Friday, April 16, 2010

Poetry Makers - Marjorie Maddox

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I found my way to Marjorie Maddox's work because of a slightly broken heart. No really. For years I had been working on a collection of poems on animal collectives, so you can imagine how I felt when I read a review for her book A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in Poetry. Despite my discouragement, I bought the book and quickly became a fan of her work. The 14 poems in this book consider animal groups and how, perhaps, they came by those names. Why, for example, is a group of rattlesnakes called a rhumba? Here's Marjorie's poetic answer.
A Rhumba of Rattlesnakes

A rhumba of rattlesnakes knows how to shake
their long, slinky bodies and twist till daybreak.
They wobble their heads, give their hips a quick quake.
They jitterbug tails till their skeletons ache.

The rattle maracas and rat-tat on drums,
blow in tin trumpets, uncurl their tongues
to hiss a sweet song that invites you to come
a little bit closer. But you know to run

way over here and avoid the mistake
of dancing the rhumba with ten rattlesnakes.
Before we read more of Marjorie's poetry, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Marjorie: I fell in love with words and became addicted to writing at a young age. I’ve always been a bookwork--as a child reading in the branches of trees, upside down on a couch, and, of course, in bed with a flashlight--and so a love of language and word play were very much a part of my childhood. I thought of myself as a writer as early as grade school, composing little poems (few of them any good) for my family, my friends, and my teachers. To me, it was the best gift I could give.

How fortunate for me that I had parents who also valued writing. (Too many times I’ve heard my students at college lament, “I love to write, but my parents want me to do something ‘practical.’”) My mother, in particular, encouraged me, typing up my early poems and stories in “books.”

My first published poem was in a Campfire Girl magazine when I was eight or nine. I was thrilled. Later, in high school, I participated in local and church writing competitions and my parents arranged to have a female student at Ohio State University tutor me in creative writing. At college, I had a number of excellent literature and writing professors, including the visiting authors Madeline L’Engle (one of my idols) and the poet Robert Siegel, who encouraged me to send my work to literary journals.

Who/what made you want to write?
Marjorie: In addition to the support of my family, books made me want to write. How could they not? Here were whole other worlds calling to me. Here were sounds and images dancing together. I don’t think I’ll ever fall out of love with the power and joy of language.

Childhood and teen poetic influences? Two of my most well-worn paperbacks were the animal poems by Ted Hughes and The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot. Although I’m sure I didn’t understand the latter, I loved the melodic cadences in Eliot. I’ve always thought that writing occurs as much with the ear as with the mind, fingers, or eyes.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Marjorie: I’ve been writing and publishing poetry, fiction, and essays for thirty-some years—and teaching creative writing for twenty—but only recently have I come back home to children’s poetry. I credit this to a number of events, the most important being having children myself. With our children, my husband and I began rereading favorite childhood classics and also discovering wonderful new children’s authors.

When my children were still young, serendipity struck. I was giving a reading at Penn State University and the children’s librarian there, Steven Herb, approached me afterwards to say, “Hey, with your love of word play, you really need to be writing for children.” At the time, I nodded politely and laughed off the idea. But I couldn’t get the possibility out of my mind; I started fiddling with kid-friendly poems, which I “tried out” on my own children. Soon after, Steven asked me to help judge the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award for PSU’s Children’s Literature Matters conference. Working with other judges and listening to and learning from conference authors, I was hooked. (This is where I first met poet and anthologist Paul Janeczko, another happy occurrence.)

Catalysts for A Crossing of Zebras and Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems? For the former, my colleague at Lock Haven University, artist Philip Huber, was working on an evocative series of scratchboard drawings about collective nouns. He asked me to compose the poems to go with his completed illustrations, then he added more illustrations to go with my additional poems—a great way to collaborate!

The baseball book has a longer history. I was fortunate to inherit my connection to baseball—my great-uncle was Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who helped break the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson. But although I grew up with stories of my great-uncle, I didn’t become really connected to baseball until I moved to Williamsport, Little League Capital of the World. Both our children now play ball.

Seventeen years ago, when my husband and I first got married, we lived in a duplex where our backyard overlooked a practice field. The more I sat in our backyard and watched the practices, the more I wanted to connect to my family history of baseball, and so I began a series of baseball poems. One of these poems was a much shorter version of Rules of the Game. Later, my children’s publisher asked me to expand this into a book-length collection. Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems is my poetic examination of the ins and outs of baseball: what we memorize, what we argue over, what we dream of achieving—the “rules” that make baseball what it is. It is such baseball talk—with its wide-sweeping arc of the game and minute technicalities of the rulebook—that keeps the discussion in play among friends and strangers, children and adults, players and fans. In this collection, I examine through poetry: “Pitchout.” “The Batting Order,” “The Strike Zone,” “The Sweet Spot,” “Beanball,” “’Three and Two, What’ll He Do?,”—a total of 48 terms or concepts connected to baseball.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Marjorie: Yes, I earned an MA with a creative thesis at the University of Louisville, where I wrote both fiction and poetry with the wonderful author Sena Jeter Naslund. Later, I received a fellowship to Cornell University, where I earned an MFA in poetry working with such greats as A. R. Ammons and Robert Morgan.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Marjorie: I write in several genres—poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, essays, and children’s literature—and my writing process is a bit different for each. With children’s poetry, I write more with an entire book in mind, a definite series of poems on a subject about which I’m excited and which I hope will excite kids. I’m still learning a lot about writing children’s literature; much of this “education” comes from working closely with editors, from the actual practice of writing in the genre, and, of course, from being a parent.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Marjorie: Playing with words and meeting my readers! I love writing for children (terrifically satisfying audiences) and visiting elementary schools to talk about poetry. What a perfect way to bring together my roles as mother, author, and teacher.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Marjorie: Short answer: My favorite poem is whatever I’m working on at the moment that seems to be clicking. My least favorite poem is whatever I’m working on at the moment that doesn’t seem to be clicking. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Longer Answer: Some poems I love most on the page; some I love most read aloud. Some are connected closely to events that shaped who I am. (In the case of Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, they are poems that focus on my father’s unsuccessful heart transplant; in the case of Local News from Someplace Else, they are poems about becoming a parent at 38 and again at 40.) Other poems are connected closely to what I believe, as in Weeknights at the Cathedral, a collection that chronicles my spiritual journey. My favorite children’s poems are influenced partly, I think, by the illustrations and partly by the experience of reading them to kids. For instance, it’s great fun to read “A Rumble of Rattlesnakes” to a room full of elementary school students.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Marjorie: I’ve got a number of children’s books in the works and several that I’m sending out to publishers. One is a book of riddle poems; another focuses again on language rules and word play. Writing both was a joyful experience.

In addition, I have a book of poems (for adults) and a short story collection (a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Book Award) making the rounds. Here’s hoping!

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Marjorie: This is a hard one. Elsewhere, I’ve listed as my poetic forebears Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, George Herbert, T.S. Eliot, Anne Sexton, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop. However, I’m always discovering a new great “oldie.” For poets who also write for children, I’ll say Shel Silverstein and Ogden Nash. I grew up on their books, and they still make me laugh AND think.

Your favorite place to write?
Marjorie: We’ve recently renovated our kitchen to include a huge picture window that looks out over our backyard. As I type these answers on my laptop, I am sitting in a comfy armchair in front of this window.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Marjorie: “The reason I write is to find out what I mean.”—Leslie Marmon Silko
“imaginary gardens with real toads”—a definition of poetry by Marianne Moore

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Marjorie: Ah, too many good choices! I’m glad I don’t have to pick.

Regular readers of this blog know what a sucker I am for baseball, so it's no surprise that I'm crazy for Marjorie's book Rules of the Game. The collection is not only a technical examination of the rules of the game and jargon, but also one filled with an intense love for the game. How can you not love a book with a poem devoted to the infield fly rule? Here's the concluding poem from the book.
Grand Slam

Dreams brimming over,
childhood stretched out in legs,
this is the moment replayed on winter days
when frost covers the field,
when age steals away wishes.
Glorious sleep that seeps back there
to the glory of our baseball days.
While preparing for this post I read quite a bit of Marjorie's poetry, both for children and adults. I'll close with one of my favorites. You can find it in the book Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics.
Venn Diagrams

There, stuck in that class,
chalking circles on a board so high your toes ached,
an inch of sock exposed,
all for the sake of subsets, intersection.
That teacher with the tie too bright for day,
wide as your fingers spread

he knew. How even now
worlds swerve in, out, curvilinear,
a trajectory, an extrapolation from that fourth grade:
cowlick, shy wink, lunch box, desk carved with initials,
stacked, bisected, bisected again into lives or

one life divided recursively,
your miracle, you
halved like loaves and fishes.

Mornings you sit, slicing bread,
point in a line between you and . . . .

Through the window the world juxtaposes itself.
Drill perpendicular to concrete.
A jay: coordinate in the grid of an oak.
You part your hair diagonally, unfold the paper.

Those Venn diagrams,
circles with the double cross,
shaded gray, are now.
The overlap: same mouth, nose.

You tilt into different lives without breathing,
love ten people at once/no one.
You eat an apple,
tap your foot to Zepplin,
fingers to Bach.

Do you see? The circles shift.
Pry your fingers in.
Behind the chalk.
Behind the two dimensions.
To learn more about Marjorie you can read her biography. A hearty thanks to her for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Marjorie Maddox. All rights reserved.


  1. Oooh! Love and Math! Now, that's a combination I can get behind. I LOVE that Venn poem. Beautiful, beautiful. Thank you for introducing me to another new poet.

  2. Many thanks to Tricia for once again introducing me to a new poet. I've always been fascinated with animal group names. Did you know a group of crows is a murder? Can't wait to read Marjorie's collections.

  3. Maybe there's room in the world for TWO collections of poems on animal collectives!!