Tuesday, April 21, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Mask/Persona Poems

Mask or persona poems are poems in which the subject of the poem is the speaker.  In creating the poem the writer takes on a "mask" or personality and speaks in the voice of an animal, element of nature, or inanimate object.

In the book Conversations With a Poet: Inviting Poetry into K-12 Classrooms (2005), written by Betsy Franco, the chapter devoted to the persona poem includes this background.
In a form or mode of poetry called the persona poem or "mask poem," the poet takes on the voice of someone else--puts on a mask. In these poems, the poet takes over the persona of someone other than himself or herself and speaks in the first person. In the 1800s Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote persona poems, among other forms. These poets and their contemporaries usually took on the voice of a historical or mythological character. This is also done in modern persona poems, but nowadays, poets also speak as if they were such things as an object, a place, an animal, an abstract idea, or a fantasy character.
In her book Dogs & Dragons, Trees & Dreams: A Collection of Poems (1980), Karla Kuskin shares a number of mask poems. The preface to this section of the collection reads:
The following five poems do not have titles. As you read each poem you will figure out what it is describing. Each one tells how it would feel to be something other than yourself.
I've read a lot of definitions and descriptions of mask poems. I think I like this one best for kids. Here's one of the poems she shared.

If you,
Like me,
Were made of fur
And sun warmed you,
Like me,
You'd purr.

Poem ©Karla Kuskin. All rights reserved.

There are many, many good books of poetry written entirely as mask poems. Mask poems can also be found in numerous children's poetry collections. Here are just a few of my favorites.
Dirty Laundry Pile: Poems in Different Voices (2001), selected by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, is a collection of poems in the voices of a broom, kites, gloves, crayons, and more. In the introduction Paul writes:
I collected the poems in this book because I love reading poems written in the voice of an object or an animal, as if that thing or creature were speaking to me. In these persona or mask poems, as they are called, the poets let their imaginations fly and feel what it might be like to be a mosquito, a crayon, a kite, a turtle. It's something like wearing a Halloween costume or playing a part in a school play. Great fun, don't you think? As you read these poems, if you find yourself wondering what it would feel like to be a caterpillar, a soccer ball, or a honeybee, grab a pencil and let your imagination fly in a poem. Let that new voice sing!
In this book you'll find poems like "The Vacuum Cleaner's Revenge," "Scarecrow's Dream," and "Prayer of a Snowflake." This book is a terrific mentor text for using with kids learning to write mask poems. Here is an example.

by Deborah Chandra

Come, press my mouth against your ear,
I hold a message just for you.
Deep inside my throat is where
It curls, waiting for you to hear.

Put there by the sea itself,
Who whispered something you should know
In shadowy sounds wound round my shell,
And with my hidden tongue, I'll tell.

Poem ©Deborah Chandra. All rights reserved.
in the swim (2001), poems and paintings by Douglas Florian, is a collection of humorous poems about underwater creatures. Many of the poems in this volume are written in the voice of the animal. Here's one of my favorites.

The Starfish
by Douglas Florian

Although it seems
That I'm all arms,
Some other organs
Give me charm.
I have a mouth
With which to feed.
A tiny stomach
Is all I need.
And though it's true
I have no brain,
I'm still a star
I can't complain.

Poem ©Douglas Florian. All rights reserved.

This title is but one in a long line of books on animals, all of which contain mask poems. Additional titles to look for include beast feast (1998), on the wing (2000), insectlopedia (2002), mammalabilia (2004), lizards, frogs, and polliwogs (2005), and more.
Two titles by Marilyn Singer, Turtle in July (1989, OP), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, and Fireflies at Midnight (2003), illustrated by Ken Robbins, are both collections of mask poems. Turtle in July is a collection of poems that pairs animals with the months of the year. It also includes four seasonal poems focused on the bullhead (a type of catfish). Fireflies at Midnight is a collection of poems about animals at different hours of the day on a summer day.

Here's a favorite poem from each book.

Canada Goose
(from Turtle in July)

Did I tell you?
I should tell you
Going home
We're going home
Are you coming?
Yes, you're coming
Going home
We're going home
How the sun will warm each feather
How the wind will make us fly
Follow me—I'll be your leader
As we flap across the sky
Are you ready?
I am ready
Going home
We're going home
Is it time now?
It is time now
October's happened
And we're going home

(from Fireflies at Midnight)

I, crayfish,
no day fish
no way fish
at all
Nosy otter, watch its jaws
Careless wader, watch my claws
Spend each morning
lying soundless
under stones
Spend each evening
shredding stems
picking bones

Poems ©Marilyn Singer. All rights reserved.
Volcano! Wakes Up, written by Lisa Westberg Peters and illustrated by Steve Jenkins, is a collection of mask poems that describe a day in the life of an imaginary Hawaiian volcano. Ferns, lava flow crickets, a small black road, and the volcano itself all speak in these poems. Here's how it opens.


I'm the baby.
I'm much smaller than my
big sister volcanoes. I'm a little sleepy
now, but when I wake up, watch out! I throw
nasty tantrums. It always works--I get the most attention!

Here's what the ferns have to say when they realize the volcano is awake.


Fire-maker's awake!
She's about to 
this caldera
a lake of fire and
lava. Ah, the
must be over.
Put away all the
But wait . . . it's
hot yet. It's 
not even warm
yet. What a 
delay on this
beautiful day. Hey,
everybody, let's 

Poems ©Lisa Westberg Peters. All rights reserved. 
Button Up!: Wrinkled Rhymes, written by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Petra Mathers, is a collection of 15 mask poems in which the author speaks in the voices of shoes, galoshes, undies, a bicycle helmet, and more. Here's an excerpt.

Bertie's Shoelaces
by Alice Schertle

Good old Bertie,
he lets us hang around.
It doesn't bother Bertie
when we drag along the ground.
We're not up tight
as our Bertie Buddy knows.
We're hang loose laces and
we don't do bows!

Poem ©Alice Schertle. All rights reserved.

Now that you've seen some great examples, here are some helpful resources for reading and writing mask poems with your students.
That's it for the mask/persona poem. I hope you'll join me back here tomorrow for another form.

Monday, April 20, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Reverso

The reverso is actually two poems in one. Read it down (in the normal fashion) and it has one meaning. Read it again from the bottom up, this time with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and you have a different poem. Generally these poems are written as a pair so that the inversion (reversal, hence revserso) is easy to see and appreciate.

Invented by Marilyn Singer, her author's note gives readers some insight into the form and her process. Here's what she says.
We read most poems down the page. But what if we read them up? That's the question I asked myself when I created the reverso. When you read a reverso down, it is one poem. When you read it up, with changes allowed only in punctuation and capitalization it is a different poem.

The first reverso I wrote was inspired by my cat, August:
A cat
a chair:

a chair
a cat.
Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reverso Poems (2010), written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Josee Masse, is a collection of fairy tale inspired poems written in the reverso form. This means that each poem is presented twice, once read in the traditional manner (down), and once read from the bottom up (though presented in a traditional top to bottom form). Confused? Don't be. Presented together, readers get two perspectives on a story, told with the same words but meaning different things. Here is an example.

In the Hood

In my hood,
skipping through the wood,
carrying a basket,
picking berries to eat—
juicy and sweet
what a treat!
But a girl
mustn’t dawdle.
After all, Grandma’s waiting.

After all, Grandma’s waiting
mustn’t dawdle...
But a girl!
What a treat—
juicy and sweet
picking berries to eat,
carrying a basket,
skipping through the wood
in my ’hood.

I can't imagine how difficult it is to write a poem in this fashion. The fact that it makes perfect sense in both directions and tells two sides of the same story is quite remarkable. Here's one more, the poem that gives the book its title.

Mirror Mirror

Let me help you get some rest.
Mother knows best.
Listen to me,
Snow White.
Sleepy, Dopey, Happy,
you've been working day and night.
You look worn out.
A long nap?
A blanket?
An apple to eat?
What would you like?
Time to get off your feet.

Time to get off your feet.
What would you like?
An apple to eat?
A blanket?
A long nap?
You look worn out.
You've been working day and night
Sleepy, dopey, happy
Snow White,
listen to me.
Mother knows best.
Let me help you get some rest.

You can read and listen to some examples at Marilyn Singer's site. You may also want to check out the educator's guide for the book.
Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems (2013), written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Josee Masse, is the sequel (dare I say follow up?!) to Singer's first book of reverso poems. Fairy tale poems in this new collection tell opposite sides of the stories from Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Princess and the Pea, The Little Mermaid, The Golden Goose, Puss in Boots, and others.

Ready, Steady, Go!

That ridiculous loser!
I am not
a slowpoke.
Though I may be
the smallest bit distracted,
I can’t be
I’ve got rabbit feet to
take me to the finish line.

Take me to the finish line!
I’ve got rabbit feet to
I can’t be
the smallest bit distracted.
Though I may be
a slowpoke,
I am not
that ridiculous loser.

You can read and listen to some examples at Marilyn Singer's site.

All poems ©Marilyn Singer. All rights reserved.

**EXTRA EXTRA ** If you read Marilyn Singer's interview yesterday, you'll have noticed that she has a third book of reverso poems, entitled Echo Echo, coming out next spring! This collection of poems is based on Greek myths.

I'm not only enamored with this form, but also the subject matter. After all, one of my favorite books of poetry is The Poets' Grimm: 20th Century Poems from Grimm's Fairy Tales, edited by Jeanne Marie Beaumont & Claudia Carlson.

Incorporating fairy tale poetry in the classroom is a great way to spark interest in poetry itself. The topic is familiar and lends itself to examination from multiple perspectives. That's one of the reasons that these books work so darned well. The unexpected second perspective is often surprising and funny.

Whether your state uses Common Core or some other set of standards, the study of fairy tales and fables is an important part of English/Language Arts curriculum. Teachers have become pros at integrating fairy tales from other cultures and "fractured" fairy tales. It is high time for poetry to take its rightful place as part of this study. 

For some ideas on integrating fairy tale poetry into the curriculum, check out these resources.
If you're feeling brave, perhaps you'll even try writing some simple reverso poems with your students! 

Monday Poetry Stretch - Dorsimbra

If you read Marilyn Singer's interview yesterday, you'll have noticed that she mentioned a number of forms she might like to try. Today's challenge is one of these forms.

Dorsimbra is a poetry form created by Eve Braden, Frieda Dorris and Robert Simonton. It contains a set of three quatrains.  Each quatrain is written following specific guidelines. They are:
  • Stanza 1 - four lines of iambic pentameter rhyming abab
  • Stanza 2 - four lines of "short and snappy" free verse
  • Stanza 3 - four lines of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) with the last line the same as the first line of the first stanza
In addition to these guidelines, the form’s creators suggest the use of enjambment, interlaced rhymes, and near-rhymes to bind the three stanzas.

You can read more about this form at Sol Magazine and Poetry Base.

I hope you'll join me this week in writing dorsimbra. Please share a link to your poem or the poem itself in the comments.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Interview with Marilyn Singer

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 Marilyn Singer, author of more than 80 books in a range of genres, including non-fiction, fairy tales, picture books, mysteries, poetry, and more. Recent poetry titles include Rutherford B., Who Was He?: Poems About Our Presidents (2013), Follow Follow: A Book of Reversos (2013), A Strange Place to Call Home (2012), The Superheroes Employment Agency (2012),  A Stick is an Excellent Thing: Poems Celebrating Outdoor Play (2012),  A Full Moon Is Rising (2011), Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Poems (2010), and First Food Fight This Fall and Other School Poems (2008).

How does a poem begin for you — with an idea, a form, an image, or something else?
Marilyn: For me, a poem can begin with any of those things.  Sometimes, it’s an image.  I saw the full moon between skyscrapers near Times Square, NYC, where the Broadway theatres are, and it led to the image of the moon as an actor waiting in the wings to make an entrance.  That in turn led to the poem “Broadway Moon” in A Full Moon Is Rising (Lee & Low).  Other times, it’s an idea that sparks a poem.   I was thinking about the nature of fire and these lines came into my head:  “Fire has contradiction/at its heart/from that wintry blue part/to its jagged golden crown.”   They became the opening of the poem “Contradiction” from Central Heating (Knopf).  For my reverso poems, the process of writing obviously begins with form. A reverso is a poem in two parts.  The second part reverses the lines from the first part, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and it has to say something different from the first part. Mirrror Mirror and Follow Follow, both published by Dial, are my books of reversos based on fairy tales, and I have a third book of reversos, Echo Echo, based on Greek myths, coming out next spring. When I decide to create a reverso, I have to find a narrative that will fit that form. I look for two sides to a story, and then I find lines that can be flipped, which requires a lot of participles, questions/declarations, etc.  I usually write poems by hand on paper, but I have to write the reversos on a computer in order to shift around lines more easily and see what makes sense.

How do you choose the form of your poems?
Marilyn: Other than the reversos, which are a deliberate choice, I’m not really sure how I choose the form of my poems.  I don’t think that there’s one thing at work which determines my choice. Sometimes a line begs to be repeated, for example, “A stick is an excellent thing,” from the title poem from A Stick Is an Excellent Thing (Clarion).  That call for repetition suggested that I use the line in a triolet, one of my favorite forms.  But often, my choice is more like: I’m going to write about spadefoot toads for my book about animals in dangerous habitats, A Strange Place to Call Home (Chronicle), and I’ve researched them, and, they’re in the desert, which is dry and sparse, and the poem’s about nature, and  how about a haiku: “They can deal solo/with dryness, but give them rain,/and then: toads explode.”

Are there any forms you haven't tried but would like to? Why or why not?
Marilyn: There are lots of forms I’ve seen on lists and don’t know anything about. Tetractys? Tyburn? Dorsimbra? Maybe I’ll get to some of them—and maybe I won’t. I tried my hand at some villanelles and enjoyed them, though they were quite difficult. I’ve never written a sestina, and I don’t know if I ever will.  It seems a bit daunting. In general, I’m drawn to forms that are more concise—triolets, cinquains, haikus, as well as free verse—forms that say a lot in a little.  But, who knows, maybe I’ll wake up some morning with the burning need to write epic verse (though probably not!).

What tools (rhyming dictionary, book of forms, etc.) do you use in writing poetry (if any)?
Marilyn: I use all of the above—a rhyming dictionary (mostly online), a thesaurus, and reference sites to forms—as well as spell check.  ;-)

What would you like students or children to know about poetry?
Marilyn: When I was very young, my parents read poetry to me.  It made me fall in love with words and what they can convey.  It also made me believe that there is not just one view of the world. Poetry is about surprise—seeing a cat, a stone, a trip to the ocean, an annoying neighbor, racial politics, climate change, bird migration, something conceptual or concrete in a unique way.  And the poet’s efforts to do that allow the reader or listener to share that view, and perhaps use his or her own mind and senses to look at things differently.

Also, poetry can be a fun game. Writing my reversos, in particular, has been the ultimate word game. And I think, for readers, figuring out what the poems say and how they say it (and then maybe trying to write reversos themselves) is also a good game.

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?
Marilyn: Here’s the title poem from Follow Follow.  It’s based on the Pied Piper tale.  Who is speaking in each part of the poem?


Hundreds of rats,
my dear citizens of Hamelin,
shall never return!
All the children
once again play merrily in the streets.
On this festive day
I will
tell the council to relay what I say:
“Many thanks
for your
There will be
no pay.
It is time, Piper, to go away.”

It is time, Piper, to go away?
No pay?
There will be
for your
"many thanks."
Tell the council to relay what I say:
I will,
on this festive day,
once again play merrily in the streets.
All the children
shall never return.
My dear citizens of Hamelin—
hundreds of rats.

Poems ©Marilyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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

Saturday, April 18, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Interview with Avis Harley

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 Avis Harley, a former teacher and author of 5 books of poetry for children, including African Acrostics: A Word in Edgewise (2009), The Monarch’s Progress: Poems with Wings (2008), Sea Stars: Saltwater Poems (2006), Leap into Poetry: More ABCs of Poetry (2001), and Fly with Poetry: An ABC of Poetry (2000).

How do you begin a poem? 
Avis: It varies.  It can be a visual image, a musical thought, a physical sensation, or perhaps just a single word.  But before I start writing, I like to immerse myself in someone else’s poetry. Sometimes an idea might come from this reading, but mostly I return to my earlier inspiration.  A word grows into a phrase that grows into a line, and slowly, over time and many, many rewrites, a poem might emerge.

How do you choose the form of your poems?
It’s crafty business, poetry writing,
But poetic forms are so inviting!

Should it be free verse?  Rap?  Haiku?
Intravista?  Sonnet?  Clerihew?
Limerick?  Villanelle?  Elegy?
A Couplet?  Acrostic?  A parody?

A myriad of forms from which to choose,
but the content decides which one to use.

What tools do you use in writing poetry?
Avis: I enjoy playing with rhyme, and have three different rhyming dictionaries. My Penguin Rhyming Dictionary is a well-thumbed paperback.  Another book is A Rhyming Dictionary and Poets’ Handbook by Burges Johnson, where the words are grouped into one-syllable rhymes, two-syllable rhymes, three-syllable rhymes, and so on – a double-dactyl-delight.  I also like Walker’s Rhyming Dictionary.  It is a reverse-order dictionary and a handy source for eye-rhymes, where endings are the same in spelling but not in sound.  I love eye-rhymes, and wrote a whole book of them, but recognize this obscurity is hard to sell.  But they were fun to write, and here’s one of them:


Dandelions plough
straight through
cement.   Although
just a golden hiccough
shining in its tiny trough,
for Dandelion, that is enough.

I also use the thesaurus, plus a Webster’s and an Oxford dictionary.  Canadians sometimes have different pronunciations and spellings to the Americans for certain words.  The ‘u’ in words such as honour, savour, humour, etc., disappears when my poems go over the border, bringing back childhood memories of a big red X on a spelling test if the ‘u’ were ever omitted.

But most of the time we both agree,
except when saying ‘zed’ or ‘zee.’

For forms, I often refer to The Harper Handbook to Literature, edited by Northrop Frye, et al.  Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics is a wonderful resource.  A book I encouraged my teacher/librarian students to read when I was teaching a poetry course at the University of B.C. is called The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett.  It’s full of useful information and reader-friendly definitions.   I am somewhat addicted to collecting books of form, if only to discover new and obscure kinds of poems I’d like to try.

What would you like students or children to know about poetry?
Avis: It doesn’t always have to rhyme or be funny. Poetry is the most inspiring and beautiful arrangement of words language can offer. Poetry is a producer of the ‘ah-ha’ moment. Robert Frost said “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I would like children and students to discover this delight and wisdom by reading lots and lots of good poems – all kinds. Poetry is meant to be enjoyed; too many ‘simile-safaris’ can kill poetry. I would like them to know the wonder of language, and to try writing their own poems, and learn through this experience that poetry writing is not easy, but so rewarding.  It is a lifelong friend.

Are there any forms you haven't tried but would like to? Why or why not?
Avis: Yes, there are a lot of forms I have not yet tried!  I have experimented with many different ones in two ABC poetry books I’ve written, and do have my favourites – especially haiku, triolet, sonnet, limerick, and acrostic.  I’ve always been intrigued with puzzles and word games: crosswords, scrabble, anagrams, acrostics, words-within-words, rebuses, and any type of word fun that could be a springboard for a poetic form.  I like to create poems with messages inside, and enjoy inventing my own forms.

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?
Avis: "Foreign" can mean unfamiliar, and my choice of verse form will be unfamiliar, as it is an original poetic form I have created.  I’ve called it the intravista, where words within words, arranged downward, make a poem within a poem.  Here is an intravista about our old cat, Sockeye:

                        THE CONTENTED CAT

                        A thermal cushion arrives on my lap,
                           spurred on by the thought
                   of a blissful nap.  She neatly
                          washes paws and chin – then lets
              her heartwarming purr begin.
                   So pleasant that murmur of purr and meow,
                            there’s enough contentment
                     to unfurrow my brow.


By hiding a word within another word, the intravista continually surprises me.  Coming up with an unusual word to envelop another one always seems to spark an unexpected idea, and it’s fun to have an inner voice give you two poems for the price of one.  As April is the month of blossoms, and also Poetry Month, I’d like to close with this poem:

                      IN THE KEY OF BEE

                      Blossom weather!
                           The sun-dappled
                                         street is alive
               with humming.  Listen
              to these trees blissfully thrumming
                                in the soft key
                              of honeybees!


Poems ©Avis Harley. All rights reserved.

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Acrostic

An acrostic poem is one in which the first, last or some other letters, when read in a line moving downward, spell out a word or phrase. Acrostic poems date back to ancient times. They are found in the Bible and Roman ruins. Chaucer wrote them in the Middle Ages. Christopher Marlowe, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll and others have written in this form.

Here's a bit of background on the form from Avis Harley's book, African Acrostics.
The acrostic is a playful poetic form that people have enjoyed writing and reading since ancient times. The name comes from akros, the Greek word meaning outermost, or end, and stichos, meaning row, or a line of verse. Although the form has many variations, the most popular is the traditional acrostic, in which the first letters of the lines, when read downward, spell a word or words.
... Acrostics offer the writer an intriguing framework for a poem, and single acrostics are not difficult to create. Think of a word, phrase, or even a whole sentence that catches your imagination. Then write it vertically. You can use one words per line, or many words—rhymed or unrhymed. A predetermined letter can sometimes spark an unexpected idea, and it's great fun to hide a word or message for your readers
Astonish yourself—
Create a poem that
On its
Think of the fun when
It lets the letters help you
Text and Poem ©Avis Harley. All rights reserved.  
On my regular travels through classrooms I have noticed that students are often asked to write acrostic poems. Sometimes I see their names or the topic they are studying as the spine of their poems. Too often these acrostic studies are merely lists of descriptive words or phrases. Poetry they are not. I think good acrostic poems are hard to write. To inspire students in their acrostic writing you need strong mentor texts they can use as models. The books that follow provide outstanding examples of acrostics that work.
African Acrostics: A Word in Edgeways (2012), written by Avis Harley with photographs by Deborah Noyes, is a collection of 18 acrostic poems, each accompanied by a gorgeous photograph of the animal described. Poems cover the crocodile, rhino, kudu, lion, hornbill, elephant, stork, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, ostrich, African wildcat, lioness, bonobo, impala, hippo, bat-eared fox, and leopard. The book opens with a poem about the form.

ACROSTIC (uh-Kros-tik)

Welcome, all poets--both new
Or well versed. Non-rhymers or
Rhymers! Come,
Dive in headfirst!

Inviting all writers--
Now you're just the right age.

Explore the acrostic that rides
Down the page.
Get a word you
Enjoy and would like to define.
Write it down vertically
And fill in each line.
Your name is a very good way to begin.
Surprise yourself. Find that poem within!

Now that you've been introduced to the notion of a "word in edgeways," I doubt you'll ever look at an acrostic in the same way. In fact, Harley pushes the boundaries of the form and does more than write simple acrostics. Let's skip to the endnotes for a moment where readers will find descriptions and examples of the many forms found in this collection, such as the double acrostic, multiple acrostic, cross acrostic, and more. Here's an example of a double acrostic.

Eye to Eye

Ear-sails flap in a breeze.
Leather limbs in rhythm
Evenly swaying in step
Plod slowly over Africa.
Huge as a dinosaur, yet
tender soul from such
Noble mammoth alumni.
There is wonder abuzz,
Staring into eyes so wise.

Poems ©Avis Harley. All rights reserved.

The poems in this book are deftly created. The words spelled out vertically range from single words (herald, lying, poppet, outstanding) to phrases (wild stripes, cloud friends, fatherly advice, beauty in the beast). The double acrostics, quintuple acrostic (yes, that's FIVE words), and concrete acrostic deserve some special attention. The patterns that exist within them never get in the way of the poem itself, and finding them is a bit of a surprise. 
Spring: An Alphabet Acrostic (1999), written by Steven Schnur and illustrated by Leslie Evans, is a collection of 26 acrostics from April to zenith. The poems each serve as a complete thought about the subject and are crafted exquisitely with what seem to be just the right words. Here are a few examples.

After days of
Rain, the last
Ice and snow finally
Leave the earth.

Egrets, ducks and
Geese nest in the marsh
Grass, waiting for their
Shells to hatch.

Nestled under the
Eaves, a
Song-filled ark of
Twigs and grass.

Poems ©Steven Schnur. All rights reserved.

You will also find poems for the words buds, calf, dawn, frog, grass, hopscotch, infant, jungle, kites, ladder, May, outside, parade, quintuplets, raft, seeds, twilight, umpire, Venus, wheat, Xing, and young.

There are four books in this series, each one with carefully crafted acrostics. You can view some of the illustrations in the series and read a few more poems on Leslie Evans' web site.
Silver Seeds, written by Paul Paolilli and Dan Brewer with paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, is a collection of 15 nature poems using the acrostic form. The verses are ordered to follow a young boy and girl through the day, beginning with dawn and ending with night. In between they encounter sun, shadow, hills, trees, leaves (though the word is leaf), a bee, butterfly, hummingbird, clouds, fog, rain, the moon, and stars. Here is the poem that gives the book its title and one on clouds.

Silver seeds
Tossed in the air
And planted in the sky,
Reaching out of the darkness
Sprouting wonder. 

Creamy scoops of ice cream
Under a
Dreamy blue

Poems ©Paul Paolilli and Dan Brewer. All rights reserved.

The poems in each of these collections are economical and evocative. The metaphors are carefully selected and spot-on.

You will notice that each of the poems shared are fine examples of the form, far removed from the school-assigned poems to write an acrostic using your first name, or some vocabulary word being studied. Now that you've had a chance to think a bit about this form, here are some resources you may find helpful.
That's it for acrostic poems. Come back this weekend for two new interviews with children's poets.

Poetry Friday - A Potpourri

Today I'm sharing some thoughts on form and writing poetry. These are the views of Kevin Boland (known to his baseball-playing buddies as Shakespeare), the main character in Ron Koertge's books Shakespeare Bats Cleanup and its sequel, Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs.

Man, sonnets are hard: counting
syllables in every line, trolling
for rhymes. (SBC, p.16)

I'm still trying to slip in some inside
rhyme, just a few things that chime
a little but don't go bongbongbong
at the end of every line. (SBC, p. 61)

He calls rhyme a benevolent bully because it'll make a poet
look hard for the right word and then maybe he finds
an even better one! (SMTP, p. 11)

The sestina is almost impossible. I tried one once
and after a couple of stanzas threw myself onto
the nearest chaise and wept. Copiously. (SMTP, p. 80)

Poem excerpts ©Ron Koertge. All rights reserved

At the Storyteller's Inkpot, Koertge has written about working with a student/poet who refused to write in forms. It's an interesting piece that makes a good case for writing in form. And Koertge ends on a note that gives me hope. He says:
Most of my poems are failures, anyway, but as Samuel Beckett (Mr. Sunshine) famously said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
When I embarked on my NPM project this month, it was in part a reaction to rhyme exhaustion. Often times I think and feel the way Laura Shovan describes in her piece Why I Hate Rhyme. If you haven't read it, you should. And ultimately, it's not really hate. Laura says:
In reality, I don’t hate rhyme. Instead, I recognize that using rhyme in a poem is a complex task. 
Amen and AMEN. Many forms that I write in actually use rhyme, but I don't feel boxed in when following the "rules," but rather feel free to play within them. In doing this, the rhymes feel less forced and more thoughtfully selected.

I do hope you'll take some time to check out all the wonderful poetic things being shared and collected today by Robyn Hood Black at Life on the Deckle Edge. Happy poetry Friday friends!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - The Sonnet

Oh sonnet ...

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

Do you recognize the lines above? They come from Sonnets from the Portuguese (this is 43) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The sonnet is a fourteen-line lyric poem that originated in Italy and slowly made its way across Europe and to England. Sonnets were first written as love poems. The type of sonnet, Petrarchan (Italian) or Shakespearean (English) generally determines the structure and rhyme scheme. Before we get into the "rules" and specifics, let's start with a some words about the sonnet.

In That Book of Dad's 
I Borrowed

chapter two was about the sonnet.
Man, those made me want to go back to
haiku. Like a burger with everything on it,
sonnets are packed with roses and dew,
summer days, tender breaths, rocks and rills
(whatever rills are), and tons of wimpy guys
who apparently thought it was a thrill
to sit around with some sheep and sigh
about everything. I'm not that lame.
I'm just a former baseball whiz who'd like
to do what I used to do. Again.
Even if it means getting called out on strikes.
Sorry, Will, the sonnet's not for me.
Baseball's my love—not some thou or thee.

It Took Forever

to write that, and it isn't very good.
I finished, though, because I might be
skinny and sick but I'm not a quitter.

Man, sonnets are hard: counting
syllables in every line, trolling
for rhymes.

But it's really cool how everything fits
into fourteen little lines.

It's kind of like packing a lunch box,
getting in way more good stuff
than I thought I could.

Poems ©Ron Koertge. All rights reserved.

These two poems are from Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ron Koertge. Kevin Boland (known to his baseball-playing buddies as Shakespeare) is sidelined by mono and must spend time at home resting and recuperating. What's a boy to do when he's told he's sick and can't play the sport he loves? His father, who is a writer, hands him a marble composition notebook and says, "You're gonna have a lot of time on your/hands. Maybe you'll feel like writing/something down." Soon after this Kevin takes a book about poetry from the den and secrets it away to his room.
It feels weird smuggling something about
poetry up to my room like it's the new
As Kevin recovers from mono he writes about the death of his mother, girls, baseball, the past, and the struggles of a typical teenager. The poems take a variety of forms, including sonnet, couplet, free verse, elegy, pastoral, pantoum, and more. One of the things I love about this book is Kevin's perspective on writing and poetic forms, particularly the sonnet.

So how is a sonnet structured? First, most are composed of 14 lines and written in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is the meter pattern of syllables. An iamb is a foot (two syllables in this case) that are unstressed/stressed in pattern. Since the prefix pent- means five, iambic pentameter is a line consisting of 5 iambs. It is stressed in this fashion:

da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM

Italian Sonnet
  • The Italian sonnet is divided into an octave (8 lines), followed by a sestet (6 lines).
  • The rhyme pattern for the octave is a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a. For the sestet the pattern can be c-d-e-c-d-e OR c-d-c-c-d-c.
  • The transition from octave to sestet usually contains a turn.
English Sonnet
  • The English sonnet is composed of three quatrains and a final couplet.
  • The rhyme pattern is a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f-g-g
  • The turn in this version comes with the final couplet.
A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005), written by Marilyn Nelson and illustrated by Philippe Lardy, is a heroic crown of sonnets, or a sequence of 15 sonnets that are interlinked like a normal crown of sonnets, except in the heroic crown the last sonnet is made entirely from the first lines of the previous 14 sonnets. One of the things that makes this heroic crown such an achievement is the the last sonnet is also an acrostic poem, in which the first letters of each line spell out the phrase “RIP Emmett L. Till.”

The poems in this crown are not easy to read. They are unsettling, shocking, and sad, but this is an important event in the history of our nation that needs to be told again and again. The book ends with a short biography of Emmett Till, extensive notes on the 15 sonnets, and an artist's note. The tempera illustrations by Philippe Lardy quietly reflect the themes and moods of the sonnets.

One of the sonnets in this crown is written from the perspective of the tree witnessing the lynching, and echoes some of the sentiments expressed in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem The Haunted Oak.

Pierced by the screams of a shortened childhood,
my heartwood has been scarred for fifty years
by what I heard, with hundreds of green ears.
That jackal laughter. Two hundred years I stood
listening to small struggles to find food,
to the songs of creature life, which disappears
and comes again, to the music of the spheres.
Two hundred years of deaths I understood.
Then slaughter axed one quiet summer night,
shivering the deep silence of the stars.
A running boy, five men in close pursuit.
One dark, five pale faces in the moonlight.
Noise, silence, back-slaps. One match, five cigars.
Emmett Till's name still catches in the throat.

Poem ©Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved.

You can listen to an interview with Marilyn Nelson on NPR and hear her read the entire poem. If you are interested in using this book in he classroom, you can download a teacher's guide from Houghton Mifflin.
The Emily Sonnets: The Life of Emily Dickinson (2012), written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Gary Kelley, is a sequence of sonnets that together tell the story of Dickinson's life. Written in the voices of Dickinson, her dog, sister, and others, each poem lovingly points back to the words used in Dickinson's own works. Back matter includes detailed information about the context of the poems and includes interesting and endearing anecdotes to accompany each sonnet.

Here are Yolen's words from the Author's note about the collection.
In this book of sonnets about Emily's life, I have given each poem a title and an indication as to the speaker, whether Emily herself, her sister Lavinia (Vinnie), her niece Martha (Mattie), her mentor/friend Thomas Wenworth Higginson, an unknown critic, or me (JY). I have tried to tell the truth of her life, but as Emily said: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit lies ..."

The Brick House (Emily Speaks)

No house in town was built of brick
Except the one that bore me.
The roof was slant, the walls quite thick.
My mother did not adore me.
My father's smiles were rare and swift,
A grimace more than joy.
I was the second child, a gift;
The first one was a boy.

We two, like sailors in a storm,
Clung desperate to each other,
Trying to stay safe and warm,
Small sister to big brother;
He strove so hard my life to save
From drowning in that icy wave.

Poem ©Jane Yolen. All rights reserved.

It's rare to find sonnets in poetry for children, so I have one more title to recommend.
Shakespeare's Seasons (2012), created by Miriam Weiner and illustrated by Shannon Whitt, is an introduction to Shakespeare that combines snippets of his verse (mostly sonnets) accompanied by illustrations that span the seasons of the year. Back matter includes a short note about Shakespeare and his work. Here is an excerpt.
The way people speak to each other has changed a bit since Shakespeare's time. This is why some of the words in this book—words from his sonnets and plays—may sound funny to you. But listen carefully and you can enjoy the music of his words, and the pictures they create in your mind.
The book opens with the season of summer and these lines.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
                                                                              Sonnet 18, 1-4

Most excerpts shared are four lines or less, though the longest quote is eight lines. Shakespeare's words, paired with Whitt's lovely images, make the language and ideas easily accessible for children. If you haven't seen this title, take a quick look at the images from the book at Shannon Whitt's web site.

If you are ready to tackle reading and/or writing the sonnet with your students, here are some helpful resources.
That's it for the sonnet. I'll be back tomorrow with another form.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Found Poems

At the most basic level, found poems are poems composed from words and phrases found in another text. Here is a more comprehensive description from the folks at Poets.org.
Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems.

A pure found poem consists exclusively of outside texts: the words of the poem remain as they were found, with few additions or omissions. Decisions of form, such as where to break a line, are left to the poet.
And here is what is written on the "About" page at The Found Poetry Review.
“Happy poets who write found poetry go pawing through popular culture like sculptors on trash heaps. They hold and wave aloft usable artifacts and fragments: jingles and ad copy, menus and broadcasts — all objet trouvĂ©s, the literary equivalents of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans and Duchamp’s bicycle. By entering a found text as a poem, the poet doubles its context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles. The poet adds, or at any rate increases, the element of delight. This is an urban, youthful, ironic, cruising kind of poetry. It serves up whole texts, or interrupted fragments of texts.” — Annie Dillard

Put another way, found poetry is the literary version of a collage. Poets select a source text or texts — anything from traditional texts like books, magazines and newspapers to more nontraditional sources like product packaging, junk mail or court transcripts — then excerpt words and phrases from the text(s) to create a new piece.
What I love about the Found Poetry site is that they describe different types of found poetry and where possible, provide examples. You can learn about erasure, free-form excerpting and remixing, cento, and cut-up. They also provide a quick but very helpful introduction to issues of fair use.

In an NCTE article on found and headline poems I found this most useful and inspiring language for thinking about found poetry.
Plenty of strong and beautiful poems are made from plain language. You sometimes hear such language in conversation, when people are talking their best. Listen. Sometimes you yourself say wonderful things. Admit it. You can find moving, rich language in books, on walls, even in junk mail. (From such sources you’ll probably find better poems, or better beginnings for poems, than from dictionaries and other word books.) 
So, poems hide in things you and others say and write. They lie buried in places where language isn’t so self-conscious as “real poetry” often is.
So found poetry is inspired by every little thing, you just need to keep your eyes, ears, and heart open to the possibilities.
The Arrow Finds Its Mark: A Book of Found Poems (2012), edited by Georgia Heard and illustrated by Antoine Guillope, is a collection of 40 found poems. The guidelines for creating the poems found in the book are outlined in the Introduction and are excerpted here.
  • Poets were asked to find text that already exists in a form other than poetry and present that text as a poem.
  • Poets could find poems from any source (other than poetry).
  • Poets were encouraged not to change, add, or rearrange words but, as in any creative endeavor, they stretched these guidelines and were allowed to make minor changes in order for the poem to flow more smoothly or make better sense. They could also change punctuation, tense, plurals, and capitalization.
  • Poets created their own titles that often gave the poems depth and added another layer of meaning.
  • Poets could combine the found poem with an other form.
So, the intrepid poets in this volume set out to find poems in the texts of everyday life. Here are a few of the poems they came up with.

Found by Janet Wong
on a box of OxiClean detergent

Pep Talk

Keep cool.
See a brighter solution.
Maintain freshness.
Boost your power!

Poem ©Janet Wong. All rights reserved.

Found by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
in Drawing On Both Sides of the Brain
by Betty Edwards

Artist's Advice

Draw everything and anything.
Nothing is unbeautiful:
a few square inches of weeds
a broken glass
a landscape
a human being.
Observe your style.
Guard it.
Put pencil to paper every day.

Poem ©Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. All rights reserved.

Finally, I want to share one more found poem. This is a poem of a different sort. Please visit the Newspaper Blackout site to learn more about Austin Kleon and his work.
Poem ©Autsin Kleon. All rights reserved.

If you would like to try writing found poems with your students, here are some helpful resources.
Now that you are inspired, go out and find yourself a poem! NPM is half over, but I still have more to explore with you. I'll hope you'll come back tomorrow for another form.