Monday, April 27, 2009

Poetry Makers - Helen Frost

When Diamond Willow won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award this year, I thought Helen Frost's name sounded vaguely familiar. Much to my dismay, I learned that this wasn't because I knew Helen's poetry (oh, how much I was missing!), but rather because of a number of books on my SON'S bookshelf—Alosaurio/Allosaurus, Estegosaurio/Stegosaurus, Mamut lanudo/Woolly Mammoth, Tigre dientes de sable/Sabertooth Cat, Tiranosaurio rex/Tyrannosaurus Rex, and Triceratops/Triceratops.

Helen has written 130 titles, the majority of them nonfiction titles for Capstone Press. If you do not know her poetry, you're missing something really special.

After picking up Diamond Willow this winter, I sought out and read all ALL of Helen's poetry books to date. I was not disappointed. Before we look at Helen's poetry, let's learn a bit more about her.


How did you get started writing poetry?
Helen: I like William Stafford’s answer to that: What made everyone else stop?

Who/what made you want to write?
Helen: A big pile of shiny paper on the top shelf of a closet and a pen I could scribble with. Someone gave us the paper because there were ten kids in our family and they figured we could use it, which was true. I don’t think we ever used it all—of course we must have, but it felt like an infinite supply. Scribbles evolved into words, words into poems. I still love that feeling of pen in hand moving on paper, creating word-music and images.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?

Helen: I came to poetry as a child through community and language, the movement and vibrations of the body:
  • James James Morrison Morisson Weatherby George DuPree
  • By the great gray green banks of the Limpopo River
  • Down by the river, down by the sea, Johnny broke a bottle and blamed it on me
  • The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want
  • Wearing boxes without topses and her shoes were number nine
  • When in the morning light I wake, help me the path of love to take
  • I jumped over it and you eight it
Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Yes. Philip Booth, W.D. Snodgrass, and William Stafford were among my early teachers. I took as many poetry classes in college as we were allowed to take, and attended all the poetry readings. As an adult I went to poetry conferences, took part in workshops and writing groups, read lots of poetry and books about poetry, took part in poetry listservs, subscribed to poetry journals. Although I’m now more often a teacher, I continue to learn in all these ways.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
I’ll try.
look, listen, walk, swim, play
make a big mess with words
abandon it
come back from another angle and see what happens
try some kind of formal structure
abandon that
forget about the whole thing, it was a stupid idea to begin with and it will never work
remember one line that was kind of interesting
write that down
play with it
see something (often an “edge of sleep” image)
find words to bring the image to paper
keep working
take a nap
get to a point where something makes me laugh and/or cry
tease out that thread
discover an inherent, organic structure
develop further
(Either that or sit down and write a poem in one afternoon and think, “That was fun!”)

And I want to add that, for the past ten years, my editor, Frances Foster, and others at FSG, have been an important part of my writing process.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
I love being part of the poetry community for children and adults (young and old), and having a part in letting young people see how they are included in it. I love when children tell me what they have discovered about poetry: “You can say what’s inside you.” Or some of the questions they ask: “Do you ever want to take all your poetry stuff and throw it out the window?”

Sometimes years (even decades) after I have shared poetry with a young person, I will hear how poetry was a lifeline at a time it was most needed.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Helen: Not really, but I can mention one I love: the poem on page 107 in Diamond Willow where the mouse says “squeak squeak” and Roxy goes “Arf, arf” and Willow is almost in on the secret between them, but not quite as much as the reader is. The first time I was in a classroom where the students, 5th graders, had read Diamond Willow, a mouse got in the classroom the day of my visit, and all the kids thought it came in because that poem invited it to do so. I’m pretty sure they were right.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Helen: Crossing Stones is coming out next fall, so that’s finished. I’m now working hard on The Watching Rock, about two contemporary teenage characters who are descended from Jeannie and Sarah, in The Braid. These three novels-in-poems, and also Diamond Willow, are all related, and work together to portray the ways in which we are all connected. It’s been a five or six year project for me. When I finish The Watching Rock, I’ll probably be ready to work on something completely different.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Helen: I’ll name a few I love: Elizabeth Bishop, A.A. Milne, Denise Levertov, Randall Jarrell, Muriel Rukeyser, William Stafford, George Herbert, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Philip Booth—I have to think hard about who is considered not to be alive right now.

And since I work in the "inter-tidal zone" between poetry and fiction, I want to include Virginia Hamilton, whose novels, especially Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, feel so much like poetry to me.

Your favorite place to write?
A clean quiet room.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you in at Heavens gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.

--William Blake

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
I’m glad this isn’t my decision. I can think of at least eight poets I think would be wonderful in that role. And really, I love the way we’re all working together, doing the Laureate work with or without the laurels.

Diamond Willow is a verse novel told in a series of diamond-shaped poems. Within each poem there are a few bold words that, when read from top to bottom, form a poem-within-a-poem. This mini-poem hits right at the heart of larger poem it is contained within. The story follows Diamond Willow, a young girl living in the Alaska wilderness who convinces her parents to let her take the sled dogs to her grandparents' house. Along the way tragedy strikes and Willow must do whatever she can to help her dog Roxy survive. Willow's narrative is told entirely in her diamond-shaped thoughts, but as the story progresses, these are broken up by the voices of animals, animals that bear the names of her ancestors. Here is a poem from the beginning of the book. It's where we learn how Willow feels about dogs.
I love
about dogs:
The don't talk
behind your back.
If they're mad at you,
they bark a couple times
and get it over with. It's true
they slobber on you sometimes.
(I'm glad people don't do that.) They
jump out and scare you in the dark. (I know,
I should say me, not "you"—some people aren't
afraid of anything.) But dogs don't make
fun of you. They don't hit you in the back
of your neck with an ice-covered
snowball, and if they did, and
it made you cry, all their
friends wouldn't stand
there laughing
at you.
Here is one of my favorite poems from the book.
What is it?
An animal . . .
a streak of gold.
Roxy growls deep
in her throat, like she did
in the middle of the night.
We slow down and stare into
the forest—the lynx stares back
at us. When we move on and speed
up, so does it. It's sleek, graceful
moving beside us and keeping up.
I know we're strong enough
to outrun it if we want to,
but I don't think
I want
I followed my reading this amazing book with Keesha's House, a 2004 Printz honor book. Keesha lives in a home where troubled teens can feel accepted. She takes on the responsibility of caring for others who find their way to this haven. The poems in the book, written in the form of sestinas and sonnets, tell the story of the residents. Here is one of the sonnets.
Not Much I Can Do
(Mrs. Goldstein - Katie's English Teacher)

Katie used to be among the best
students in my sophomore honors class.
Her work was careful, A's on every test,
good writer, conscientious. For the last
few weeks, or maybe months--when did this start?--
her grades have fallen, first to C's, now D's.
She's not doing the reading; there's no heart
behind her writing. She's in class, but she's
half asleep, and when I ask her to stay
after school, she says sorry, she can't
she has to be at work by three o'clock.
She didn't turn her paper in today.
It's half her midterm grade. I guess I'll grant
her extra time. She doesn't want to talk.
This is a tough book to read, but with the turn of a page it moves from gritty to heartfelt and back again. It is a roller coaster ride of emotion. Helen clearly has her finger on the pulse of adolescents in this book, writing about the hardships they face, the harsh realities of life, the ways in which they deal with whatever is thrown at them, and the immense wells of strength and courage they draw upon.

Other poetry books of Helen's include Spinning Through the Universe and The Braid. Spinning Through the Universe is a verse novel that introduces readers to a fifth grade teacher and her students as they talk about their lives at home and at school. This book uses an amazing 22 poetic forms to tell the stories! The Braid is the story of two sisters, separated by an ocean during the 1850s. The stories of Sarah and Jeannie are told in alternating narrative poems, which are braided at the edges. Between the narratives are praise poems. In the “Notes On Form” Helen writes, “I invented a formal structure for this book, derived in part from my admiration of Celtic knots”.

Invented indeed. This is precisely what I have fallen in love with in Helen's work. She has pushed the edges of creativity and imagination and given us much that is truly new. If you aren't familiar with Helen's poetry, or haven't taken the time to read it, I hope you will. I feel as though I've discovered a hidden gem in finding my way to her work. I know you will feel the same.

To learn more about Helen and her work, you can visit these sites.
Many thanks to Helen for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Helen Frost. All rights reserved.


  1. I remember reading Keisha's House with tears -- her English teacher's poem being so much like an experience of my own. Nothing you can do sometimes...

    I like the Diamond Willow poems -- The words within the words within the shape that say something quiet and tiny and true. I love that, and yes, I very much love her process!! I think most of ours could be written that way, if we didn't want to self-consciously look like we were actually Doing Something when we wrote!

  2. I really enjoyed Diamond Willow, but now I can't wait to read Keisha's House and the rest of her poetry, too. The braided poems sound fascinating!

    Thanks for sharing, ladies!

  3. Helen ,that's the best description of the poetry writing process I've ever read! I esp. loved the last part in parentheses . . . wish they all came that way.

  4. As my next book, HIDDEN, is beginning to make its way into the world, I remembered writing this, when the story was in a very early stage with a different title (The Watching Rock). My description of the book here, along with the description of the process, makes me laugh. Sometimes we don't know how far we have to go. HIDDEN will be published next May. There is a Watching Rock in the story, but it's no longer the central image.