Friday, April 03, 2009

Poetry Makers - Ann Whitford Paul

Last year during National Poetry Month I won a book from Elaine at Wild Rose Reader. It was All by Herself: 14 Girls Who Made a Difference, written by Ann Whitford Paul and illustrated by Michael Steirnagle. I'm embarrassed to say that until then, I had never met the author in my poetry reading. How could that be?! A few months later while preparing for a lesson on geometry I pulled out one of my favorite books, Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet, and lo and behold, saw a name on the cover I recognized! It was Ann Whitford Paul. In the months that followed, Ann's name seemed to pop up in every Lee Bennett Hopkins' anthology that I opened. (Really, this is only a slight exaggeration!)

When I decided to do this series I just knew I had to find out more about her. So, before I talk about Ann's work, let's meet her.


How did you get started writing poetry?
Ann: I wrote a picture book that was called "poetic" by teachers and reviewers so I thought I better learn more about Poetry. That's why I signed up for a class with Myra Cohn Livingston. It changed my life. I studied with her for nearly nine years. Although she died, I still hear her comments with every poem I write.

Who/what made you want to write?
Ann: Reading stories to my four children, got me interested in writing. I enjoyed those times so much I wanted to create other books that adults and children could share together.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
I love the simplicity, music and directness of children's poetry. The wonder of the world, the honest expression and the upbeat view, contrasted with the wandering, self-indulgent and free-verse of adult poetry, spoke to me.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
I studied poetry with Myra Cohn Livingston and have continued my education in working with other poets and reading, reading, reading poems.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
If I don't have an idea, but want to write a poem, I spend a long time observing and thinking about an object, any object. I let my mind wander to memories associated with it, fantasies about it, metaphor and simile and soon a poem begins. Often it doesn't rhyme in the beginning. First I want to get down what I'm trying to say. After that, I play around with rhythm and rhyme. Sometimes it improves the poem, other times it doesn't.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
I love the way it forces me to focus on the here and now. It's always a challenge to fit a subject into a form and that keeps me interested. Also poems are short. Therefore I can write in brief snatches of time. A picture book or a novel requires much more long-time concentration. Just because poems are short however, doesn't mean they are easy. It takes time and patience to make sure every word is right.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Ann: I'm especially excited about my latest picture book WORD BUILDER which is actually a poem about writing that Lee Bennett Hopkins first published in an anthology titled WONDERFUL WORDS. It's about how one constructs a book and the illustrations by Kurt Cyrus are stunning!

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Ann: I just sent a revision of a new poetry collection to an editor and I'm afraid to talk about it for fear I'll jinx the project. I'll keep you posted.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Ann: David McCord for his images, language and child-like fascination with the world.

Your favorite place to write?
I have a chair in my bedroom, that's super comfortable and has a view out the window of trees and birds and squirrels. That's where I usually write my first drafts with pen and paper. Then I go to my office (which used to be one of my children's bedrooms) and revise on my computer. The chair isn't as comfortable and I have a different view of trees and birds, but both places put me in a creative mood.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Ann: "Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the critics don't like-then cultivate it. That's the only part of your work that's individual and worth keeping." -Jean Cocteau

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Ann: Hope Anita Smith. Her poems ring with honesty and she does not shy away from writing of strong, painful emotions.

All by Herself: 14 Girls Who Made a Difference is a book of biographical poems about girls who grew into women of note. The poems focus on the experiences in their early lives that helped shape who they became. You'll find verses here about Amelia Earhart, Mary Jane McLeod, Violet Sheehy, Rachel Carson, Sacajawea, Ida Lewis, Harriet Hanson, Wilma Rudolph, Wanda Gág, Kate Shelley, Pocahontas, Maria Mitchell, Golda Mabovitch (Meir), and Frances Ward. At the beginning of the back matter you'll find this poem.
Each by herself has acted strong.
This book is short,
but could be long.
Many girls have done the same,
but there's not room
for every name.
How true. When I reached the end I wanted more poems, more stories, more information about the amazing women that have helped to shape our history. The end notes describe a bit about each girl and the experience described in the verse, as well as what the girl went on to do in adulthood. A biography for further reading is included.

Not only do I love the poems in All by Herself, but I have many favorites among her anthologized poems. They take many poetic forms and cover a huge range of topics. Here are two of my favorites. The first is a gorgeous poem entitled "Full Moon and Owl" in Hoofbeats, Claws & Rippled Fins: Creature Poems, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. After trying mightily in recent days to write a triolet that works (I failed miserably), this one gives me some hefty inspiration.
Full Moon and Owl

Full Moon and Owl together stare,
three round eyes watching the night.
Moon's white sines a friendly glare.
Full Moon and Owl together stare.
But Owl's cold gold warns Beware
and all small creatures quake with fright.
Full Moon and Owl together stare,
three round eyes watching the night.

**Apologies for the formatting.
In the book the type is set so that the poem itself
takes the shape of the full moon.
The second is from America at War, poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Stephen Alcorn.
Battle of Bunker Hill—1775

Press on! Press on!
sweltering sun.
Press on!
Through chain shot,
ring shot, double-headed
shot, falling
thick as hailstones.

Press on!
Shut your ears to the
wounded's piercing groans.
The fear of death
has already left each breast.

Press on!
Descent the hill.
Damn those redcoats!
Damn those lobsters!
Dam those bloody backs!
Press on! Press on!
I can't read this without thinking about our soldiers today. The weapons, clothing, and location may be different, but the work and resolve of the troops on the ground is unchanged. This poem exemplifies one of the things I love about poetry. It transports us through time and space and makes us feel things as we look at the world in a different way. Now picture a teacher reading this poem in a social studies class where students are learning about the Revolutionary war. Can you imagine the impact it will make? I surely can.

I owe Elaine Magliaro a tremendous debt of gratitude for introducing me to the work of Ann Whitford Paul. For those of you reading this post who haven't read her work before today, consider yourselves initiated. Now go out and look for more! You won't regret it.

If you want to learn more about Ann and her work, visit these sites.
Many, many heartfelt thanks to Ann for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

If you've read this far, you now have the opportunity to win your very own copy of All by Herself by leaving a note in the comments. You have until midnight tonight to enter. On Saturday morning I will put the names in a hat and let William pick a winner.


  1. I had a chance to very briefly meet Anna Whitford Paul and hear her read in Lee Bennett Hopkins' poetry class at the L.A. SCBWI conference a couple of years ago. She was very soft-spoken (at least in that setting) and gracious. But her poems are so passionate, dramatic, full of strength! It's fun to see the difference.

    Thank you for the lovely interview. This is such a fun way to start each day, learning more about terrific poets!

  2. Sorry--I meant Ann Whitford Paul. Fingers flying faster than my brain is working.

  3. Wonderful post. I love how you describe your process of discovering this poet. I often have this kind of gradual realization of authors that have been in my life for longer than I realized.

    I love the Owl/Full Moon poem here.

  4. So wonderful to hear Ann's voice in this interview. Not only is she a gifted writer, but she's a fabulous teacher and generous friend. I miss our walks and chats over coffee, Ann!

    Thanks for these terrific interviews, Tricia!

  5. Oh, that's it. Just from the first poem, I know I need that book. From the second poem, I know I need to track down everything she's ever written.


  6. Oh wow... I feel like I was just sitting in on the edge of reading and getting know the poet a bit better.

    As others have said, thank you, Tricia, from bring these talented poets a little more up close and personal.

  7. These interviews are fantastic. I especially enjoy reading about each poet's writing process. I'm sharing the interviews with my language arts students. This morning one of them even asked, "Hey, are we reading about another poet today?" I can tell that some of them are really getting into it. Thanks!

  8. Ann is a rare writer and a rare human being. Lovely to be able to read about her process like this.

    Thanks so much for the great inteview!

  9. Thank you introducing me to an wonderful poet that I previously didn't know. I'm really enjoying your Poetry Makers series.

  10. I know EIGHT HANDS ROUND, but didn't recognize this Ann Whitford Paul's name. Like several of your previous commenters, I love the interviews! What a treat to have poetry every day like this! Thanks much!

  11. "Word Builder" as a picture book sounds really cool - I'd love to get my hands on that!