Saturday, April 11, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Interview with Helen Frost

In preparation for sharing forms this month, I wrote to a number of poets and asked if they would respond to a short list of questions on poetry, writing, and form. I'm thrilled every time one responds positively and find they have all been extremely generous with their time.

Today I'm sharing the thoughts of Helen Frost,  the author of a number of nonfiction books about science and nature, as well as several verse novels for young people, including Salt: A Story of Friendship In A Time of WarHidden, Diamond Willow, Crossing Stones, The Braid, and Keesha’s House, named an Honor Book for the Michael L. Printz Award.
How do you begin a poem? 
Helen: Each poem is different, of course, but typically I begin with an image or an emotion. Images are usually quite specific, emotions not so much so; I’m exploring what emotion the image is leading me into, or what images will help bring the emotion into a sharper focus.

How do you choose the form of your poems?
Helen: For an individual poem, I often experiment until I find a form (or freedom) that adds strength to the poem and helps it find it’s way. For a book-length form, the process is similar, but takes longer, as I’m developing the story, getting to know the characters, and finding the form simultaneously.

Are there any forms you haven't tried but would like to? Why or why not?
Helen: I think I’ve tried most of the forms I know about, some not successfully enough to result in a publishable poem.  I enjoy inventing new forms, or expanding single-poem forms into something that will work for a whole book. In an earlier version of the novel-in-poems that eventually became HIDDEN, I worked for months trying to find a form that would be structured like a DNA molecule. Eventually, I realized that I had already done that without being self-conscious about it: the form I invented for THE BRAID is very much like the double helix of DNA (though without the twist). 

What tools (rhyming dictionary, book of forms, etc.) do you use in writing poetry (if any)?
Helen: I have all those tools—rhyming dictionaries (one for adults, one for children), several different books of forms (again, some written with young writers in mind, others for adult poets). I used them a lot when I was learning my craft and now I use them as references to remind me of the specifics of a form, or to suggest a rhyme I might not have considered.

What would you like students or children to know about poetry?
Helen: A question that interests me more might be “How would you like students or children to know about poetry?” I’d like them to dive in with their ears and eyes and hearts open wide and experience poetry before they analyze it too much.

Here’s a question I was asked by a first grader in Ed Spicer’s class about the poem in my new book, SWEEP UP THE SUN (a collaboration with photographer Rick Lieder): How did you make the poem sound like the bird is actually sweeping up the sun?

I answered: First let me say that this is a beautiful question, because it shows that you are reading and listening carefully, and then thinking about the words. The answer is in the poem itself: think of the sky as language, and then think of the birds’ wings as poetry, a special kind of language that pays attention to sound and images (pictures in our minds). When I write a poem, I don’t start out by knowing what I want to say, just as a bird might lift off from a branch without knowing exactly where it is going. But I trust language, as a bird trusts itself to the sky, so I can “ride the wind” (the thoughts that come to me) “and explore” (to find out what I want to say and how to say it).  Writing a poem is energetic, and the sun we sweep up together in this poem (as writer and reader) is like an infinite source of light and warmth.

Finally, one of your esteemed colleagues suggested I ask for a poem in a foreign verse form. Would you be willing to share a poem for this project?
Helen: Here’s a villanelle, a form that originated as French, though many of the best-known villanelles are written in English. The poem is set in rural Alaska, more than 30 years ago.

Mud, Sticks, Food

Somewhere a house is empty of these lives,
the mother beaver dead, the pups not born.
Our hands caress the loss. Our thought contrives

to name the brown and violet parts, as if, in naming, it revives
the heart, makes loops and curves and folds less torn.
Somewhere a house is empty of these lives.

We lift the liquid cradles, cut them loose with knives.
Water breaks on fur, feet, tail. Watching, we forget to mourn.
Our hands caress the loss. Our thought contrives

their birth. We wrap the pups in plastic, hang them high in leaves
of willows by the river, to protect their perfect form.
Somewhere a house is empty of these lives.

We clean the inside of the mother's skin. All we do deprives
her house of mud, sticks, food -- leaves her mate forlorn.
Our hands caress the loss. Our thought contrives

to find an exit. The living beaver slaps his tail and dives.
We are enclosed in widening rings of scorn.
Somewhere a house is empty of these lives.
Our hands caress the loss our thought contrives.

Poem ©Helen Frost, from Skin of a Fish, Bones of a Bird, Ampersand Press, 1993. All rights reserved.

A million thanks to Helen for participating in my Jumping Into Form project this month.

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