Monday, April 20, 2009

Poetry Makers - Kristine O'Connell George

Poems about nature, origami, camping, dogs, hummingbirds—you name it, she's written it. The first book of Kris' that I came across was Old Elm Speaks: Tree Poem. I bought it to use in my Project Learning Tree workshops. However, it was the poem "Tree Traffic" that forever made me a fan of her work.
Tree Traffic

Major tree traffic today—
commuters in both directions,

rippling up and down,
tails unfurled.

The treeway is
heavily squirreled.
This is what I love about poetry—its ability to make me see my world and the things I see everyday in new ways. Since reading this poem I see the squirrels scampering through the trees in an entirely different light.

Before I talk about Kris' poetry, let's learn a bit more about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Kris: I wrote reams (bales!) of angst-filled poetry in high school and college with a purple fountain pen on onion-skin typing paper. Heartfelt, dreadful poetry. However, I didn’t seriously study poetry (other than a challenging bout with “The Wife of Bath” in college) until I took Myra Cohn Livingston’s class at UCLA.

Who/what made you want to write?
Kris: My grandfather started a wonderful tradition of writing funny poems to accompany gifts. Since gag gifts were the norm in my family, it was a hoot to find just the right gift and write a poem for it. In high school, I took a 6-week elective in creative writing. My teacher, Vicki Pierson, encouraged me to submit my work and that was enough to make me run for the hills. While I enjoyed writing for class and for myself, I found the idea of being published terrifying. Still, I kept writing!

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?

Kris: I can pinpoint the precise moment I fell in love with children’s poetry: The day Myra read David McCord’s poem, “This is My Rock,” to our class. I was awestruck at how McCord could say so much--so beautifully--with a handful of simple, everyday words. I knew that rock and that feeling. The poem begins:

This is my rock,
And here I run
To steal the secret of the sun…

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Kris: I had the incredible good fortune of studying with Myra Cohn Livingston from 1989 until she passed away in 1996. Not only was Myra a gifted teacher, there was a magic and synergy being in her master class with talented writers such as Deborah Chandra, Joan Bransfield Graham, Monica Gunning, Tony Johnston, Ann Whitford Paul, Alice Schertle, April Halprin Wayland, and Janet Wong. This diverse group of poetic voices enriched and challenged me—a gift of a lifetime.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Kris: Daydream … weed garden … hear words in head …search for notebook…look for any paper … scribble … hike … think of metaphor … scribble … drive, get lost … pull over … scribble … do laundry … find scribbly scraps in jeans … iron scraps … vow to buy another notebook and keep it handy … gather scribbly scraps and half-filled notebook … stash in folder. Let marinate…rewrite…rewrite…rewrite…Repeat process patiently until poem is ready.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Kris: Children! They are honest. They see the world in fresh, new ways. They delight and surprise me. When the shy girl at the back of the auditorium runs up to me as I’m leaving a school visit and hands me her poem—making me promise not to read it until I get home—I am filled with hope that I am doing something worthwhile with my life.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Kristine: For me, my books are inextricably tied to the times in my life when I created them. So I tend to have “favorites” associated with the writing process itself. For example, late one night, while writing poems about trees, I happened to glance out the window. The moon was tangled in the branches of our Chinese elm. It was a magical moment when this poem floated into my mind:
Old Elm Speaks

It is as I told you, Young Sapling.

It will take
autumns of patience
before you snag

[from Old Elm Speaks: Tree Poems]
Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Kris: As always, I have a number of collections underway. Clarion Books has Emma Dilemma on their Spring, 2010 list and I’m delighted that Nancy Carpenter is doing the art. This book, based on an incident from my childhood, explores the relationship between two sisters in a humorous and honest way.

I am also working on a novel; you can read how I came to struggle with sentences at A Poet, a Broken Foot, and a Breakthrough.

I consider my website a “poetry project,” and I’m continually adding new features and content as my way of “giving back” to the children’s poetry community. Most recently, I uploaded the “beta version” of a Kids Poetry Bookstore. While it is a still a work in progress and more titles and categories will be added, I’m excited about developing a one-stop poetry resource that teachers, librarians, writers, and parents can use in a variety of ways. Visitors can browse for books on teaching poetry, how-to books on writing poetry, poetry collections and anthologies. They can also find collections and anthologies on specific topics, discover new poets, and see what’s new in the children’s poetry world. Although the “bookstore” is hosted on my site, this is not a solo effort and a number of “poetry gurus” (credited in the right hand column of the page) are pitching in to help.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Kris: Elizabeth Bishop, Basho Matsuo, Pablo Neruda, William Stafford, May Swenson, Valerie Worth . . .

Your favorite place to write?
Kris: Back porch. Feet up. Birdbath and hummingbird feeder six feet away.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Kris: “Never let the mud puddle get lost in the poetry because--in many ways, the mud puddle is the poetry.” Valerie Worth

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Kris: I’m thrilled that the Poetry Foundation is giving poetry for children (so often misunderstood!) official recognition. Any one of my peers would do a terrific job.

Kris worked her poetry magic on me again in Paul Janeczko's book Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for New Poets. The title of the book comes from her poem which is about seeing the sky differently.
The Blue Between

Everyone watches clouds,
naming creatures they've seen.
I see the sky differently,
I see the blue between—

The blue woman tugging
her stubborn cloud across the sky.
The blue giraffe stretching
to nibble a cloud floating by.
A pod of dancing dolphins,
cloud oceans, cargo ships,
a boy twirling his cloud
around a thin blue fingertip.

In those smooth wide places,
I see a different scene.
In those cloudless spaces,
I see the blue between.
Since reading this poem, I've never looked at the sky the same way again. Now I look at the spaces of blue and gray before I study the clouds. Here's what Kris had to say about it in her letter of advice.
I've always liked watching clouds and imagining what each cloud resembles. A panther? An iguana? Then, one day I suddenly noticed the images in the spaces between the clouds. My poem "The Blue Between" reminds me how I can look at something every day of my life and then, one day—"out of the blue"—I'll suddenly notice something I've never seen before.

Poetry is like that: being startled when you suddenly see the world differently. I've learned that the best surprises—the most astonishing discoveries—are all around me. I only have to stop and look carefully. Ideas for poems come to me when I pay attention to the world. When I truly see how a hawk cups the sky under its wings. When I notice how my little dog fits perfectly inside the sunny spot on the carpet. When I see a maple seed flutter by my kitchen window and I wonder: Where is it going?

These moments of discovery are when a poem will tap me on the shoulder. The same thing will happen for you. Listen to the questions in your mind. Don't take anything for granted. Let yourself be excited. Discover what astonishes you. When you feel strongly and deeply about something you'll know. That's when your poem will find you.
In all of Kris' poems you can see the fruits of this observation and careful attention to detail. You can see that clearly in these two poems from The Great Frog Race and Other Poems, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award winner in 1998.
Plowed Fields

The plow carved furrows
Raked long deep lines
Straight as fork tines that
Stretch to the horizon
Rippling like fan spines
Of shadow and light.


Come see
What I found!
Chubby commas,
Mouths round,
Plump babies,
Stubby as toes.

Come see
What I found!
Huddled in puddles,
Snuggled in mud.
It's no surprise to those that have been reading this series that I have a passion for poetry that focuses on nature and science. I'm quite fond of Kris' book Hummingbird Nest: A Journal of Poems which chronicles a hummingbird's building of a nest in a potted ficus tree on her patio, as well as the hatching and growth of the baby birds. You can read more about it at Poetry in the Classroom: Hummingbird Nest.

Kris mentioned she took a master class with Myra Cohn Livingston. In the book I Am Writing a Poem About . . . A Game of Poetry, Livingston wrote about three of the assignments she gave to the students in this class. The book is accompanied by examples from her students. Here's the poem Kris wrote using the word rabbit.
Of Rabbits and Fences

how this new fence we've built
keeps them safe as they dine on our
One of the assignments Livingston gave was to write a poem using the words ring, drum, and blanket. Here's the poem Kris wrote in response to this assignment.
Did You See Them?

Did you see them
late last evening,
fairy lads and lasses
dancing among the grasses?

Here are
rings of trampled grass,
acorn drums,
milkweed lutes
and honeysuckle flutes.

Here is
where they slept,
drowsy from dance,
nestled and settled
in blankets of petals.

Did you see them
as the moon was rising?
I'll end with a piece from Fold Me a Poem, a collection of 32 poems that document a young boy's day as he folds a menagerie of animals and imagines their actions. My son is quite an origami fanatic, so many of these poems remind me of him. This one is simply spot on.

What went wrong?

Lean against
this sand dune
while I double-check
the directions.
You can learn more about Kris and her work by visiting these sites.
Hats off to Kris for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Kristine O'Connell George. All rights reserved.


  1. I very much love this poet's way of looking ...otherwise at things. The blue between the clouds. The squirrels on the tree, instead of the cars on the road. The rabbits safely within the fence, with the garden.

    Frogs-in-waiting! There's a fairytale there...

    Lovely, lovely.

  2. I love Kris's poetry and this interview, especially her writing process. ;-)

  3. I have most of Kristine's books and love every one of them. Her website is awesome!

  4. I continue to be amazed at how many poets, writing for children and adults, were in Myra Cohn Livingston's class. Thanks, Kristine, and Tricia.

  5. The "tree traffic" and the "chubby commas" get me every time!