Sunday, April 25, 2010

Poetry Makers - Carmen Bernier-Grand

Several years ago while looking for some bilingual poetry for student teachers working in ESL classrooms with large numbers of Spanish-speaking students, I stumbled across the book Shake It, Morena!: And Other Folklore from Puerto Rico, compiled by Carmen Bernier-Grand and illustrated by Lulu Delacre. The book is filled with rhymes, riddles, songs, and stories. While the book was not exactly what I was looking for, I was so inspired by the author's note and what I found inside that it soon became a favorite. Here's an excerpt from the Author's Note.
Everybody has a culture, and we learn the most about that culture as a child. We don't have culture lessons. It's just that from the time we wake up in the morning until we go to bed at night, we experience bits and pieces of our culture—while we're eating, while at school, and especially while we're having fun. For what is culture if it isn't stories, games, holidays, food, music, crafts, traditions, religion, language?

. . . . .

It is my hope that educators can use this book to teach Spanish, math (Dos y Dos Son Cuatro), natural science (Puedo o No Puedo), social studies (Playground Passport), reading (The Legend of the Hummingbird), writing (Spelling Game), physical education (Shake It, Morena!).
And here is one of the songs from the book.

Waking Up Song

The parents sing:

Levántensen soldados
que las siete son,
y ahi viene el sargento
con su battalón.
Get up, you soldiers.
Seven o'clock is ringing,
And her come the sergeant,
Marching and singing.

The sleepy children answer:

Déjalos que vengan.
Déjalos venir.
Véte para la porra,
y déjanos dormir.
Let them all come.
Hear them at the door.
Just leave us alone.
Can't you hear us snore?

Children in Puerto Rico also wake up with the crow of roosters
and with the song of the reinitas, little birds with yellow chests.

Before we read more of Carmen's work, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Carmen: My Marshall Cavendish editor asked me to write a biography of César Chávez. She wanted the text to have rhythm. The story was dictated to me from above, probably by César himself. It came in poetry format.

I hadn’t called myself a poet until reviewers began to say that I wrote free verse.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Carmen: I grew up with a mother who was always reciting poems by Gustavo Adolfo Béquer and Rubén Darío: Margarita está linda la mar…”

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Carmen: The best award is to have readers.

Who/what made you want to write?
Carmen: Looking back, I was born a writer. But since my sister kept saying that I was a liar, I decided to study math instead. In a way, she made me restart my writing life. I had to prove to her that there is a big difference between being a liar and being a writer. Today she’s proud of my writing and I love her more for it.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Carmen: I read a lot of poetry.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Carmen: Because I am writing biographies is verse, I research as much as I can from home, write a rough draft with the subject’s life details, polish it, read it aloud for rhythm, show it to my editor, revise accordingly. Then I visit places where my subject has lived. Back home, I revise again, polish, read aloud, polish, and finally send it to my editor--and the process begins again.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Carmen: That’s a hard question to answer.

I care for César: ¡, Se Puede! Yes We Can (Illustrated by David Diaz) because César Chávez grabbed my heart with his goals.

I care for Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life! (Illustrated by Frida Kahlo) because Frida was a strong woman and artist.

I care for Diego: Bigger Than Life (Illustrated by David Diaz) because I wanted I adore Diego Rivera’s murals and I needed to understand why he behaved the way he did.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Carmen: Sonia Sotomayor: Supreme Court Judge illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez (Marshall Cavendish, fall 2010)

Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina Assoluta illustrated by Raúl Colón (Marshall Cavendish, 2011)

I am working on a biography of Pablo Picasso.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Carmen: Rubén Darًío and Federico García Lorca among many others.

Your favorite place to write?
Carmen: The Sterling Writer Room at the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Carmen: “Painting is poetry
and is always written in verse
with plastic rhymes, never in prose.” Pablo Picasso

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Carmen: Francisco X. Alarcón.

Carmen followed the publication of Shake It, Morena! with César: ¡, Se Puede! Yes We Can, a biography written in a series of 19 free verse poems. The back matter in this book is extensive and includes a section of notes, a glossary, a short synopsis of Chávez's life, a brief chronology, the author's sources, and a collection of Chávez's quotes. It is one of the most comprehensive and moving biographies of the man I have ever read. What is different about this work is that it does not shy away from the difficulties and injustices he faced in his life. Instead, his life story is told head on, shining a spotlight on the good and bad times. Here is one of my favorite poems from the book.

Crooked Lines

"God has written in exceedingly
crooked lines."

What made César follow
Father McDonnell
from camp to camp
and Mass to Mass?

What made Father McDonnell
give César the teachings and prayers
of Saint Francis of Assisi:
"Lord, make me an instrument
of your peace"?

Why did a book about Saint Francis
mention Mahatma Gandhi,
a man of peace who won many battles
against injustices in India?

Why did César talk
to Father McDonnell
about his passion for peaceful change
and the leadership hidden deep
inside him?

What made Father McDonnell
send Fred Ross, from the
Community Service Organization,
to see César?

God's crooked lines.
The next biography Carmen tackled was Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life!. In this book the poems are largely accompanied by the paintings of Frida Kahlo, though a few photographs of Frida are included. I knew nothing about Frida's personal life until I read this book. The 26 poems capture her strength in the face of adversity, her passion, and the poignant experiences that marked her life. Here is a poem describing an early event that shaped her life.

Hummingbird Wings

I am a wounded hummingbird
caged in my room for nine months
with polio, crippling polio.

Warm towels soaked in walnut water
ease the pain in my leg,
a thin, drying twig.

I hide in the walnut wardrobe,
put on a white sock,
another on top,
and another.
Is the right leg as fat as the other?

The cage opens.
Now I have wings.
As with César, the back matter in this book is also extensive and includes quotes from the letters and diary of Frida Kahlo, a short overview of Frida's life, a brief chronology, a glossary, the author's sources, and a section of notes.

After writing about Frida Kahlo, it makes a great deal of sense that Carmen's next work would be about Diego River. Diego: Bigger Than Life follows the form of the first two biographies and is another exceptionally well-researched volume about the artist. This one contains a whopping 34 poems. The emotion that resonates in these poems is a testament to how well Carmen writes. I'll have to admit that there was little I liked about the man after reading this, but the connection between his passionate, controversial life and art is unmistakable. Here's a poem that describes his art.
Brimming With Mexican Light

As naturally as I breathe,
I painted in grand scale the colors of Mexico—
clearer, richer, more full of light than colors in Europe.

As naturally as I speak,
I painted in grand scale the music of Mexico
in markets, crowds, festivals—
Burning of the Judases, the Dance of the Deer.

As naturally as I sweat,
I painted in grand scale the workers of Mexico
in fields, mines, streets—
Indians carrying bundles of calla lilies.

A million public walls
wouldn't be enough
to paint all the beauty of Mexico.
The Pura Belpré Award, which is presented to "a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth," is one not unfamiliar to Carmen. Her biographies of Chavez, Kahlo, and Rivera were named Author Honor Books in 2006, 2008, and 2010 respectively.

If you haven't picked up Carmen's work yet, get thee to the nearest library or bookstore and check it out. You won't be disappointed.

To learn more about Carmen, check out these sites.
Many thanks to Carmen for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Carmen Bernier-Grand. All rights reserved.


  1. I teach ESL and bilingual teachers and luckily, luckily, come upon the Diego: Larger than Life book just in time. We shared the poems and paintings and I asked the students to write their own free verse poem about a prominent person of their choosing. In 5 minutes, these adults, most of whom do not consider themselves "writers," created astonishingly intense, artful biography poems. I think this author has opened up a whole new genre. Brava to her!! Kristin Lems, National-Louis University, Chicago

  2. WOOT for the Sotomayor book!!! That is just awesome.