Thursday, April 02, 2009

Poetry Makers - Rebecca Kai Dotlich

When I started teaching in the late 80s I spent a great deal of time looking for poems and comic strips to integrate into my classroom. Since I taught science, The Far Side provided a wealth of opportunity to discuss a huge range of concepts. Poetry proved a bit trickier. I was never at a loss for poems about animals or nature, but physical science was another story. When I started preparing future teachers, I continued to look for science poetry. It wasn't until 2003 that I found In the Spin of Things: Poetry of Motion, a book I had long been waiting for.

I'd actually been introduced to Rebecca's work the year before, when I fell in love with her poem What is Science? in the anthology Spectacular Science: A Book of Poems, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Virginia Halstead. A revised version of this poem became the basis for her poem picture book of the same name.

Before I talk more about Rebecca's work, let's learn a bit about her.
How did you get started writing poetry?
Rebecca: As a young girl I was always cutting and pasting pictures and words on construction paper, in notebooks, on thin white cardboards that slipped out of my father’s folded shirts from the cleaners, writing poems for my grandmother on her birthday, and sending rhyming notes back and forth with my father. Words, words, words. As a new mother I immersed myself and my babies in fairy tales, books I had loved, and poetry. Lots of poetry. So that’s when I started writing poetry, but the how (and why) would be the long and layered, wonderful and whimsical journey before.

The short answer?
I typed my poems at my kitchen table on my grandfather’s typewriter, stuffed them into envelopes and mailed them to editors.

Who/what made you want to write?
Rebecca: I made me want to write. I think it just comes from within. A writer needs to write. No different than breathing or needing sleep. Writing can be frustrating, yes, but more than anything, it was and is a refuge for me.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
It might have been those first rhymes of Mother Goose. Or possibly my mother’s rhyming song Mairzy Doats that she sang so often that I knew the ticklish words like my own name (a song actually based on an old English nursery rhyme). I just know I loved the whimsy of words, of word patterns and pairs and I loved poetry, plain as that.

One of the books that I read to my children day after day was SIDE BY SIDE, poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins. I can only imagine that reading these poems, along with any and all poems that sang of mice and moons, frogs and fairies, rivers and rain, got me hooked on children’s poetry.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
No formal poetry training. Whatever I know of writing poetry I taught myself by reading piles of books in the library; poetry books and books and articles about the poets who wrote poetry books. Being a poet can’t be taught. But the craft can be, the form, the structure, the elements. But there has to be something else, a poetic-persona inside. I think poets just see the world in a different way, like an inborn-training already in place. After that, it’s what you choose to discover, drink in, soak up.

The short answer would be: Read. Write. Revise. For hours. For days. For years.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
I used to sit with yellow pad and pencil. Now I usually go to my computer and start on a clean (Word Document) slate. Sometimes, if I want to bully myself into writing something, starting someplace, I’ll begin a poem in an email, knowing that AOL would love to kick me off any minute. I know, crazy. But it makes me get something down quickquickquick. THEN I copy and paste that into a document. It’s just a silly exercise I give myself when I’m stuck. Then I begin the work of writing and revising the poem. And sometimes it turns into something. Sometimes not. Usually I start a poem with a word or a phrase I’ve heard or read or have been thinking about. A poem can start with something I hear a child say, or words from a billboard sign, a rhythm or a song I hear in my head. I keep lots of notes and revise a lot.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
I just enjoy the act of writing. And the idea that someone, somewhere, is reading a poem that I wrote and possibly, just possibly, liking it or needing it or enjoying it. I like very much trying to say something in a new way. Trying. That’s the key. That’s all I can do.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Rebecca: That’s difficult. One of my favorite poems is a poem I wrote called "The Giant Seeker." (From Lemonade Sun and Other Summer Poems, Illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist and published by Boyds Mills Press.) It’s about my father and how the whole world was mine when he lifted me on his shoulders. Another would be "Whispers to the Wall," a poem of address to the Viet Nam Memorial that appears in three different anthologies, selected by both Paul Janeczko and Lee Bennett Hopkins. Other favorites are four seasonal poems I wrote for the forthcoming Sharing The Seasons (compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by David Diaz, McElderry Books, 2010), that I especially like and enjoyed writing.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Rebecca: I am cobbling together a few collections surrounding a winter and an autumn theme, among others in half finished stages.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Rebecca: Auden.

Your favorite place to write?
In a small and crowded writing room upstairs in my home.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Rebecca: “Poetry and Hums aren't things which you get, they're things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you." -The Book of Pooh

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Rebecca: Lee Bennett Hopkins
(next 3 choices: X. J. Kennedy/ J. Patrick Lewis/ Karla Kuskin)

In addition to authoring many poems found in anthologies, Rebecca has written a number of poetry collections for young readers, as well as concept books, picture books and easy readers. Her latest book is Bella and Bean. Illustrated by Aileen Leijten, it is the story of two best friends, one of whom happens to love poetry. The book begins this way.
"Bella lived in an old brick house with white shutters, just up the hill from Spoon Pond. Every day she wrote poetry at a small desk beneath a small window, shaded by a canopy the color of plums."
While Bella wants to write poems, Bean wants her friend to come outside and play. Bella is grumpy about all the interruptions. After all, she just wants to write. Bean is persistent and not put off in the least by Bella's grumpiness. How will they ever remain friends despite their differences? I won't give away the ending, but let's just say it's pure poetry.

I can't wrap this up without sharing at least one of Rebecca's poems. This poem comes from In the Spin of Things: Poetry of Motion. Whenever I read it I can see my mother bent over the ironing board, working on a tablecloth.
The Ironing

another wrinkle.
Steam seam.
Glide up.
Slide down.
Ride around
the buttons.
Time to learn.
Your turn.
Dad's shirt.
Watch the lace.
another wrinkle.
Time to learn.
Your turn.
Don't burn.
Hold tight.
That's right.
Smooth flat.
Like that.
Don't tug.

©Rebecca Kai Dotlich. All rights reserved.
You can read a new poem of Rebecca's that is debuting today over at Gotta Book as part of the 30 Poets/30 Days extravaganza.

To read more of Rebecca's work, visit her web site and peek inside the pages of her books. If you want to learn more about her, be sure to visit these sites.
Let's raise our glasses in thanks to Rebecca for participating in the Poetry Makers series. Prost, Rebecca!


  1. 1.) I wish you'd been my teacher education professor; I would have stuck with it longer, I think;

    2.)I love, love, LOVE the idea of poems of physical science. Motion is poetry, and vice versa,

    3.) I very much agree with Rebecca that writing is from within,

    4.)Don't tug. Unplug. is probably the best ironing advice, EVER.

    Awesome. Tricia these are SO MUCH FUN! My morning smile.

  2. Another kick-ass post! And be still my heart, there are 28 more days of posts to come!

    I so love that as a young girl Rebecca cut and pasted pictures and words onto construction paper and notebooks. Wow. She was really born a poet.

  3. Yay, Rebecca Kai Dotlich! One of the poets I MOST look forward to reading. In the Spin of Things is such a great collection...

    Thanks for sharing this interview with such a talented and kind person.

  4. I love RKD, both the poems and the poet.


  5. Rebecca Kai Dotlich has been a favorite poem of mine since Sweet Dreams of the Wild. I can't wait to get her new book.

  6. Oops! Typing too fast... I meant favorite poet! : )

  7. Thank you for doing this work. It isn't because I'll be part of this,
    it is because it comes from my heart.

    Rebecca is like a sister to me. Her work is exceptional giving me the goosebumps I got when I read
    poems by Myra Cohn Livingston and
    Lilian Moore.

    What a wonderful way to start

    I wish you were MY teacher, too@

    Lee Bennett Hopkins

  8. Thanks so much, Tricia, for these interviews, especially for this one. Rebecca's poetry is easy to love. I agree with Lee...goosebumps, even from a poem about ironing!

  9. Reading gorgeous poems like these makes any loneliness that comes with solitary writing miraculously vanish.
    And then there's the thrilling fizziness of surprise that makes a good poem a memorable and greatly treasured shared experience.
    Thank you for all of it.

  10. Thank you! I hadn't seen the ironing poem and I love it! Rebecca is great.

  11. I have loved Rebecca Kai Dotlich forever. BELLA AND BEAN is the book I'm giving to people this spring! What a great story of poetry and friendship!