Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Poetry Makers - Juanita Havill

I owe Susan Pearson a debt of gratitude for introducing me to Juanita Havill. (Thanks, Susan!) Last fall I attended a poetry writing workshop where she served as one of the facilitators. During one of the sessions she read from a range of poetry books. One of those titles was I Heard it From Alice Zucchini: Poems About the Garden. As soon as I returned home I added it to my collection. By turns both whimsical and scientific, Juanita's first poetry book (though far from her first published work!) is a magical collection about growing things. Here's the poem that opens the book.
When I Grow Up

In the still chill of a winter night
seeds on the gardener's bench
rattle their packets
with chattering.

"When I grow up,
I'm going to be . . . "

"The biggest watermelon."
"Greenest spinach."
"Toughest kale."
"A rutabaga round as the world."
"An everywhere zucchini vine."
"Cornstalk so tall I touch the sky."

Little seeds
with big plans,
chittering, chattering,
except for one,
not a murmur from his packet.

Hey, little seed,
what about you?
What will you be
when you grow up?

In the still chill of the winter night:
"I'm going to be FIRST!"

And the radish is right.
Before we read more of Juanita's poetry, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Juanita: Songs and rhymes got me going --- especially hymns, carols, and nursery rhymes. Rhythm and rhyme, the sound and feel of words spoken or sung made an impression on me. My mother loved to sing, not just hymns, but songs from Broadway musicals, movies, and popular songs, too, and I loved anticipating the rhymes.

I made up rhymes, too, and my mother wrote them down, but I’m not aware of any poems surviving from my “kindergarten” period. I do remember making up a poem about a black and white pigeon that I watched flying over the church steeple across the street. Never could I hope to catch and hold that pigeon in my hands, but I could behold him in a poem. Catching something fleeting was there from the beginning.

I must have wanted to be a poet early because I submitted poems to contests and children’s magazines. My first rejection was from Wee Wisdom, and later when I was eighteen, I had a rejection from Mademoiselle magazine and, being more fragile at that age, I was crushed. Re-reading the rejection, I can see it was really an encouraging one. At about the age of ten I discovered Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry and spent hours memorizing his sad romantic poems about the deaths of beautiful women. I treasured my paperback collections of poetry and still own them. Emily Dickinson was as real to me as the kids in the neighborhood. She could fit so much into four short lines, and I was determined to do the same. When I was thirteen, I started writing unrhymed poems. I guess you would call them prose poems. I strung unrelated sentences together to make an overall statement about evil or war or the incoherence of life.

Hooked on children’s poetry? That came much later. Again the influence was due to my reading. During my children’s childhoods, I was reading a lot of poetry for children and re-reading anthologies of classic poetry selected for children though not necessarily written for them, that is, poems by Shakespeare, Blake, Byron, Keats, Longfellow, Whitman, and, yes, Poe. Although I was reading poetry for children, I continued to write poetry primarily for adults except for some short poems about vegetables. One day my editor Susan Pearson asked me if I had any poems, and I told her about my garden poems, and thanks to her support and enthusiasm, I wrote more garden poems. I sent them to her, and a few years later I Heard It from Alice Zucchini was published.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Juanita: The thing I enjoy most about writing a poem for any age audience is to surprise myself by making a connection I had never seen before and revealing that connection in as concise a way as possible. That may sound serious, but a lot of play is involved --- playing with words, images, forms, characters, and narratives. When it works, when I get the right words to convey that connection, I feel like celebrating.

Second only to the pleasure of writing a poem for children is the experience of reading or reciting it to them.

Who/what made you want to write?
Juanita: That’s a difficult question for me. From early on I guess I took for granted that writing was one of the things I did. I played basketball with my brothers, I rode my bicycle all over the small town where I lived, in the summer I swam at the local swimming pool, I went to the library several times a week, I read books, and I wrote.

I mentioned Edgar Allan Poe and how much I loved reading and memorizing his poems --- yes, I was hooked on his tales of terror, too. I’m sure that the fact that I loved reading his poems made me want to write my own poems. Once I got past the simple poems that existed more for rhyme than meaning, I began to use poetry as a place to go when I was sad or had hurt feelings or was brimful of happiness or felt a longing to be someplace else. Poetry was that someplace else and provided both comfort and adventure.

Writing for publication is another story. I mentioned Susan Pearson, my editor at Chronicle. She influenced me, too. When she read some of my poems for children, she told me that I was a poet. Heady words! With that inspiration I began to focus on writing poetry for children. Teacher, poet, and children’s book writer Barbara Juster Esbensen, who died in 1996, was an inspiration, too. I met her when I lived in Minnesota and had the pleasure of her friendship and many discussions about books and poetry.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Juanita: How wonderful it would have been to have attended a school for poets when I was growing up! I was “schooled” by the world around me as well as the work of other (mostly dead) poets. I have never taken a class in writing poetry, but I studied English as an undergraduate and had a wonderful teacher for an introduction to poetry class who led us through a survey of English language poetry by asking us to focus on the words of each poem. We had to puzzle out the meaning at length without referring to critics or biographies of the poets. Reading and re-reading a poem in an effort to understand, you can’t help but be aware of structure and rhyme. One way to learn to write poetry is to imitate, and I did a lot of that.

Not until my children were born and I began reading children’s books to them did I begin to think of writing for children. Mother Goose showed up again in my life as I introduced the rhymes to my son and daughter. I also read the poetry of Walter de la Mare, Eleanor Farjeon, Karla Kuskin, Langston Hughes, Eileen Fisher, David McCord, X.J. Kennedy, and discovered anthologies and original poems by Lee Bennett Hopkins and Paul Janeczko. I keep adding to my list of poets who inspire and teach me: Marilyn Nelson, Alice Schertle, Janet Wong, Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Singer, Susan Pearson, Calef Brown, Bobbi Katz, J. Patrick Lewis. I could go on and on. This list is a very long one.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Juanita: I used to think, before I met Barbara Juster Esbensen, that I had absolutely to be inspired before I could write a poem. Deliberately deciding to write a poem seemed too purposeful to me, not enough spontaneity. But in a phone conversation with Barbara one day, she told me about her deadline the next day to finish and submit about eight more poems for a book under contract. Sure enough, that afternoon she went to work and wrote the poems in record time, poems that made the cut, and I was impressed by her demonstration that you could will yourself to work and at the same time create beautiful, memorable poems. Sometimes you didn’t have to wait for inspiration. What I’ve learned is that poetry is a habit. It helps to be in the mood, but it isn’t necessary. I can sit down in my office and write poems. I can take a walk and make up poems. I can compose poems while I’m ironing. Once you switch on, it’s hard to stop.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Juanita: Not really. My published poetry is confined to a few small press publications for my poems for adults, a collection of garden poems I Heard it From Alice Zucchini, and a novel in verse Grow. The garden poems were pure fun to write, nonsense, fantasy, lyric, and narrative. I remember making up poems on our weekly trip to Tucson. I would think “potato” and wonder, Now what can I say about a potato? And then an image would pop into my mind and I would capture it in simple lines. “Brush aside fresh fallen snow./Dig down deep where frost can’t go./Wrapped in brown from head to toe---/ What do you know?---/A potato!

Creating Grow required me to speak from the point of view of a fictional character, twelve-year-old Kate Sibley, and I chose free verse based on rhythm rather than rhyme with line stops for a pause to think or take a gulp of air. Sometimes Kate can’t help but be caught up in her mentor Berneetha’s speech rhythms, too, or those of her unsentimental mother.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Juanita: It’s hard to narrow my favorites down to one, but I can think of two poets whose work continues to haunt me. Gerard Manley Hopkins. I began to read his work in college. And Anna Ahkmatova, whose work I began to read after I married and had a daughter.

Your favorite place to write?
Juanita: Although I spend a lot of time writing in my home office, I happen to love writing on trains, planes, buses, and cars (when I’m not driving). Airplanes, to me, are especially conducive to writing. It’s easy, when aloft, to spend time in thought and conjuring memories that inspire me especially when I know that I won’t be interrupted. I enjoy observing people and inventing elaborate stories about them. Here’s a poem inspired by a trans-Atlantic trip several years ago:
    Tiny, tiny Britney Spears
    on a laptop screen appears
    in a sparkling gown.

    Seat belts on, no place to go,
    two sisters watch their favorite show,
    bouncing up and down.

    Finger to her frowning lips,
    the passenger behind them quips,
    “Your laptop’s much too loud.”

    No sound now, but still in motion
    while engines purr above the ocean
    and wings slice through a cloud.

    Tiny, tiny Britney Spears,
    press a key, she disappears,
    and the sisters yawn.

    Wrapped in blankets for the chill,
    they sleep and dream and doze until
    they land in France at dawn.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Juanita: I have many. Here are a couple:
    "Forcing emotions brings error
    and error again;

    letting them come naturally
    means letting them come clear."

    (From XV. “The Inspiration” in The Art of Writing by Lu Chi, translated by Sam Hamill)

    "For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry." (From A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver)

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Juanita: What a challenging question that is! So many talented and dedicated poets are writing for young people in the US today. And when they’re not writing their own poetry, they are editing collections to offer only the very best to children. I think it would be terrific if Walter de la Mare could be channeled and have a go at it, but he was English, wasn’t he? So how about channeling Edgar Allan Poe?

For me, poetry is about sounds nearly as much as it is about the words. That's why I love to hear poets read their work. Do take a moment to listen to Juanita read the poems "Monster" and "The Pumpkin's Revenge" from I Heard it From Alice Zucchini. Given that seeds and plants "talk" in this collection, readers will find all manner of garden gossip, and what fun it is! However, I'm still quite fond of this very simple poem.

Plant seeds early in the spring
when the ground is warm,
two inches deep in well-tilled soil
where they'll be safe from harm.

Let the sun and rain pour down.
Be careful where you hoe.
A miracle is taking place:
Seeds split and start to grow.
Juanita followed this book of poetry with Grow: A Novel in Verse. It is the story of Kate Sibley, a twelve-year old girl and Berneetha, a teacher who decides to plant a community garden on a vacant lot that has long been neglected and is strewn with trash. While folks at first just watch Kate and Berneetha work in the garden, soon they join in to help. Just as the garden begins to take shape, Randall Conn, the owner of the lot dies, and troubles ensue when his son decides to turn the lot into a parking garage. Will the garden survive?

The story is deftly told in a series of poems that allows readers to watch both the characters and the garden grow. But more importantly, readers really get to know these characters inside and out. They are well drawn and utterly human. Here's an excerpt from the poem "About Berneetha."
She does things:
sizzling, stirring,
zapping, rocking,
purring, jumping,
dancing things.
With Berneetha
everything happens
big time
even the quiet things
like sitting still
and staring at frost
on the window in winter
or counting cricket chirps
when the summer sun sets (p. 13)
Here's another excerpt, this time from the poem "Harlan's Favorite Flower."
Once he asked Berneetha
how a whole plant
can sprout and grow and flower
all from a sliver of seed.
What was it
in that seed
that made it grow
in the dirt
and bloom yellow, white,
purple, orange, maroon,
like a conjure man had spoken
a spell over it?

Berneetha said
we all start as seeds--
each of us different,
each of us beautiful. (pp. 58-59)
I do hope we see more of Juanita's poetry for kids in print one of these days. Until then, we'll have to make do with these two gems, and of course the other 30+ books she has published!

To learn more about Juanita, visit some of these sites.
Sunflowers, daisies and a garden of thanks to Juanita for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © Juanita Havill. All rights reserved.


  1. Not only do I love the poets in your series, but I love following your "how I learned about this poet" trails!!

  2. LOVE When I Grow Up. When I grow up I hope to be half the poet that Juanita Havill is!

  3. Grow has been on my "To read" list for awhile. I was happy to learn more about the author.

  4. I would love to see Instructions printed on the back of seed packets - wouldn't that be lovely?