Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Poetry Makers - Joyce Sidman

There are many folks who know Joyce Sidman's because of some recent awards her work has garnered:
  • Two-time Cybils winner (2007 - This is Just to Say, 2006 - Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow)
  • Two-time recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award (This is Just to Say - 2008 honor book, Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems - 2006 winner)
I've been a fan ever since I read Just Us Two: Poems About Animal Dads. I love the mix of poetry and science—a winning combination that appears in a number of Joyce's books. In this book, poems in a variety of forms describe animal dads and the roles they play in raising and protecting young. The back matter of the book provides a bit of information about each of the animals described in the poems. Here's one of my favorites.
Mouse Haiku

Blind and tissue-skinned,
tiny mice enter the world
in a nest of grass.

Hide-and-seek masters,
they will soon whisk, surefooted,
through the chill spring night.

Until then, Father
warms this fragile thimbleful
of fluttering hearts.
This poem describes California deer mice, animals "often born during the coldest months of the year." The father mouse uses his body to warm the babies and their mother, protecting them from the cold. I love the phrase "fragile thimbleful of fluttering hearts." It conveys such a strong image of the baby mice.

Before I get carried away and talk more about Joyce's poetry, let's learn a bit more about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Joyce: The first poem I remember writing was in fourth grade—an insipid rhyming missive about falling snow. But it was the beginning of a habit of both savoring words and observing the world. I like poetry’s brevity and vividness, its mix of image and meaning.

Who/what made you want to write?
Joyce: I think I came to it because I am made that way; writing helps me understand the world. Certain people helped along the way, though: all the fabulous authors I’ve read along the way, who delighted me with their richness of language and profound understanding. And several teachers who understood my bent and offered encouragement.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Joyce: Children’s literature was something I rediscovered after having children. I first tried novels and picture books without a great deal of success, and then one of my writer’s group members gave me an “aha” moment, asking me why—since I’d written adult poetry—I hadn’t tried children’s poetry. The book that probably had the most affect on me when I first started out was Alice Schertle’s Advice for a Frog, with its splendid combination of wordplay and science.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Joyce: I took a couple poetry courses in college, one from Richard Wilbur (former U.S. poet laureate). He was very formalistic and taught us that poetry expanded to greatness within the confines of a formal structure. I chafed a bit at this, but realize now that he was training us to make our words sing—even when writing free verse.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Joyce: Not really. Can anyone? I recently heard Walter Dean Myers say that most of what we writers tell audiences about the writing process is stuff we make up because we have to say SOMETHING. To be honest, the most accurate thing I can say is that for me it’s a constant, accumulative process with moments of clarity and synergy. Those moments don’t come very often, but you have to be ready for them by keeping up a daily practice of watching, thinking, reading, and writing.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Joyce: I love greeting the world with a sense of wonder and playfulness; poetry allows that. It also fosters a deep feeling of connection: metaphor, after all, if just a comparison between two things, and when you think of it, anything can be compared to anything else in some way.

I also love sharing my books with kids and encouraging them to write. My “day job” is teaching in schools as a writer-in-residence several weeks a year. I just spent some time with fourth graders, writing both apology poems (based on This Is Just To Say) and color poems (based on Red Sings from Treetops). Great fun!

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Joyce: Ack! Children ask me this all the time. It’s like choosing between your children . . . That said, I think MEOW RUFF is the one I’m most proud of, because I both wrote it and helped design the pages.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Joyce: Well, I have been writing some poems lately that fall into a category of chants or blessings; I’m not really even sure what I’m doing. And I’ve been writing about rain. I’ve just put the rain poems away for a while (it’s winter, after all) to “age”. I‘ll pull ‘em out again this spring and see if I still think they’re working.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Joyce: Terribly hard to choose. Langston Hughes, maybe, or W.B. Yeats, or May Swenson . . .

Your favorite place to write?
Joyce: At my desk with my dog curled beside me.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Joyce: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.” --Robert Frost

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Joyce: Kristine O’Connell George, author of Little Dog Poems and many more wonderful books.

I've already mentioned how much I appreciate the connection between science and poetry that takes center stage in so many of Joyce's books. Both Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow and Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems were named NSTA Outstanding Trade Books. Both contain extensive glossaries and instead of back matter describing the plants and animals described in the poems, the informational bits are integrated throughout the texts.

Here is a poem from Butterfly Eyes.
An Apology to My Prey

I am deeply sorry for my huge orbs
of eyes, keen and hooded,
that pierce your lush
tapestry meadow.

And my wings: I regret their slotted tips
that allow such explosive thrust;
their span that gathers wind
effortlessly, and of course their
deadly, folding dive.

Let me offer an apology, too,
for my talons, impossibly long
and curved, sliding so easily
through fur and feathers,
seeking, as they do,
that final grip.

And last, of course, the beak.
It does tend to glitter, I know—
a merciless hook,
a golden sickle poised over
your soft, helpless heart.

I'm so sorry. For you, that is.
All this works out quite well
for me.

What am I?
Have you read a more spot-on description of a hawk? It works tremendously well as a mask poem and the science is woven in so effortlessly that it provides a perfect introduction to raptors.

Here is a poem from Song of the Water Boatman.
A Small Green Riddle

I float without air.
I root without soil.
Eaten by all,
named for one.
The color of grass,
I grow daughters like ears.
I am no bigger
than a splatter of paint.
Soon, I will take over the pond.
My favorite poem from this book is called "In the Depths of the Summer Pond." I NEVER start a lesson about the food chain without reading it aloud. Here's how it begins and ends.
In the Depths of the Summer Pond

Here hang the algae, green and small,
in the depths of the summer pond.
Here hunts the heron, queen of the pond,
that spears the fish
that swallows the frog
that gulps the bug
that nabs the nymph
that drinks the flea
      that eats the algae, green and small,
      in the depths of the summer pond.
Joyce's newest book is Red Sings From Treetops: A Year in Colors. Gorgeously illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, colors take on a life of their own and direct the action through the seasons. Here's what my favorite color is up to in this book.
Yellow slips goldfinches
their spring jackets.
Yellow shouts with light!

In spring,
Yellow and Purple hold hands.
They beam at each other
with bright velvet faces.
First flowers,
first friends.
White clinks in drinks

Yellow melts
everything it touches . . .
smells like butter,
      tastes like salt.
In fall,
Yellow grows wheels
and lumbers
down the block,
Warningclassrooms ahead.
In the winter woods,
Gray and Brown
hold hands.
Their brilliant sisters—
Red, Orange, and Yellow
have all gone home.
Gray and Brown sway shyly,
the only beauties left.
Red Sings From Treetops is joyful and exuberant. It is a lovely view of the year through a very different lens. I can't wait to share this one with kids and teachers alike.

To learn more about Joyce and her work, visit these sites.
Many, many thanks to Joyce 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 Red Sings From Treetops. You have until midnight tonight to leave a note in the comments. On Wednesday morning I will put the names in a hat and let William pick the winner.

All poems ©Joyce Sidman. All rights reserved.


  1. It doesn't surprise me to hear that Joyce Sidman studied with Richard Wilbur - I've long admired Wilbur and Sidman's work pays the same lovely attention to word choices and sounds. Especially like that riddle! Thanks so much, Tricia, for posting the interview.

  2. Tricia,
    I remember once that you wrote that you started science lessons with poems. Joyce Sidman is certainly an amazing resource for examining the poetry of nature! Red Sings from the Tree Tops will take its place next to Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O'Neil, another poet who uses color as a doorway to poetry.

  3. I'm still getting over the image of the thimbleful of fluttering hearts.

    And "savoring images and observing the world"? Could there be a more precise definition of poetry than that?

    Thank you both!

  4. I loved "Mouse Haiku" and the colorful poem from _Red Sings From Treetops_. I studied haiku for my Japanese history class in college and had to prepare a presentaion on it. I love the form, but find that it's often difficult to write. That doesn't stop me from trying. :) I've been messing around with colors myself through free association. No poem yet, but a lot of good ideas. Thanks again, Tricia, for a great post in your Poetry Makers Series.

  5. "I love greeting the world with a sense of wonder and playfulness . . . "

    Love her work and this interview! Poetry Makers rocks!

  6. I appreciate this blog so much. I get a lot of these books from the library for my two girls (ages 5.5 and 3) which we read and enjoy at home. The librarian asked me the other day if I homeschooled them. I don't, but considered that an enormous compliment. Thank you for helping our family find great books!

  7. I traveled to this site via my Spiderweb e-mail (I'm a UR alumnae), and I am so glad that I've discovered it. What beautiful and exciting nature poetry for children! I teach 5th grade, and I can't wait to read some of these to my students as we've been writing poetry in class, and they'll love how fun they are! I also can't wait to share these resources with my fellow teachers. They will be as excited as I am, I'm sure! Thank you.

  8. Beautiful poems, fantastic interview - what a lovely way to start out my day!
    Thanks to Joyce for the creative inspiration and to Tricia for sharing...


  9. The descriptions of Yellow leave me hungry for summer! Thanks so much for sharing.


  10. These are really nice -- they provoke such sense memories!

  11. I have Joyce's The World According to Dog and liked it so much I asked our media specialist to get a copy for our library. It's one the most popular poetry books with my eighth graders.

  12. I have been following your blog on google reader for quite awhile. I realized recently that you teach at the University of Richmond. My daughter Jennifer (Armusewicz) Warner had you as a teacher and now teaches ESL in Sag Harbor, NY. She remembers you well. I told her to check out your blog. She's always looking for good books for her children. I love your book reviews! I am a computer teacher, but I pass a lot of your blogs onto our reading teacher and classroom teachers.

  13. She is the reason why I play with the pantuom form. I am forever grateful to her for learning about it. What a great interview. They all have been great.

  14. I LOVE Joyce Sidman's poetry books. Every one of them is a pure gem! "Red Sings from Treetops" is definitely another delicious collection of poems from a master of the genre. Zagarenski's illustrations in the book are a perfect complement to Sidman's text.

  15. Joyce is such a phenomenal poet--thanks for the lovely interview. I always associated her with wonderful nature-based poetry, but This Is Just to Say showed me a whole new side to her. That's one of my all-time top 5 poetry books. It's one of those desert island books--I'd have to have it with me!