, "Croak!"
and winked an eye
when Little Blue Truck
went rolling by.

The Skeleton in the Closet

Late one night I was sound asleep,
snoring like a motorcycle, cuddled down deep
in my crocodile comforter, snug as a clam,
when I thought I heard a knocking--

Someone at the door! I sat up straight.
Who would come a-knocking on my door so late?
In my spaceman jams I crept downstairs
and tiptoed to the window in my bedroom slipper bears.

I moved the curtain and peeked through the crack--
Two empty eyeholes stared right back!
If you haven't been reading Alice Schertle, get thee to the library or bookstore and check out her work. To learn more about Alice, visit these links.
Let's sing a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday and give several hearty cheers for Alice. Thank you so much for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Alice Schertle. All rights reserved.


  1. Happy Birthday, Alice! I couldn't hold onto her poem until today, which should tell you something about my fandom. Thanks to both of you for another great Poetry Makers profile!

  2. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Ms. Alice!

    Oh, how much do I adore the word 'taradiddle!' And the poem!

    I should love to take the invitation of the cow along the highway, and the mole deep underground to slow, slow, slow,

    ...slow down.

    These are wonderful.

  3. Happy Birthday, Alice!

    Thanks for another great poet interview, Tricia.

    I especially liked the mole poem.

  4. Alice Schertle is one of my favorite poets, so I'm not surprised to find that her voice is as warm and poetic "in person," talking, as in her poems.

    I'm especially fond of "Bristlecone" from Keepers.

    Thanks, Tricia, and Happy Birthday, Alice!

  5. Oh Alice, dear, happy birthday. May your day be full of cows and toads and swans and gulls and maybe a bit of flying butter called a goldfinch which might just find a perch on one of your feeders, if the bears don't get there first.


  6. Happy birthday Alice! What a terrific interview. And I see some of my favorite poets and poems on that list of dead poets - so hard to pick just one!

    Love "I am the cat" in particular, for the sun puddle fun.

  7. Alice,

    Here you are giving us the present of your wonderful poetry on your birthday!


    I love so many of Alice's poems. One of my absolute favorites is her point-of-view-poem A FROG IN A WELL EXPLAINS THE WORLD.

    Happy Birthday, Alice--and Happy Poetry Month to All!!!

  8. Happy Birthday Alice! I was tickled to notice hints of your afternoon under the trees Not Writing Poetry that showed up in the imagery in the mole poem. Just goes to show you it's all work, it's all play...

  9. Wonderful! And I love that story about her mother. Thanks so much for this, Alice and Tricia!

  10. Thanks Tricia, what a lovely birthday gift to be here on Miss Rumphius. And thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes and wonderful comments. What a day!
    Cheers to all--

  11. Just discovered this post. Alice Schertle has such a lovely way of expressing things. Reading this gave me a thrill of delight

  12. Hello, Alice! You're a tricky person to find online! (Aren't you lucky?!) I just wanted to thank you for Little Blue Truck. It's the first kids' book my husband and I memorized, thanks to our 10-month-old's obsession. We've been happy to read it over and over again.

    I'm glad I stumbled onto this site to find you. Your work is altogether marvelous! Thank you.