Saturday, April 24, 2010

Poetry Makers - Hope Anita Smith

Hope Anita Smith's first book for young readers, The Way a Door Closes, is a verse novel in which thirteen year old C.J. narrates the 34 poems that describe how his loving and close-knit family is affected when their father loses his job and eventually leaves home. It is heart-wrenching, deeply emotional, and perhaps one of the most authentic stories I've read about what it means to be part of a family during good times and bad. Here is the poem that gives the book its title.
The Way a Door Closes

When Grandmomma comes through a door
it closes quietly.
It is whispered shut
by the breath of God—
who acts as a doorman for
one of His good and faithful servants.
When my brother and I
go out the door,
it closes like a clap of thunder.
We are always in a hurry
to be somewhere.
My little sister closes the door
just so.
As if there were a prize for
getting it right.
My momma likes doors open.
It's her way of inviting the world in.
But last night
Daddy said,
"I'm going out,"
and he stood buttoning his coat
just so.
As if there were a prize
for getting it right.
Then he looked at each of us
a moment too long.
And when he went out the door
he held on to the knob.
The door closed with a
I felt all the air leave the room
and we were vacuum-sealed inside.
I shook it off.
I told myself it was nothing
somewhere deep inside
I knew better.
I can tell a lot by
the way a door closes.
The Way a Door Closes won numerous awards, including the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award, the Myra Cohn Livingston Award for Poetry, the Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry, and a Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor Award. It was also named to a number of best and notable book lists.

Before we read more of Hope's poetry, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Hope: I started writing poetry when I was 8 years old. I loved the fact that each poem tells its own little story. I fell in love with children’s poetry when I took a poetry class with Myra Cohn Livingston. She was an amazing poet and a wonderful teacher.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Hope: The thing I enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults is just the joy of playing with words. I also respect the fact that children have a wealth of experiences to draw from. Their lives are just as complex as an adult’s life.

Who/what made you want to write?
Hope: I think my love of reading made me want to be a writer.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Hope: I started writing poetry when I was 8 years old. Poetry was how I expressed myself. I can look back at all the poems I’ve written and tell you exactly what was going on in my life when I wrote them. I have had many years of practice. And we all know that if you practice, you can’t help but get better at what you’re doing.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Hope: I have three favorites. I love each of my books for different reasons. In The Way A Door Closes and Keeping the Night Watch, CJ and his family found me and entrusted me with their story and Mother Poems is very personal. I lost my mother when I was twelve.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Hope: I am working on a novel. No poetry. I feel a little naked without it, but my editor, Christy Ottaviano at Henry Holt is always encouraging me to stretch. I did the illustrations for Mother Poems at her urging and I was pleasantly surprised.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Hope: Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Your favorite place to write?
Hope: In restaurants.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Hope: Poetry: The best words in the best order. Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Hope: Paul Janeczko.

Hope's book Keeping the Night Watch was published in 2008 and is the sequel to The Way a Door Closes. C.J. once again narrates narrates the 35 poems that describe how he and his family try to heal from their father's absence and subsequent return. The theme of this one is anger and forgiveness. How do you forgive someone when you can't get past the anger? What do you do when everyone else has let go and moved on? This is what C.J. wrestles with through most of the book. Here's a poem that describes C.J.'s anger.
If You Can't Stand the Heat . . .

I am mad.
I am the worst kind of mad.
I don't yell.
I don't slam doors.
I don't throw things.
I'm a pot with the lid on,
I keep all my mad inside.
I just let it stew.
I want Byron to be mad, too,
but he isn't.
Says he doesn't want to hold on to mad.
He takes the lid off his pot,
lets mad go.
Says he wants his family back.
Says he's glad Daddy's home.
I'm mad at Daddy,
but it feels like I'm mad at Byron, too.
We're two different kinds of pots,
Byron and me,
and when it comes to Daddy,
we can't cook together.
You can hear Hope read a few of the poems from Keeping the Night Watch at her web site. Just click on the media link at the bottom of the page.

Speaking of listening to Hope, I was charmed and learned quite a bit about her and her work by watching her "Writers Talk" interview. Produced by the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing at The Ohio State University, "Writers Talk" interviews cover a variety of writing topics with an emphasis on how authors produce text and communicate in a variety of genres. This thirty minute interview is broken into the three segments below.

Hope's most recent book is Mother Poems (2009). This book takes readers on a roller coaster ride of emotion, introducing them to a young girl who clearly adores her mother, only to lose her much too soon. What follows is the story of her journey through the stages of grief and healing. The sense of loss and longing in this verse novel is overwhelming. I'll admit to crying at the end of each of Hope's first two books, but I had to read this one with a box of Kleenex at my side. In addition to the beauty of the poems, this volume is accompanied by illustrations of Hope's own making. The 20 torn paper collages are devoid of faces, but embody the connection between mother and daughter in the often overlapping images. Overall, this one packs an emotional punch. The subject matter alone should tell you that, but if you don't believe me, here's a finely wrought example.
Q and A

I never thought to ask my mother
what I was like when I was a baby.
Did I laugh a lot?
Was I fussy?
Did I have a favorite toy?
What was my first word?
When did I roll over? Crawl? Walk?
Did I ever like carrots?
Mothers give us our stories,
at least the beginning.
My mother left before she got a chance to
give me mine,
and I forgot to ask.
God should have made me smarter.
I am remembering less and less about my mother
and wanting to know more and more about me.
You can read a few more poems from the book and hear Hope talk about in this NPR interview.

I am so grateful that Hope made it here today and want to offer my heartfelt thanks to her for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © Hope Anita Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. It’s my first time here and i am really impressed. you have such great blog,amazing work :)

    Short Poems

  2. Oh, WOW -- the torn paper collage illustrations for the Mother poems are absolutely beautiful, and to think the poet did them herself! May she continue to stretch!

    Thank you for introducing me to a totally new poet -- even her website is fabulous. Wow.

  3. I've heard her speak -- she's passionate and funny all rolled into one!