Thursday, April 01, 2010

Kicking Off National Poetry Month With the Big Kahuna - Mary Ann Hoberman

That's right, the Big Kahuna, the current Children's Poet Laureate is here. And really, who better than Mary Ann Hoberman to kick off this soiree? Appointed to her post in October of 2008, Mary Ann has been busy, busy, busy promoting poetry. I asked her to answer some questions about her current position, and she happily agreed. But before we get to her interview, let's start with this Reading Rockets video and learn a bit more about Mary Ann.

To learn even more about Mary Ann, check out Mary Ann's Poetry Makers interview from last year.
What are your duties and responsibilities as Children's Poet Laureate?
Mary Ann: The only official obligation is to deliver two major readings, one during each year of the CPL two-year appointment. Last year (2009) I spoke at the University of Chicago's Lab School (the Poetry Foundation, sponsor of the CPL award, is based in Chicago); this year I will be speaking at the University of New Orleans on May 5th. Other than that, the position is pretty much what one makes of it. Since the laureateship is fairly new (I am the second appointee, after Jack Prelutsky), we are still feeling our way as to what the CPL should be and do. And of course each appointee is unique, so each of us will play to our strengths and emphasize different areas. I have been lucky this year in that I had three new books come out in the summer/fall and I used my book tours, speaking engagements, etc., to promote the CPL-ship and children's poetry as well as my own work. The Poetry Foundation also comes up with various ideas and invitations and I do my best to accommodate them. When I was appointed CPL in October 2008, I decided I would be a yea-sayer for the length of my term, accepting as many engagements as I could and doing as much as possible in my CPL capacity. And indeed I have.

What’s the best part of your job as Children’s Poet Laureate? Are there any drawbacks?
Mary Ann: The best part is being the current "face" of children's poetry and being given many opportunities to beat the drum for poetry for children and, indeed, for everybody! It's been so gratifying to meet so many poets and teachers and librarians and, of course, children, and share my love of poetry with them. Probably the main drawback is that I have not been able to do much of my own writing since my appointment; but I recognize that in my case age also is a limiting factor, so I'm not about to blame my non-writing entirely on the CPL-ship. And sometimes I just get tired!

The Poetry Foundation web site has a series of videos where you read from your work, as well as from some of your favorite collections of classic children's poetry. Tell us a bit about making the videos and selecting the pieces you’ve shared.
Mary Ann: Making those videos was a delight! I went out to Chicago (from my home in Connecticut) several times and we filmed them there. I loved having the opportunity to recite Edward Lear's verse - he is my favorite poet, bar none! - and also to bring the wonderful poems of William Jay Smith to viewers who might not be familiar with them. I chose both those poets in large part because their verse is so much fun to memorize and say out loud; and that was the criteria I used in choosing my own work as well. And I end each video segment with a little couplet: "Every day take time to start / to learn a little poem by heart."

Poetry isn’t often a first choice when choosing books to read with kids. What are some of the ways we can open the door to poetry for children?
Mary Ann: So many ways - where to begin? Well, first of all, I urge parents and teachers and librarians to include poems regularly in their story hours, reading-aloud sessions, family and bedtime reading. And much as I love National Poetry Month in April, I would like to see it gradually fade away, to be replaced by Poetry-All-Year-Long. My particular hobbyhorse as CPL is poetry memorization and recitation - nothing is more satisfying than getting a poem by heart; and once you do, especially when you are young, you have that poem in your head (and heart) for life! And though not all children who hear poetry when they are young grow up to read and/or write it, very few children who do not hear it at an early age will enjoy it as adults.

For those adults who are uncomfortable with poetry and thus avoid it or use it reluctantly, it is important that those of us who love it demystify it and enlarge its circle of friends. There are all kinds of poetry, from nursery rhymes and limericks to longer and more complicated forms. Some poems are crystal clear at first reading, others will never be entirely comprehensible. But this doesn't matter. We go with the poems we respond to and we respond to poems on so many different levels: sound, rhythm, emotion, etc. "Meaning" is only one aspect of a good poem; and, as is often said, if poets could say what they mean in prose, they wouldn't have to write their poems. Children instinctively know this and we should help them to carry this knowledge and confidence into their later years.

I regret that in the library children's poetry is tucked off in the 811's, where young readers rarely go except for specific assignments. I would like to see a permanent shelf near the checkout desk where a revolving selection of poetry books is prominently and attractively displayed, perhaps with a new theme or poet every month. Maybe a librarian who particularly loves poetry could take over this job.

In many schools relevant poetry is now being taught across the curriculum. All I would caution here is that it not become merely another chore, its inherent joy and fun reduced to just another assignment with a series of dull questions that squeeze all the life out of it.

I have suggested that now, in this time of budget constraints and the subsequent reduction or elimination of art and music education in the schools, poetry be lifted out of "language arts" and set down in the arts, pure and simple. After all, poetry is as much of an art as these others are; but, unlike visual art and music, it requires no expensive instruments or art supplies. Words are free! Wouldn't it be grand if young students could trot off each week for a session with their poetry teacher, someone who knows and loves poetry in all its manifestations, from hip-hop to Shakespeare?

In a 2001 interview with you answered the question DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR WRITING POETRY FOR CHILDREN? in this way: “I always hesitate to call myself a children’s poet, and I always hesitate to call what I write for children poetry.” Has your perspective changed since being name children’s poet laureate?
Mary Ann: As a matter of fact, it has. Not so much because of my title, but because I have come to think that my earlier rarefied belief is too narrow and that the house of poetry is larger and more commodious than certain modern poets and critics would have us believe. My division between verse and poetry has become less rigid as I have followed my ear and my heart and realized that a poem is an object made out of words that carries, like a brimful cup, the mystery of language. Both simple and complex verses can be poetry. But of course not all of them are.

You were named to this position in the fall of 2008, which means someone new will be taking over in the near future. What do you hope your successor will tackle in his or her tenure as Children’s Poet Laureate?
Mary Ann: I will continue in this position until April 2011 (2 1/2 years) because from now on the Poetry Foundation will be starting all new appointments in the spring rather than in the fall. I hope the next CPL will build on the recognition that the award has been acquiring and use it to spread the joys of poetry to as wide an audience as possible. We are in process of improving the CPL and children's poetry segments of the Poetry Foundation web site and the next CPL will certainly contribute to this effort. Beyond that, it will be up to the chosen poet to decide where and how to concentrate his/her efforts. That's the fun of it!

If you could leave readers with one important thought about poetry, or poetry for children, what would it be?
Mary Ann: It is language that makes us distinctively human and poetry is the essence of language. Poems learned in childhood live within us for life. What better gift can we give our children?

WOW! My poetry-loving heart has just grown three sizes! We are so very lucky to have Mary Ann out there promoting children's poetry to legions of kids, their teachers and parents.

I can't possibly end this post without sharing at least one of Mary Ann's poems, so I'll close with the the last poem in The Llama Who Had No Pajama.
Good Morning When It’s Morning

Good morning when it's morning
Good night when it is night
Good evening when it's dark out
Good day when it is light
Good morning to the sunshine
Good evening to the sky
And when it’s time to go away

Poem ©Mary Ann Hoberman. All rights reserved.
Thanks loads to Mary Ann for kicking off National Poetry Month and the Poetry Makers series with a bang.

P.S. - Want to keep up with Mary Ann and the initiatives of the CPL? Follow her on Twitter at KidsPoetLaureat!


  1. What an inspiring way to wake up to poetry month! Poetry spills out in her language. I see her point about Poetry month, but on the other hand... This month we get to name what has become a growing celebration since September.

    Tricia, Thank you for this second annual very cool poetry tradition.

  2. Terrific interview, Tricia. Thanks for sharing. I linked to your blog in my own post today:

    Happy Poetry Month!

  3. Wonderful interview - and what a terrific choice of poet to start the month off!!

  4. I loved the interview. Esepcially the part about where the poetry books should be me ideas. Although I must say my studnet DO know where the 811 are in the library.

  5. Tricia,

    I love both Mary Ann AND her poetry. She is truly a master of rhythm and rhyme. There is such energy in the poetry she writes. My elementary students took great delight when I read/recited her poems aloud--and they enjoyed learning a number of her works by heart.

  6. What a great kick-off to your series. Thanks for another great interview!

  7. Wow! Great interview an fabulous new look for the blog!

  8. I think this was the perfect way to kick-off your exciting month. I'm looking forward to the rest of your interviews. Enthusiasm for poetry just spills out of the both of you and it is, thankfully, contagious!

  9. I've been a fan of Mary Ann Hoberman for many, many years. Great choice to kick off Poetry Month! Thanks, Tricia!

  10. WOW. First -- It's so great to have Ms. Hoberman back! I love the way she embraces her position -- with such humor and grace.

    Second -- great new look for the site! I read you in my Reader, so I missed the big change!

    Happy Poetry Month!