Thursday, April 29, 2010

Poetry Makers - Bruce Lansky

In the last few days we've looked at a number of poets well-known for writing poetry about kids and schools. Today's poet is no different. In fact, he's known as "The King of Giggle Poetry" to his fans. Bruce Lansky has edited eight poetry anthologies and written some of his own books of poetry. In addition, he's not only written numerous other books, but he started his own publishing company, Meadowbrook Press! Operating since 1975, Meadowbrook Press specializes in child- and family-centered books, among them a wide assortment of poetry for children.

Bruce selects the poems for his anthologies with the help of schoolchildren and their teachers. If a poem isn't funny enough to elicit oodles of laughter, it's not selected. One the Giggle Poetry web site, Bruce shares a wide range of poems and songs on everything from homework to bedtime. Here's an excerpt from one of my favorites.
I've Been Sitting in Detention
(Sing to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”)

I’ve been sitting in detention
since the end of school.
I’ve been sitting in detention
just because I broke a rule.

Throwing meatballs in the lunchroom
wasn’t wise, I fear.
I was aiming at the trash can,
not my teacher’s rear.

Read the song in its entirety.
Before we read more of Bruce's poetry, let's learn a bit about him.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Bruce: I’ll never forget the day I discovered the power of children’s poetry to get kids to read. I was reading a poem from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends to my kids, Doug (8)—who didn’t like reading and Dana (5) who didn’t know how to read. The poem I was reading was “For Sale” it was about a child who wanted to auction off his “spying and prying young sister” for any amount of money—even a penny. Doug grabbed the book and said “I want to read that poem.” He proceeded to read it in a taunting voice to his sister, Dana. Then Dana said, “Now, I want to
read the poem.” She recited the first two lines, substituting “older brother” for “younger sister.” That’s when I realized how powerful poetry could be; if you can find the kind of poems that are so compelling, kids have to read them.

That experience caused me to search for poems with that kind of “compelling” quality and to start writing poems. At first my writing wasn’t very good. I tested my poems against the best poems I could find—and consistently lost—until I started to develop a knack for finding (and tickling) kids’ funny bones.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Bruce: Not only did I develop a knack for finding and tickling kids’ funny bones—I also learned how to present poems to kids in entertaining, motivating ways. When kids read one of my books and enjoy it, I enjoy hearing how much pleasure my poetry gives them. But when I visit schools and bookstores to present my poetry to kids face-to-face, it’s even more fun, because I can feel their enjoyment (particularly their laughter) and it’s exciting. Receiving laughter and applause from an audience has become a tremendous source of pleasure for me. I know, first hand, that many poets have no idea how to perform their own poetry. Happily, I don’t fall into that category.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Bruce: I had minored in English Lit. in college, but the truth is that I didn’t enjoy reading most of the poetry I read in college (though I loved Homer and I also enjoyed reading Dylan Thomas. Unfortunately, most of the poetry I read in college came across to me as “work” rather than pleasure. I also took several poetry writing workshops after college. I enjoyed, for example, writing pastiches of famous poets like Emily Dickinson. Once I began writing poetry for children, I found myself using themes and/or rhythm/rhyme patterns of poets like Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky as starting points for my own poems. After a while, I developed a style and voice of my own.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Bruce: I often start with an idea—which often is the “crux” or punchline of a poem. Then, I try to build the poem (backwards) from it. For example, I realized that the word “pooper-scooper” would get laughs if only I could figure out how to craft a poem around it. What resulted turned into “Pigs In Space”--the title poem for If Pigs Could Fly.

Sometimes I start with a name—like the name of the town in which a school I’m visiting is located. I often write poems in my head about the town as I drive there. I remember making up a story poem about a town that was named after a “falls” or “rapids’ that no longer existed. (I found that to be a funny idea.) I also wrote a number of poems when I visited Kankakee, IL. I found lots of faux words that I rhymed with the town name, including “thankakee” and “spankakee.”

I often write poems or songs while singing a familiar tune—to help me nail down a consistent rhythm and rhyme pattern. Sometimes I start from the title of the original tune, and “fracture it.” For example, I turned “This Land is Your Land” into “This Hand is My Hand”—about a kid who didn’t want anyone to touch him/her. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the fourth stanza started, “These lips are my lips/ they are not your lips/ I’ll never kiss you/ because your nose drips.”

I should probably mention that songs are essentially poems set to music. (However, songs may also have a chorus or refrain or bridge of some kind—so when I turned a poem called "Forgetful"(about a girl who fell into the toilet when her brother forgot to put the seat down) into a song, I added a chorus, “Bring back my sister to me.” (You probably figured out that the tune I sang when I wrote the poem and the song was “My Bonnie.”)

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Bruce: I have two favorite poetry books (My Dog Ate My Homework and If Pigs Could Fly and two favorite song books: Oh My Darling, Porcupine, and I’ve Been Burping in the Classroom).

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Bruce: I’m working on a combination book and CD that will present some of the poems
that are the most fun to read aloud—because it’s possible to add add rhythm and sound effects to make them fun both to read and hear.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Bruce: Shel Silverstein and Jeffrey Moss.

Your favorite place to write?
Bruce: In the car when I’m driving.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Bruce: I’m never finished writing a poem until it makes my audiences laugh almost every time I recite it.

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Bruce: If it can’t be me, Kenn Nesbitt.

As you know, I'm quite fond of poems about teachers and schools, and Bruce has LOADS of poems about them. Here are excerpts from two that I am particularly fond of.
My Teacher Sees Right Through Me

I didn’t do my homework.
My teacher asked me, “Why?”
I answered him, “It’s much too hard.”
He said, “You didn’t try.”

I told him, “My dog ate it.”
He said, “You have no dog.”
I said, “I went out running.”
He said, “You never jog.”

Read the poem in its entirety.


What I Found in My Desk

A ripe peach with an ugly bruise,
a pair of stinky tennis shoes,
a day-old ham-and-cheese on rye,
a swimsuit that I left to dry,

Read the poem in its entirety.
Bruce has done such an amazing job with his web site that you simply MUST take the time to visit. In addition to the poems (16 categories and hundreds of entries) you'll find directions for kids on writing poetry, ideas for poetry theater, interviews with poets, (including Eileen Spinelli, Charles Ghigna, Kenn Nesbitt, and others), resources just for teachers, and so much more!

If you haven't read Bruce's work or checked out his anthologies, now's the time! To learn more about Bruce, check out these sites.
Thanks bunches to Bruce for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © Bruce Lansky. All rights reserved.


  1. Bruce Lansky and Kalli Dakos are indispensable in a classroom poetry collection! Thanks for spotlighting them!

  2. Love this type of poetry! It's so fun to use in the classroom, because kids can often relate. I love the "What I Found in My Desk" poem -- I wouldn't be surprised to find any of those things in some of my students' desks!

  3. What I Found in my Desk makes me shudder, people. SHUDDER. It's a bit on the realistic side for some of my former students!

    I love the idea of dueling siblings -- Bruce Lansky had the original poetry smackdown going on with Where the Sidewalk Ends. I think it's great to have so much kids' poetry set to music they already know -- they'll never forget these.