Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Poetry Makers - Kalli Dakos

Last year while researching the Poetry Makers series I learned that a number of poets writing for children are former classroom teachers. Well, I hate to say former, because once a teacher, always a teacher. Kalli Dakos is a classroom teacher turned poet who still spends scads of time in schools visiting with kids and spreading her love for poetry. Because her poetry focuses on schools and classrooms, I was drawn to her work like a moth to a flame. Here are two of my favorite poems from the books If You’re Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand: Poems About School and Don't Read This Book Whatever You Do!: More Poems About School respectively.
Call the Periods
Call the Commas

Call the doctors Call the nurses Give me a breath of
air I've been reading all your stories but the periods
aren't there Call the policemen Call the traffic guards
Give me a STOP sign quick Your sentences are running
when the need a walking stick Call the commas Call
the question marks Give me a single clue Tell me
where to breathe with a punctuation mark or two


Herstory = Her Story

You can study history,
While I study herstory,
Whose will it be?
Before we read more of Kalli's poetry, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Kalli: I’ve always loved to read and write poetry, but I never intended to do entire books of poems.

I took a few years off from teaching to work as a freelance writer.
When I returned to my job as a reading specialist, I found the best stories of all right inside my own classroom.

These stories fit best in poetry, and I started writing poems like “Hiding in the Bathroom,” “There’s a Cockroach Lurking Inside My Desk,” and “Math is Brewing and I’m in Trouble.”

I began writing these school-based poems over twenty years ago, and I’m still amazed by the incredible stories in our classrooms.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Kalli: I love children and childhood and the poems written about this world—the rhythm, the rhyme, the humor, the joy and the spirit.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Kalli: I love to take a moment of classroom drama and put it in a poem where it can be remembered and celebrated. In this way an ordinary moment becomes an extraordinary memory.

There was the day Eric told the class he was allergic to girls, and this statement inspired the poem, “Eric is Allergic to Girls.”

Another day Annie was drinking so much juice, milk and water at lunch that the students and I began to imagine what might happen to her if she drank anymore. Would she float away?

This real school incident inspired my poem, “She Should Have Listened to Me,” where the child really does float away in the middle of class one afternoon.

I love capturing children’s words and thoughts in poetry, and creatively building on classroom events to see where we can take them in the imaginative realm.

Who/what made you want to write?
Kalli: My father died when I was twelve-years-old, but I remember his love of storytelling, and how its spirit entered my writing soul. He told stories before bedtime, around the dinner table, and during drives in the car. They were all original tales that he spun from his imagination, and I
grew to love these storytelling sessions with a passion.

In sixth grade I fell in love with mystery stories and spent most of my time reading and writing them. My teacher, Mr. Beecroft, encouraged me to read my mysteries to the class on a weekly basis. It thrilled me when my fellow students were sitting on the edge of their seats caught up in the suspense of the story.

I think I capture the same feeling when I share my poems on school visits today.

When I read Shel Silverstein’s poems, I wanted to try my own hand at this kind of poetry, and so many other poets from Ogden Nash to Robert Frost to Eve Merriam and Jack Prelutsky helped to inspire my own writings.

But it was my students who made me want to write the poems about the school world. There were so many funny, tragic, happy, sad and crazy moments in my classroom, and I wanted to celebrate them through the writing process.

I tell students that the poems will remember the special moments of our lives long after we have forgotten them. The poems remember for us.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Kalli: I have a degree in English, and I studied poetry at the university level. I especially loved a course on the romantic poets.

I’ve always loved to speak in rhyme and to play with words.

As a teenager, I collected poems, and would read them over and over again to inspire and encourage my life.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Kalli: I tell students that the process begins with “magic eyes” and “magic ears.” We must always be on the lookout for special moments, thoughts, rhythms, or ideas that can be remembered in poetry.

It can be a humorous thought like, “I’m worried about being worried,” or a rhythm like, “I’m going to die! I’m going to die,” or a picture like, “ Homework is a monster!”

A poem can be inspired by a pencil that meets a tragic end in the pencil sharpener, or a flower that loses its head as a student rushes from the bus to class.

Sometimes the poem is like a gift and practically writes itself. Other times the idea is exciting, but I struggle with the poetic elements. I’ve been working on some poems for twenty years, and I’m still not happy with them.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Kalli: I think my first book, If You’re Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand, will always be my favorite. It was one of the first poetry books published about life in our elementary school classrooms and has been in print for twenty years.

My second favorite is always the one I’m working on right now.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Kalli: Happy Birthday, Belly Button
A child makes the delightful discovery that every part of his body (eyes, nose, kidneys, toes) turns a year older on this birthday.

Poet at the Top of the World
I taught at Sir Alexander Mackenzie School in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada. This wilderness town is 200 miles above the Arctic Circle.

I love to visit the children in Inuvik, and am now writing my first novel about a young girl who lives in the far north. She discovers that poetry empowers her life and helps her to deal with sadness and grief. It also helps her to celebrate her unique world above the Arctic Circle.

I Heard You Twice the First Time
This book is a collection of original poetry for teachers.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Kalli: I love Shakespeare’s poetry, and adapted it for my book, Our Principal Promised to Kiss a Pig. The pig in the book is Hamlet and he speaks in Shakespearean verse:
    To kiss or not to kiss
    The principal in school?
    Why choose a pig,
    To be their fool?

Your favorite place to write?

Kalli: I love to sit cross-legged on a couch overlooking my river, with a manuscript in front of me on paper ( the old-fashioned way).
Later on, I will take my ideas and rework them on the computer.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Kalli: When I work with teachers, I always share the following quote from the book, Dead Poet’s Society.
    One reads poetry because he is a
    member of the human race, and
    the human race is filled with passion.
    Medicine, law, banking—these are
    necessary to sustain life. But poetry,
    romance, love and beauty. These are
    what we are alive for.
Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Kalli: Poetry has always been both a great joy and a great help in my life. I don’t know how I’d get through the challenges and difficulties of this world without great words to support and guide me.

I believe that, “A poem can change a child and a child can change the world,” But, the child has to brought into the world of poetry first.

There are so many wonderful, passionate children’s poets today who are helping children to discover the joys of poetry. Hopefully, many of them will get the chance to serve in this capacity.

I so love that Kalli's poems are inspired by real events. Her poems are sure to delight teachers and kids alike as they ring so true. Speaking of ringing, this next poem comes from the book The Goof Who Invented Homework: And Other School Poems.
Countdown to Recess

Sun climbs,
Wind chimes.
Five-minutes until recess.

A baseball glove,
A game I love.
Four minutes until recess.

I whisper to Pat,
"Get ready to bat."
Three minutes until recess.

My work's all done,
I gotta run.
Two minutes until recess.

Clock, hurry!
Hands, scurry!
One minute until recess.


Gone in a flash!
As a former reading specialist, Kalli knows the importance of sharing poetry at an early age. Her book The Bug in the Teacher's Coffee: And Other School Poems is an I Can Read Book and designed to introduce poetry to children learning to read independently. The mask poems in this book are short, rhymed, and full of bouncy fun. Here are two poems from this book.
Monkey Bars

Rightside up,
and upside down,
Back and forth,
And all around,
The kids
are making money sounds!


Schools Get Hungry Too

I'd like a bowl
Of ruler stew,
A pencil sandwich,
And some glue.

Some purple paint,
I'd like to drink,
And for dessert,
A classroom sink.
Since we are celebrating poetry, I thought I'd end with one last poem from If You’re Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand.
Shakespeare's Gone

A book fell out the window
In reading class today,
John happened to see it fall
And yelled out in dismay:

"Shakespeare's gone! Shakespeare's gone!
He's fallen off the shelf.
I know it's true, I really do,
I saw him fall myself."

"Shakespeare's gone!" the others yelled,
"John saw him slipping out.
He must be lying on the ground,
Of that, there is no doubt."

Then Matthew jumped up from his chair
And yelled, "I'll volunteer
To run outside and get him
And bring him back in here."

Ten minutes of commotion passed
Before the book was found;
Shakespeare was back on the shelf,
When Dr. Seuss fell down.
To learn more about Kalli, check out these sites.
Many, many thanks to Kalli for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © Kalli Dakos. All rights reserved.


  1. I really love school poems; I wish I'd had access to all of these when I was teaching! I especially love that first one -- what a way to introduce the effect of punctuation (or its lack) to students!

  2. Had the pleasure of hearing Kalli read her poetry at a bookstore years ago. I really enjoy her school poems. :)