Friday, April 24, 2009

Poetry Makers - Laura Purdie Salas

When I think of Laura Purdie Salas I am reminded of the beginning of this poem.
Valentine for Ernest Mann
by Naomi Shihab Nye

You can't order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, "I'll take two"
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, "Here's my address,
write me a poem," deserves something in reply.
In January of 2008, Laura wrote about the work behind the creation of her Capstone poetry books. The first six books in the series were written in FOUR weeks! Count 'em people--FOUR WEEKS! Laura received a series of stock photos and wrote poems specific to the images. Talk about ordering up a poem like a taco. Now THAT'S poetry on demand! Here are two of my favorite poems from these books.
Then There Were Eight
(from And Then There Were Eight: Poems About Space)

Poor ball of ice, we know you exist; but you're
Little and solid and we must insist on
Undoing the past, so though you'll be missed, we've
Taken you
Off of the "real planet" list

(from Seed Sower, Hat Thrower: Poems About Weather)

Vanilla cotton candy
Pillows meant for kings
Fluffy bunny rabbits
Enormous seagull wings

I check the sky at recess
To see what each day brings
I never dreamed that clouds could make
So many different things!
Before I talk further about Laura's work, let's learn a bit more about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Laura: I had written a few poems in a college class, but nothing since then. About 9 years ago, I had some really scary, horrible family health issues. Lisa Westberg Peters, my writing mentor at the time, suggested I freewrite about it. I reluctantly (I don’t like freewriting!) agreed, and was I ever surprised to find poetry pouring out.

Over the next several years, I started writing more and more poetry, not just on strongly emotional topics. It became my favorite way to express myself.

Who/what made you want to write?
Laura: I grew up consuming books at an incredible rate, but I had no clue that real people wrote them. It never occurred to me. It wasn’t until college, when I took a creative writing class as an elective, that I became passionate about writing and having a writing career.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?

Laura: I heard poet Barbara Juster Esbensen speak shortly before her death, and it was the first time I had heard children’s poetry read aloud as an adult. I confess that I didn’t start reading children’s poetry (is that what you mean?) on my own until I was writing it. As I wrote more and loved it more, I realized I needed to see what was out there. And what’s out there is gorgeous, and now I can’t get enough of it!

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Laura: Nope, though my English degree was with a specialty in Creative Writing. I have taken (and am taking right now) a couple of poetry workshops through the Loft Literary Center. I love to read books and blogs about writing poetry. But reading tons of great poems, that’s really the finest teacher I’ve had.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Laura: I write fast. Very fast. And usually it’s an awful poem and stays right there on the page, never to be seen by anyone else! If there’s a core to it that works, I’ll revise (many, many times) over days or weeks. Much of my revision involves getting rid of extra words, replacing boring words with more specific, evocative, surprising words, and reading the draft aloud a million times to see if it has the right sound.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Laura: When I read or write poetry that works, it feels to me like a direct electric wire between me and the other person (no matter which of us is the writer and which is the reader). I think kids are especially open to seeing the world in unexpected ways, more so than adults. And their emotions tend to run wilder. So that makes them extra fun to write for and connect with.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Laura: My favorite has to be my new book, Stampede! Poems to Celebrate the Wild Side of School. It’s my first trade poetry book, so it’s the first one where I came up with the idea, developed the collection, and spent years submitting it and swallowing rejections. So holding that first printed copy is pretty amazing (that’s all I have so far—one copy!). And one of my daughters inspired it, so that makes it very personal for me.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Laura: My current collection in progress is top secret, so I could tell you, but then I’d have to hack into your blog and delete the whole thing, so that would be no good.

Otherwise, I have a collection of poems from books’ points of view and a gross poems collection both in the revision stages. And I’ve been having a lot of fun working on various rhyming nonfiction picture book manuscripts. I’m not sure if they’re poetry or rhyming prose, or what. But I love them. Now, to see if any publisher loves them!

Pop Quiz!
Note From Laura: These answers could change depending on the weather, my mood, and what flavor ice cream I just ate. But because I’m a rule-follower, I’ll try to answer!

Your favorite dead poet?

Laura: Are you kidding? At least you didn’t say living poet. OK, I’m going to have to go with Barbara Juster Esbensen, not only because she flipped on the poetry light bulb for me, but also because her collection Swing Around the Sun is one of my absolute favorites! And because her book A Celebration of Bees is so inspiring about working with young poets, which I also love.

Your favorite place to write?
Laura: No single place. One thing I love about poetry is I can write it anywhere because it’s blessedly short!

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Laura: “Poetry’s a zoo in which you keep demons and angels.” (Les Murray)

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Laura: You’re killing me here, Tricia. Today, I’m torn between two poets.

One is Lee Bennett Hopkins, who is not only a fabulous poet himself (how I love Alphathoughts) but who is also a top-notch anthologist (see Behind the Museum Door, Wonderful Words, and a gazillion others). And he’s an ambassador for children’s poetry and how important it is.

The second poet is J. Patrick Lewis. His talent, prolificity(?), and range are astonishing. The same guy who wrote Black Swan, White Crow (my favorite haiku collection) and The Brother’s War: Civil War Voices in Verse also wrote Once Upon a Tomb: Gravely Humorous Verses and The Underwear Salesman? Talk about a poet who does it all…

Even though Laura has 11 poetry books under her belt (the 10 titles in the Poetry series and the book Write Your Own Poetry), her first trade poetry book, Stampede! Poems to Celebrate the Wild Side of School, has just been released. Stampede! is a collection of poems that recognizes and celebrates the ways kids mimic the behaviors of animals. The poems are funny, clever, and clearly recognize the ups and downs of being a kid. Here are a few of my favorites.
New Mouse
Go left, then right.
Wrong turns, dead ends.
Can't find my class.
I've got no friends.

Each hallway is
a hallway clone.
Can't find my way
around alone.

A thousand halls,
a thousand ways,
I'm lost inside
this new-school maze.

Counting On Me
I've counted up all of my fingers.
This math problem still has me beat.
A centipede's got what I'm missing--
A collection of one hundred feet.

Printer Problems
My pencil scrapes across the paper.
I'm such a lousy letter-shaper.

My hand's as clumsy as a claw.
My letters land like scattered straw.

Erasing leaves a dusty patch.
My writing looks like chicken scratch.
You can learn more about Stampede, read some additional poems, view samples of the artwork, and download a teacher's guide at the book's web site.

I'm going to close with this very fun video of Laura reciting one of her poems from Stampede.
If you'd like to learn more about Laura and her work, check out the sites below.
Beaucoup thanks to Laura for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

If you've read this far, you now have the opportunity to win a copy of Stampede! Poems to Celebrate the Wild Side of School. You have until midnight tonight to leave a note in the comments. On Saturday morning I will put the names in a hat and let William pick the winner.

All poems ©Laura Purdie Salas. All rights reserved.


  1. The most surprising thing I ever learned about Laura was that she COULD do that poetry-to-pictures thing. Just -- here, look at a picture, come up with a poem that will fit. Yikes! And yet, she makes it look easy.


  2. Well, I guess I missed this opportunity but loved learning about Laura.

  3. I should really learn to read more closely. Thanks again for sharing about Laura.

  4. Poetry on demand sounds like an interesting writing prompt. I often find it hard to find time to write. Such and exercise would encourage (i.e., force) me to write. "New Mouse" from Stampede is a great poem. I look forward to reading the whole book.

  5. Loved learning more about Laura. Am not familiar with Esbensen's work, and now I'm intrigued.

  6. I was just starting to get into that poem and the clip was over. :( She's definitely worth learning more about.

  7. Thanks again for these great posts. I love Laura's poetry and use it frequently with my students.


  8. I missed the deadline, too (I never seem to get time to read Poetry Friday until Saturday morning) but a very fun post, and loved the video, too.

  9. Thanks, you guys! I appreciate all the nice words...and it's fun to meet a few new people, too!

  10. Thanks, Tricia & Laura! I enjoyed reading this interview and learning about Laura's writing process and about how she came to children's poetry.

    Barbara Juster Esbensen is one of my favorite poets. You were so fortunate to meet her, Laura. I think her book ECHOES FOR THE EYE: POEMS TO CELEBRATE PATTERNS IN NATURE is one of the best poetry collections ever written for children. I also love her books COLD STARS AND FIREFLIES, DANCE WITH ME, and WHO SHRANK MY GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE--in addition to the two you cited. Oops! Almost forgot one--WORDS WITH WRINKLED KNEES.

    I wish you great success with your new book STAMPEDE! I hope it's a big hit with kids and teachers.