Saturday, April 17, 2010

Poetry Makers - Eileen Spinelli

I've been collecting teapots for more than 20 years. About ten years ago a friend gave me a copy of the book Tea Party Today: Poems to Sip and Savor. It was a perfect addition to my collection, and a perfect introduction to the poetry of Eileen Spinelli. Tea Party Today opens with an introduction in which the author details a bit of her history with the tradition of tea. It begins this way.
I received my first tea set--blue-and-white willowware--on my fourth Christmas.

My father, clever with tools, built me a table and chairs. My mother, creative with a needle, sewed me a brightly colored tablecloth.

I remember feeling so excited on the occasion of my first tea party that my hand shook as I poured tap water into my doll's tiny teacup.
The memories shared set the tone for an inviting and dreamy set of poems. Each one is accompanied by a teatime tip. Here's one of my favorite poems from the book and its teatime tip.
Kitchen Music

Pots clank.
Glasses clink.
Water gurgles
In the sink.
Beater whips.
Blender whirs.
Clock ticks.
Spoon stirs.
Mug plunks.
Fork pings.
Best of all--
Kettle sings.

Teatime tip: You and your teammates can add to the music. Hum. Whistle. Snap your fingers. Clap your hands. Tap your toes. And how about a sing-along?
Before we read more of Eileen's poetry, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Eileen: I fell in love with words...with the sound of words...when I was about five or six years old. We lived within walking distance of The Sellers Memorial Library in Upper Darby, PA. It's still there...only bigger.

The children's librarian at the time, Miss Armstrong, filled my arms with books. When I told her I wanted to become a writer...she gave me her very own pen. I began writing poems and stories. Some early topics: my grandmother's garden, the local fire department, a sailboat.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Eileen: After I had children of my own I revisited the world of children's literature. I re-delighted in playful rhyme. . .as well as the picture book...which often has the feel and lyricism of a poem (rhyming or not).

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Eileen: I enjoy inviting the child within to come out to play.

I enjoy steeping myself in words and images.

I enjoy the challenge of putting my thoughts together in a way that does not feel forced.

I enjoy the amazing array of possible topics.

Who/what made you want to write?
Eileen: Miss Armstrong was an early "encourage-er".

And friends who seemed to think I was good at writing.

My father gave me his old manual typewriter to bang away on.

My mother read to me.

And there was a sense within myself --even at a young age--that I was being "called" to write.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Eileen: No. Sometimes someone will ask me a question about a particular type/form of poetry...and I don't know the answer.

I learned how to write poetry by reading poetry.

I was reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass when I was ten. I understood very little about the content...but I loved the sense of the language washing over me.

It's as though all the poems I read seeped into my bones.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Eileen: I sit in my favorite chair--yellow with pink and red roses--with a clipboard of paper and a pen.

Yes--I compose long-hand still.

And then I decide on a topic.

I look into my poetry notebook to see if anything in it refers to that topic.

I "collect" words on paper...that seem right for the topic.

I doodle.

I listen.

I listen for a first line....

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Eileen: Well...I like my book TEA PARTY TODAY because I collect teapots and tea things and have had tea-parties since I was a toddler. And it was fun to write a book that I can add to my collection of tea "stuff".

And I must say I'm partial to my book WHEN YOU ARE HAPPY. I wanted to "say what love is" in a lyrical way--a way that would appeal not only to children but to grown ups as well. Considering the responses I've gotten from people of all may be I was successful.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Eileen: I've had fun doing novels-in-verse. My most recent one is THE DANCING PANCAKE Two others before that: WHERE I LIVE and SUMMERHOUSE TIME.

I've just started work on yet untitled. About a fifth grade girl.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Eileen: Hmmmm....I'll say Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Your favorite place to write?
Eileen: In my office ...sitting in my yellow chair with the roses.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Eileen: I have a notebook full of quotes I've's one that speaks to my heart. Alas--I don't know the author of it:

"Beware of that which teaches us to love success more than what we are doing."

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Eileen: I know too many wonderful poets (friends and colleagues) to choose.

Eileen's book Feathers: Poems About Birds made my recent thematic list of bird poetry books. In that annotation I wrote "My favorite poem EVER about a woodpecker is in this book." It's true. Of the 27 short, rhyming poems that mark this playful collection of verse, I'm crazy about it. Here it is.
Wake Up

No rooster to wake us.
We're not on a farm.
But we have our very own
feathered alarm.
It drums before breakfast
on shingle and pole.
I think there's some rooster
in woodpecker's soul.
Isn't it terrific? I adore the last sentence. The feathery facts at the end of the book provide a bit of information about each of the subjects of the poems. Here's another favorite.
Guess Which Bird This Is

Dizzy-dazzle thrumming bird.
No bigger-than-my-thumb-ing bird.
A silky, summer-strumming bird.
A going-and-a-coming bird.

(The answer is: the hummingbird.)
Eileen has written a number of poetry collections as well as picture books in rhyme. More recently (2007) she published two novels in verse. Where I Live is the story of Diana, a young girls who loves her yellow house, the blue walls in her bedroom, and playing with her best friend Rose. Diana is devastated when her family must pick up move in with her Grandpa Joe, who lives six hours away. Here is the first poem from the book.
This Is Where I Live

This is where I live--
in the yellow house
with the white shutters.
I'm the one who helped plant
the maple tree in the front yard,
the one who waters
the daffodils in the spring,
who rakes the leaves in autumn.
My room is on the second floor.
See my window?
This morning I looked out
and saw my best friend, Rose,
waving to me.
"Wanna ride bikes?" she called.
The sun was shining,
the sky was so blue,
I thought I could swim in it.
It's a good day when
the sky is blue
and the sun is bright
and Rose and I have plans.
Eileen's second verse novel, Summerhouse Time, is the story of Sophie, a young girl (11) who can't wait for August and the time her extended family heads to a beach house for the month. This year is different, however, as she meets a new boy in the neighborhood before leaving. She's also dealing with the odd behavior of her cousin Colleen, sharing a room with her five-year old cousin, and watching her cousin Cooper who is afraid of the water and won't swim in the ocean. Here's a poem from early in the book.
New Boy

There's a new kid
on our block.
A boy.
Usually I don't
pay much attention
to boys.
But there's something
about this boy--
his loud laugh
when his beagle puppy
jumps on him,
his T-shirt that says
his shy smile that says
he doesn't really
believe it.
I'd like to leave you with one more poem. This one comes from the book In Our Backyard Garden. It's a collection of poems all about family and it is filled with love and laughs. Kids may not understand this one, but it made me snort milk the first time I read it, and I totally get it!
Grandad Makes Use of the Handkerchief Wayne Newton Tossed to Grandmother in 1998 and Almost Ends Up in Divorce Court

he honestly
didn't know
the dazzling history
of the red handkerchief
when he cut it
into strips
with the garden shears
to hold up
his tomato plants.
Eileen has published more than 40 books. If you haven't been reading her work, I hope you'll take the time to do so.

To learn more about Eileen, check out these sites.
A heartfelt thanks to Eileen for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © Eileen Spinelli. All rights reserved.


  1. HAHAHA~! Grandpa is lucky that HE wasn't cut up with those gardening shears.

    I think that woodpecker lived at our house in Benicia!!

    I do love the thought of a ten year old letting the words of Leaves of Grass wash over her - and sink in. What a lovely interview.

  2. Another poet I don't know! I can't wait to read more of Eileen's poetry. I'm especially looking forward to her verse novels.

  3. I enjoyed the interview and poem: thank you both! And that's cool that you both collect teapots!