Thursday, April 09, 2009

Poetry Makers - Jane Yolen

Quick! Let's play a game of word association. I say Jane Yolen, you say __. I did this exercise with a random sample of friends and teacher types and the answers I got included The Devil's Arithmetic, How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?, and Owl Moon. Much to my dismay, the list of responses included not a single poetry title. Okay, the sample was small (n=23), but still, no poetry. To be fair, if you had asked me this question 10 years ago, my answer probably would have been Owl Moon as well.

To date, Jane Yolen has published more than 300 books (latest LOC data is 315) in many different genres. It's not surprising then that poetry isn't the first thing that people think of when they think about her work. However, it's what I think of most these days. Before I talk about Jane's poetry, let's learn a bit more about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Jane: I started (badly) in first/second grade with school poems poorly scanning and awkwardly rhymed. But hey—I was only seven. Give me a break.

Luckily I improved along the way. By high school, I had some poems in the literary magazine. By college—taking a poetry class with Anthony Hecht and a special studies with Marie Borroff—I improved some more and by senior year won all the poetry awards Smith College gave. Though much of the poetry I wrote at the time was wholly ironic and concerned with one of the following topics: virginity, death, torture, war, and body image.

Who/what made you want to write?
Jane: I came from a family of writers, so that seemed to be fated. But I was the only poet (though my brother wrote song lyrics for his bluegrass band.)

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Accident which may or may not have been part of some Greater Design.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
I was an English Lit major at Smith. Afterwards, living in NY (making a living such as it was by being a children’s book editor) I took a poetry course with Stanley Kunitz. He was already older than dirt, as were all the other writers there. I was the youngest by a matter of centuries, and so became everyone’s pet. Later on, when I was teaching children’s book writing at Centrum Writer’s Conference, I wrote a bit of the poetry assignments that Marvin Bell and Sam Hamill were handing out to their poetry students. That’s about as formal as it ever got.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Like all my writing, it takes sitting down, fingers on the keys, and away I go. But whatever goes down first doesn’t last. I then do the revising, refining, revisioning, rewording, recalculating, remaking of every single line. As John Ciardi used to say, “A poem is never finished, it’s abandoned.”

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
I can help them see the world anew. I can put into words some of the longings, and lingering doubts, some of the puzzles and muzzled moments of their lives. I can give them songs to sing.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Jane: Three are particularly special to me right now. (Ask me on another day. . . .and the answer will be different.) THE RADIATION SONNETS (Algonquin) for adults, because it charted the 43 days of radiation my husband went through with his first bout of cancer. It was how I kept myself together for him. DEAR MOTHER/DEAR DAUGHTER (Boyds Mills) because I wrote it with my daughter Heidi Stemple (the OWL MOON girl) when she was grown, and we just went back and forth on the poems, a kind of dueting, like owls in the night. And my latest book of poetry with photographer son Jason Stemple, A MIRROR TO NATURE (out this spring from Boyds Mills) because it is still so new. Of single poems: the first poem in THE RADIATION SONNETS, the Green poem in COLOR ME A RHYME, the Woodpecker poem in FINE FEATHERED FRIENDS and the poem "Angels Take Themselves Lightly" in AMONG ANGELS.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Jane: You will be sorry you asked!

With J, Patrick Lewis: TWINSPIRATION (which may not end up the title) for Candlewick, poems about twins. Pat is a twin and I am the grandmother of twins, the niece of twins, and the sister-in-law of twins. Also with Pat a book in verse about the life of Chagall (Creative Editions) and LAST LAUGHS: Animal Epitaphs (Charlesbridge.)

With Andrew Fusek Peters and anthology of lullaby poems for Candlewick. I am spacing on the title.

Two more nature and photography books with Jason for Boyds Mills: BIRDS OF A FEATHER (more bird poems) and BUG OFF (bug poems).

And a bunch of picture books in rhyme, including MY FATHER KNOWS THE NAMES OF THINGS (S&S), HOW DO DINOSAURS SAY I LOVE YOU (Scholastic), THE SCARECROW’S DANCE (S&S), NOT ALL PRINCESSES WEAR PINK (S&S) and a number more. Plus a picture book ABOUT Emily Dickinson though it is not a poem, MY UNCLE EMILY from Philomel.

Oh—and six of my adult Emily Dickinson sonnets have been set to music by Jerry Noble, a composer in Northampton, Mass and just premiered at Smith College on Valentine’s weekend.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Jane: Emily Dickinson. Quickly followed by Yeats and Dylan Thomas.
(Favorite live poets—Billy Collins, Annie Boutell, Jane Hirshfield)

Your favorite place to write?

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Jane: The John Ciardi line quoted above: “A poem is never finished, it’s abandoned.”

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Jane: Pat Lewis, Paul Janezco, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marilyn Nelson.

In 2007 Jane and Andrew Fusek Peters selected the poems for the anthology Here's A Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry. Illustrated by Polly Dunbar, the book is a real gem and a terrific introduction to poetry for the preschool set. Poems address swings, kites, mud, bugs, rain, grandmas and grandpas, baby brothers, good night kisses, ice cream and more. In addition to this book, Jane has also put together poetry anthologies on topics as varied as animals, city life, nature, sleep rhymes and more.

While a few of Jane's poems are included in her anthologies, it is the collections of her poems that I enjoy most. The poetry she has written to accompany her sons photos are some of my favorites. Titles include Color Me a Rhyme, Count Me a Rhyme, Shape Me a Rhyme, Fine Feathered Friends, Wild Wings, and more. Their newest collaboration is A Mirror to Nature: Poems About Reflection. The photographs are simply gorgeous, and in the introduction, Jane encourages readers to to look at things differently. Here is what she says.
Something new to look at: that is another way of defining the word reflection. To reflect on something is to give it a deep and different look., to think about it in a new way. So, linger over these photos, contemplate the poems, see if together or separately they make you think again, make you reflect.
Each of the poems in the book is also accompanied by a short informational blurb. Here's one of my favorites.
Moorhen's Mirror

Such a quirky
water bird.
It's duplication
is absurd,
reminding us
that nature's sense
of humor's strange—
and quite immense.
While several of the poems in the book are about birds (a seemingly favorite topic of Yolen's), there are also poems on the raccoon, alligator, deer, snail, cockle, frog, and coyote.

I am also quite fond of the poems in the book Raining Cats and Dogs. Half the book is upside down, so readers can find cat poems in one direction, dog poems in the other. The poem from this one will tell you which team I root for in the dog vs. cat debate.
To My Puppy

I think of you, I think of bones
The tooth-marked cords of telephones,
The loose ends of upholstered chairs,
A slipper with the heel in tears,
A rubber ball, a mangled sock,
The splintered mass of baby's block.
These valentines you leave around,
Signed: "Love from me, your favorite hound."

I do love you, you know, despite
The signature of doggy bite.
And I look forward to the days
You show your love in other ways.
I could pull any number of Jane's books off my shelf and share many wonderful poems, but I'll include just one more here. This is from the book Bird Watch.
The Cardinal

A showy gesture
on autumn's stage.
A brilliant blot
on winter's page.
A witty comment
on early spring.
And summer's own
bright darling.
I want to end this by sharing Jane's thoughts about poetry. Here's what she wrote in Paul Janeczko's book Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for New Poets.
Poets often try
to define poetry,
and end up writing poems to do it. It is that hard. In a long poem I wrote among other things that a poem is:

Emotion surprised.
Throwing a colored shadow.
A word that doubles back on itself, not once but twice.
The exact crunch of carrots.
Precise joys.

The reason we can't define it is that definition and poem both take words. And words are as slippery as fish. Ever watch a bear try to catch a fish? That's a poet, big and clumsy, with strong claws and jaws, after a silver slipcased fish that—once caught—lies lumpen on the shore.
If you want to learn more about Jane and her work, visit these sites.
I'm thrilled Jane agreed to participate in the Poetry Makers series. Moran taing, Jane! (For those of you who don't speak Scottish, that means many thanks!)

If you've read this far, you now have the opportunity to win a signed copy of How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read? in paperback. (This is a school market edition.) You have until midnight tonight to leave a note in the comments. On Friday morning I will put the names in a hat and let William pick a winner.

All poems ©Jane Yolen. All rights reserved.


  1. That is the so much the power of Jane Yolen's poetry: naming"Precise Joys." My "word association" would have been "Favorite Folktales from Around the World." As a storyteller and as a teacher I rely on it. "To My Puppy," brings such whistful longing--only Jane Yolen could make me miss the "splintered mass of baby's block."

  2. Thanks so much, Tricia, for featuring Jane in your Poetry Makers series. She is an author I've long been familiar with. I read the journal on her website with a smile. It's a real treat. I love the poems she includes and the ones she leaves for your poetry stretches.

  3. I have been waiting for this one.

    Every time I read something of Our Lady Jane I discover something more. She has such a prodigious talent and the vast spectrum of her abilities means that I am well versed in SOME of her work, but at every turn I find a book someone talks about that is now out of print, or a volume for adults that I hadn't known about. I look forward to my copy of The Radiation Sonnets, and sharing it with my godsister, whose husband has pancreatic cancer. We have been sharing poems for awhile, but to have some written specifically by someone who was there is priceless and the gift will be gratefully received.

    On a different note, Here's A Little Poem is a big hit at my mother's school, and I look forward to getting them a fresh new copy, as theirs has been read nearly to bits already.

    Thank you for a lovely interview.

  4. what a wonderful interview! I'm so excited for her visit to UR in the fall!

  5. Thanks, Tricia, for an inside peek into the mind of Jane Yolen. I love her work. And this quote: John Ciardi's “A poem is never finished, it’s abandoned.”
    I am catching up.

  6. I love her "Anywhere" answer. I strive for that.

    Jane's poem, Revision Takes Wings, sustains me on many days.

    P.S. I like her choice of Jane Hirshfield. I'm featuring a Hirshfield quote/poem tomorrow for PF.

  7. I remember watching Jane, through her journal, as she worked on the Radiation Sonnets and all I could think of is that is what it is to be a poet, to be a writer, that in the midst of all that pain and helplessness you are able to create an island of beauty to help yourself and others heal.

    Thank you, Jane, for always sharing so much of yourself with the world.

    Thank you, Tricia, for this glimpse into Jane.

  8. I have a swelled head today
    It won't fit in my hat.
    So many people said nice things,
    I'll turn into a brat.
    I'll wear a pin that has my name
    And all the things you said.
    But when I need to PUNCTURE-ATE
    The pin goes in my head.


  9. Jane Yolen has been an inspiration to me since I was a kid, and has opened up so many new ways of seeing the world. Thanks so much to both of you for doing this interview.

  10. Thank you for this interview; I had no idea that she was so prolific, having just discovered her through the Dinosaur books (I've only just started reading children's books again recently with my own son). Now I have MANY more books to hunt down.

  11. She is just amazing! My favorite of her books are the nature and photography poetry books. Of course! :) I also love how Jane jumps into your poetry stretches and scatters poems willy nilly.

  12. My eyes seriously bugged out of my head while reading her list of new projects. How does Jane Yolen do it all???

    I am especially looking forward to BUG OFF and MY UNCLE EMILY. :D

  13. What a wonderful interview. I especially like Jane's answer to the things she enjoys about writing poems for kids/young adults.

    Of her anthologies, Once Upon Ice is my very favorite. And of her collections--how do I choose? Color Me a Rhyme is definitely one of my favorites. Different days, different favorites. And how terrific to have a poet so prolific that we have so much to choose from!