Friday, April 30, 2010

Excuse Me While I Step Out For a Bit

My Dear Blog,

You've received my full attention and then some for the last 30 days. While this month's festivities are winding down, my semester is wrapping up. I am mired in final projects and a stack of papers I can't see over. Grades are due by 9 am Tuesday morning, so please forgive me while I step out for a few days to attend to more pressing matters. I promise I'll feed you something extra special very soon!

Your friend (and creator),
Miss Rumphius

P.S. - Don't fret about the usual Monday crowd, the poetry stretch will launch without me. I think you can handle them for a day or two, as they're a pretty nice bunch.

In Praise of Poets

There are not sufficient words to express the gratitude I have for the amazing writers who were kind enough to share a bit of themselves in this year's Poetry Maker series. I will be forever in their debt. Here they are, one last time, in alphabetical order. Do stop by and learn more about them and their work if you haven't already.
  1. Francisco X. Alarcón
  2. Kathi Appelt
  3. Brod Bagert
  4. Carmen Bernier-Grand
  5. Sharon Creech
  6. Kurt Cyrus
  7. Kalli Dakos
  8. Gene Fehler
  9. Charles Ghigna (Father Goose)
  10. Nikki Giovanni
  11. Nikki Grimes
  12. David Harrison
  13. Juanita Havill
  14. Anna Grossnickle Hines
  15. Mary Ann Hoberman
  16. Patricia Hubbell
  17. X.J. Kennedy
  18. Ron Koertge
  19. Bruce Lansky
  20. JonArno Lawson
  21. Marjorie Maddox
  22. Heidi Mordhorst
  23. Michael J. Rosen
  24. Deborah Ruddell
  25. Alice Schertle
  26. Charles R. Smith, Jr.
  27. Hope Anita Smith
  28. Eileen Spinelli
  29. Stephen Swinburne
  30. April Halprin Wayland
  31. Jenny Whitehead
  32. Allan Wolf
I should tell you that I still have one poet left to highlight. I am patiently waiting (waiting, waiting) for permission to reprint poems and/or excerpts on this blog, so the post is on hold for the time being. When I receive the go-ahead you'll be very happy to learn about James Carter. In the meantime, why not check out his web site and pay him a visit?

I hope you have enjoyed the series. Believe it or not, I'm already working on ideas for next year. My wish list includes names like John Grandits, Walter Dean Myers, Jack Prelutsky, Paul Fleischman, Gary Soto, Ashley Bryan, Margarita Engle, George Ella Lyon, Naomi Nye, Heidi Stemple, Sara Holbrook, Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, Judy Sierra, Karma Wilson and many others!

Finally, National Poetry Month might be ending, but poetry can be found in every day. I hope that you'll continue to carry it with you.

Poetry Makers - X.J. Kennedy

X.J. Kennedy has taught me a lot about poetry—what it is, where it can be found, and how it's made. In the anthology Knock at a Star: A Child's Introduction to Poetry (compiled by X.J. and his wife Dorothy) he wrote:
Poetry is all around us, sometimes in words we hardly bother to hear. We'll catch a striking phrase ("That new baby is bright as a new penny") or an unusual name ("Spanish Fork, Utah") or an old saying ("Red sky at night is the sailor's delight," "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence"), and we'll realize with a start that we've heard a bit of poetry. Once in a while you see some words, not in a book, that don't claim to be poetry—and yet seem to be. They say something that makes you think and feel about it. There's something to remember in the very sound of the words.
Not one of Kennedy's poems appears in Knock at a Star, but the importance of his voice in this volume is undeniable. He introduces each section of poems and describes the features that link them thematically. He talks of nonsense and fun, word play, rhythm, and so much more. In one section he writes "Good poetry is music to our ears."

I love the notion of music ringing through the words of a poem. Can you hear the music in this poem?
Summer Cooler

In the summer young Angus McQuade
Carries off to his castle of shade
Two cool soothing pillows,
The Wind in the Willows,
And an ocean of iced lemonade.
You can find this poem in Small Talk: A Book of Short Poems, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Susan Gaber.

Before we read more of X.J's poetry, let's learn a bit about him.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
X.J.: I started writing poetry when my third-grade teacher made us write a Christmas poem. My effort was a slavish imitation of Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," but the teacher liked it well enough to put it in our local newspaper. ... It must have been in the nineteen-fifties, when I started writing verse in a bigger way, that I noticed all the engaging poetry for kids being written by poets who usually wrote for adults: Randall Jarrell, John Ciardi, William Jay Smith, Theodore Roethke, Eve Merriam, and others. What fun, I thought, and tried to do likewise.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
X.J.: Fooling around with words and putting them together and once in a while hearing them click. Another lovely bonus from writing for kids is the mail you get from readers: not just the grim dutiful sort that results when teachers force children to write a letter to an author, but things the child noticed in a poem and wanted to shout about.

Who/what made you want to write?
X.J.: I honestly don't know. Writing just looked like something that would be fun to do. I've been told that as an infant in a highchair, I could be kept quiet for hours if given a pencil to push around a piece of paper.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
X.J.: MFA programs didn't exist when I was starting out, so I never studied creative writing except for one tutorial I had to take at the University of Michigan in order to enter the Hopwood writing contest. It was taught by a fine old fellow who'd never written a poem himself. But I've studied poetry in school a lot. I'm an all-but-dissertation PhD. Mainly, I've long loved the stuff, learned a lot of it by heart, and tried to write a lot of it and threw a lot away.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
X.J.: First I think of a line or two that have a certain rhythm to them, and sound worth going on with. Then I go on with them, and rewrite and rewrite until I can't rewrite anymore.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
X.J.: Poem "Little Elegy" in my first adult collection, Nude Descending a Staircase, and reprinted in a new-and-selected poems, In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus (Johns Hopkins U Press, 2007).

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
X.J.: I have a new book of poems for children, CITY KIDS, to be published by Tradewind Books in Vancouver, BC, after having been rejected by all the publishers in New York, one reason given that my books have never been best-sellers. Most of the poems in it are more or less serious glimpses of the lives of urban youngsters. There's a chance that it will be picked up and published in the States after all, but at the moment (January 2010) this isn't for sure. For years and years Boyd Mills Press has had a book called CHILDREN PICK THEIR FAVORITE POEMS OF X.J.K., all ready to go, except that I believe they're still trying to get it illustrated.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
X.J.: William Butler Yeats.

Your favorite place to write?
X.J.: In bed, composing lines on the monitor of my brain-pan. Eventually I have to get up and write them down.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
X.J.: From Stanley Kunitz (and I quote from memory): "The decline of rhyme and meter among poets has made poetry easier to write but harder to remember."

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
X.J.: J. Patrick Lewis.

I've had great fun reading through X.J.'s poems deciding what to share. Given the recent geologic events in Iceland, let's start with this poem from Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh.
Backyard Volcano

Why oh why did an active volcano
Have to poke up its nose in our yard?
It goes gloop like a sink full of Drano
And it showers down rocks that hit hard.

From its crest you can gaze upon masses
Of boulders that bubble and seethe,
And it's giving off ghastly green gases
That nobody's able to breathe.

"Balls of fire!" Uncle Jack yells, jackknifing
Down into that smoldering cone,
"What a fine, steamy day to go diving!
Last one in is an old molten stone!"

Now each night with a cup of hot java,
Mother props up her feet, feeling snug
While she watches red rivers of lava
Roll over our living-room rug.
Perhaps one of my favorite books of comic verse is X.J.'s Ghastlies, Goops & Pincushions. It is a book filled with rhyme and rhythm and rollicking good fun. Snickers and guffaws have been known to escape from my lips while reading this book. Here are two of my favorite poems from it.

I shear sheep in all sorts of shapes
Like shooting stars and spangles.
I shear them in the shapes of apes.
My ewe has four right angles.

I give some sheep a camel's back,
Two mountains and a valley.
I make short shrift of them with shears.
Me, I don't shilly-shally.

I shear sheep short. Their wiry wool
Is well worthwhile to save.
Oh, what sheer joy it is to give
A shaggy sheep a shave!



Walk with a bluebird in your heart,
Along life's highway ambling.
You'll always have an ample stock
Of songs and eggs for scrambling.

Walk with a rainbow in each eye—
They'll light your way, I'm told,
And you'll find, hanging from each ear,
A big fat pot of gold.

Walk with a skunk beneath each arm—
They just might make you nervous,
But when you want to be alone
Those skunks will prove of service.
While I am extremely fond of X.J.'s nonsense and light verse, I have always been quite taken with his book The Beasts of Bethlehem. Each of the 19 poems is a mask poem, written from the perspective of an animal that was or could have been in the stable on the night of Christ's birth. Here are two poems the exemplify the beauty and wit in this collection.

On Christmas Eve, the night unique,
They say we beasts find tongues to speak,

Yet at this crib I am so stirred
That, staring, I can say no word.



Permit me, friends, my evening meal,
These few small crumbs of bread I steal,

I mean no harm. Remember that.
Why do you shriek and call your cat?

The Infant's mother fears no mouse
But lets me scamper round her house

Of manger hay. Beside this Child,
Let man and mouse be reconciled.
Since X.J. mentioned that his favorite poem is "Little Elegy," let's end with it.
Little Elegy
for a child who skipped rope

Here lies resting, out of breath,
Out of turns, Elizabeth
Whose quicksilver toes not quite
Cleared the whirring edge of night.

Earth whose circles round us skim
Till they catch the lightest limb,
Shelter now Elizabeth
And for her sake trip up death.
To learn more about X.J., check out these sites.
Thanks oodles to X.J. for his participation and for helping to wrap up this year's Poetry Makers series.

All poems © X.J. Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Poetry Friday - A Psalm of Life

It is the last day of National Poetry Month, but there will always be poetry, on Friday and every day in between. Today I'm sharing a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
A Psalm of Life
What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!—
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,—act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
The round up is being hosted by Mary Ann of Great Kid Books. Do stop by and take in all the wonderful poems being shared this week. Before you go, be sure to check out this week's poetry stretch results. Happy poetry Friday all!

Poetry Stretch Results - Eggs

The challenge this week was to write a poem about eggs. Here are the results.
A manuscript in progress by Steven Withrow


While Father is away
Foraging it happens

While Mother is asleep
Dreaming of her new nest

Miracle emerges
In the shape of a stone

White as any feather
And rounder than a bone


Patch of dirt, dollop of mud
A stitch of pitch-black gravel
A gummy glop of pine sap
Where the stick-ends unravel

Dewy grass for new-made bed
Touch of dandelion head
Patch of dirt, dollop of mud
Turns the nest to well and good


We live brief lives
But sitting still
Warming our egg
Warming our egg

We live brief lives
But sharing this
Extends our time
Extends our time


World is round
Sky is ground
Night is white
Light is sound

Sun is full
Moon is pale
World is wet
Bird is whale


Shell shakes
A crack

The first
Thin break
Of beak

A face

by Kate Coombs of Book Aunt

The sun sits on top
of the morning like a fried egg
on a bowl of bi bim bop
with its spring greens.
What a yellow, yellow yolk
for breakfast today!

--Kate Coombs, 2010, all rights reserved

Tiel Aisha Ansari of Knocking From Inside shares a poem entitled Break Me My Bounds.

Envelope Keeper
by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater of The Poem Farm

I can't reveal its secret
even if you beg.
This little note tells
which came first

© Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Thoughts from Inside
by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater of The Poem Farm

I'm one day old. It's warm in here.
Sitting is my mom's career.

It takes three weeks for every batch.
Once we're big enough we hatch.

But some of us will never grow.
Who will live? It's hard to know.

I'm not sure how I should feel.
Am I a chick or just a meal?

© Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
4/26/2010 7:01 PM

Elaine Magliaro of Wild Rose Reader shares a poem entitled Chick Chatter.

by Jane Yolen

Humpty Dumpty
was not
your average
kind of a guy.

A wee bit
cracked, he
sat on a wall
and watched
the world
go by.

A poet?
A dreamer?
A teller of tales?
He was.
And so

© Jane Yolen, all rights reserved

Diane Mayr of Random Noodling shares a tanka.

Jone of Deo Writer shares a found poem.

Humpty Dumpty Wonders
by Nicole Marie Schreiber

What am I doing up here?
Sure, the view is nice,
the breeze brisk
against my smooth shell.
I can even see all the way to the
ocean from here,
white caps and all.

And yet, this wall is just so…so high.
My brains must be scrambled
to climb up this thing.
But it’s the only way I can see
into the window of the castle’s kitchen,
and catch a glimpse
of Cook’s egg basket
lying on the window ledge.

Which lovelies did she collect today?
How I love the arcs of their oval shells,
their differing shades of brown and tan,
and their shapes!
Some more bulbous than others,
yet my heart sizzles for them all.

If only I could be just a tad bit taller,
as Cook has taken the basket away…
Perhaps if I stepped upon this higher ledge
I could gain a better view…
Wait! My footing!

Ah, to love.
Perhaps it is not all
it is cracked up to be.

Piping Plover
by Liz

Streak of timid
Flecked with brave
Amid the sand and waves…
You place your eggs
Your hope – exposed
And there is hope
It's not too late if you still want to play. Leave me a note about your poem and I'll add it to the list.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Poetry Potluck, My Grandmother, and Me

Over at Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup, Jama has been hosting a Poetry Potluck to celebrate National Poetry Month. She invited poets, author, bloggers, and other lovers of poetry to share an original poem and favorite recipe. It's my turn today, so head on over to Jama's place to read Counting Chips with Miss Rumphius and see what's in store.

Many, many thanks to Jama for honoring me with an invitation to the party. Now if only we could get all the potluck contributors together with their scrumptious dishes in tow . . .

What's In YOUR Pocket?

Today is Poem in Your Pocket day. I had planned to carry A Prayer in Spring by Robert Frost, but when I woke up I decided I needed a little hope, so I'm carrying Emily Dickinson.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I ’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
What's in YOUR pocket?

Poetry Makers - Bruce Lansky

In the last few days we've looked at a number of poets well-known for writing poetry about kids and schools. Today's poet is no different. In fact, he's known as "The King of Giggle Poetry" to his fans. Bruce Lansky has edited eight poetry anthologies and written some of his own books of poetry. In addition, he's not only written numerous other books, but he started his own publishing company, Meadowbrook Press! Operating since 1975, Meadowbrook Press specializes in child- and family-centered books, among them a wide assortment of poetry for children.

Bruce selects the poems for his anthologies with the help of schoolchildren and their teachers. If a poem isn't funny enough to elicit oodles of laughter, it's not selected. One the Giggle Poetry web site, Bruce shares a wide range of poems and songs on everything from homework to bedtime. Here's an excerpt from one of my favorites.
I've Been Sitting in Detention
(Sing to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”)

I’ve been sitting in detention
since the end of school.
I’ve been sitting in detention
just because I broke a rule.

Throwing meatballs in the lunchroom
wasn’t wise, I fear.
I was aiming at the trash can,
not my teacher’s rear.

Read the song in its entirety.
Before we read more of Bruce's poetry, let's learn a bit about him.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Bruce: I’ll never forget the day I discovered the power of children’s poetry to get kids to read. I was reading a poem from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends to my kids, Doug (8)—who didn’t like reading and Dana (5) who didn’t know how to read. The poem I was reading was “For Sale” it was about a child who wanted to auction off his “spying and prying young sister” for any amount of money—even a penny. Doug grabbed the book and said “I want to read that poem.” He proceeded to read it in a taunting voice to his sister, Dana. Then Dana said, “Now, I want to
read the poem.” She recited the first two lines, substituting “older brother” for “younger sister.” That’s when I realized how powerful poetry could be; if you can find the kind of poems that are so compelling, kids have to read them.

That experience caused me to search for poems with that kind of “compelling” quality and to start writing poems. At first my writing wasn’t very good. I tested my poems against the best poems I could find—and consistently lost—until I started to develop a knack for finding (and tickling) kids’ funny bones.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Bruce: Not only did I develop a knack for finding and tickling kids’ funny bones—I also learned how to present poems to kids in entertaining, motivating ways. When kids read one of my books and enjoy it, I enjoy hearing how much pleasure my poetry gives them. But when I visit schools and bookstores to present my poetry to kids face-to-face, it’s even more fun, because I can feel their enjoyment (particularly their laughter) and it’s exciting. Receiving laughter and applause from an audience has become a tremendous source of pleasure for me. I know, first hand, that many poets have no idea how to perform their own poetry. Happily, I don’t fall into that category.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Bruce: I had minored in English Lit. in college, but the truth is that I didn’t enjoy reading most of the poetry I read in college (though I loved Homer and I also enjoyed reading Dylan Thomas. Unfortunately, most of the poetry I read in college came across to me as “work” rather than pleasure. I also took several poetry writing workshops after college. I enjoyed, for example, writing pastiches of famous poets like Emily Dickinson. Once I began writing poetry for children, I found myself using themes and/or rhythm/rhyme patterns of poets like Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky as starting points for my own poems. After a while, I developed a style and voice of my own.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Bruce: I often start with an idea—which often is the “crux” or punchline of a poem. Then, I try to build the poem (backwards) from it. For example, I realized that the word “pooper-scooper” would get laughs if only I could figure out how to craft a poem around it. What resulted turned into “Pigs In Space”--the title poem for If Pigs Could Fly.

Sometimes I start with a name—like the name of the town in which a school I’m visiting is located. I often write poems in my head about the town as I drive there. I remember making up a story poem about a town that was named after a “falls” or “rapids’ that no longer existed. (I found that to be a funny idea.) I also wrote a number of poems when I visited Kankakee, IL. I found lots of faux words that I rhymed with the town name, including “thankakee” and “spankakee.”

I often write poems or songs while singing a familiar tune—to help me nail down a consistent rhythm and rhyme pattern. Sometimes I start from the title of the original tune, and “fracture it.” For example, I turned “This Land is Your Land” into “This Hand is My Hand”—about a kid who didn’t want anyone to touch him/her. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the fourth stanza started, “These lips are my lips/ they are not your lips/ I’ll never kiss you/ because your nose drips.”

I should probably mention that songs are essentially poems set to music. (However, songs may also have a chorus or refrain or bridge of some kind—so when I turned a poem called "Forgetful"(about a girl who fell into the toilet when her brother forgot to put the seat down) into a song, I added a chorus, “Bring back my sister to me.” (You probably figured out that the tune I sang when I wrote the poem and the song was “My Bonnie.”)

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Bruce: I have two favorite poetry books (My Dog Ate My Homework and If Pigs Could Fly and two favorite song books: Oh My Darling, Porcupine, and I’ve Been Burping in the Classroom).

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Bruce: I’m working on a combination book and CD that will present some of the poems
that are the most fun to read aloud—because it’s possible to add add rhythm and sound effects to make them fun both to read and hear.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Bruce: Shel Silverstein and Jeffrey Moss.

Your favorite place to write?
Bruce: In the car when I’m driving.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Bruce: I’m never finished writing a poem until it makes my audiences laugh almost every time I recite it.

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Bruce: If it can’t be me, Kenn Nesbitt.

As you know, I'm quite fond of poems about teachers and schools, and Bruce has LOADS of poems about them. Here are excerpts from two that I am particularly fond of.
My Teacher Sees Right Through Me

I didn’t do my homework.
My teacher asked me, “Why?”
I answered him, “It’s much too hard.”
He said, “You didn’t try.”

I told him, “My dog ate it.”
He said, “You have no dog.”
I said, “I went out running.”
He said, “You never jog.”

Read the poem in its entirety.


What I Found in My Desk

A ripe peach with an ugly bruise,
a pair of stinky tennis shoes,
a day-old ham-and-cheese on rye,
a swimsuit that I left to dry,

Read the poem in its entirety.
Bruce has done such an amazing job with his web site that you simply MUST take the time to visit. In addition to the poems (16 categories and hundreds of entries) you'll find directions for kids on writing poetry, ideas for poetry theater, interviews with poets, (including Eileen Spinelli, Charles Ghigna, Kenn Nesbitt, and others), resources just for teachers, and so much more!

If you haven't read Bruce's work or checked out his anthologies, now's the time! To learn more about Bruce, check out these sites.
Thanks bunches to Bruce for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © Bruce Lansky. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Poetry Makers - Kalli Dakos

Last year while researching the Poetry Makers series I learned that a number of poets writing for children are former classroom teachers. Well, I hate to say former, because once a teacher, always a teacher. Kalli Dakos is a classroom teacher turned poet who still spends scads of time in schools visiting with kids and spreading her love for poetry. Because her poetry focuses on schools and classrooms, I was drawn to her work like a moth to a flame. Here are two of my favorite poems from the books If You’re Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand: Poems About School and Don't Read This Book Whatever You Do!: More Poems About School respectively.
Call the Periods
Call the Commas

Call the doctors Call the nurses Give me a breath of
air I've been reading all your stories but the periods
aren't there Call the policemen Call the traffic guards
Give me a STOP sign quick Your sentences are running
when the need a walking stick Call the commas Call
the question marks Give me a single clue Tell me
where to breathe with a punctuation mark or two


Herstory = Her Story

You can study history,
While I study herstory,
Whose will it be?
Before we read more of Kalli's poetry, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Kalli: I’ve always loved to read and write poetry, but I never intended to do entire books of poems.

I took a few years off from teaching to work as a freelance writer.
When I returned to my job as a reading specialist, I found the best stories of all right inside my own classroom.

These stories fit best in poetry, and I started writing poems like “Hiding in the Bathroom,” “There’s a Cockroach Lurking Inside My Desk,” and “Math is Brewing and I’m in Trouble.”

I began writing these school-based poems over twenty years ago, and I’m still amazed by the incredible stories in our classrooms.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Kalli: I love children and childhood and the poems written about this world—the rhythm, the rhyme, the humor, the joy and the spirit.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Kalli: I love to take a moment of classroom drama and put it in a poem where it can be remembered and celebrated. In this way an ordinary moment becomes an extraordinary memory.

There was the day Eric told the class he was allergic to girls, and this statement inspired the poem, “Eric is Allergic to Girls.”

Another day Annie was drinking so much juice, milk and water at lunch that the students and I began to imagine what might happen to her if she drank anymore. Would she float away?

This real school incident inspired my poem, “She Should Have Listened to Me,” where the child really does float away in the middle of class one afternoon.

I love capturing children’s words and thoughts in poetry, and creatively building on classroom events to see where we can take them in the imaginative realm.

Who/what made you want to write?
Kalli: My father died when I was twelve-years-old, but I remember his love of storytelling, and how its spirit entered my writing soul. He told stories before bedtime, around the dinner table, and during drives in the car. They were all original tales that he spun from his imagination, and I
grew to love these storytelling sessions with a passion.

In sixth grade I fell in love with mystery stories and spent most of my time reading and writing them. My teacher, Mr. Beecroft, encouraged me to read my mysteries to the class on a weekly basis. It thrilled me when my fellow students were sitting on the edge of their seats caught up in the suspense of the story.

I think I capture the same feeling when I share my poems on school visits today.

When I read Shel Silverstein’s poems, I wanted to try my own hand at this kind of poetry, and so many other poets from Ogden Nash to Robert Frost to Eve Merriam and Jack Prelutsky helped to inspire my own writings.

But it was my students who made me want to write the poems about the school world. There were so many funny, tragic, happy, sad and crazy moments in my classroom, and I wanted to celebrate them through the writing process.

I tell students that the poems will remember the special moments of our lives long after we have forgotten them. The poems remember for us.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Kalli: I have a degree in English, and I studied poetry at the university level. I especially loved a course on the romantic poets.

I’ve always loved to speak in rhyme and to play with words.

As a teenager, I collected poems, and would read them over and over again to inspire and encourage my life.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Kalli: I tell students that the process begins with “magic eyes” and “magic ears.” We must always be on the lookout for special moments, thoughts, rhythms, or ideas that can be remembered in poetry.

It can be a humorous thought like, “I’m worried about being worried,” or a rhythm like, “I’m going to die! I’m going to die,” or a picture like, “ Homework is a monster!”

A poem can be inspired by a pencil that meets a tragic end in the pencil sharpener, or a flower that loses its head as a student rushes from the bus to class.

Sometimes the poem is like a gift and practically writes itself. Other times the idea is exciting, but I struggle with the poetic elements. I’ve been working on some poems for twenty years, and I’m still not happy with them.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Kalli: I think my first book, If You’re Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand, will always be my favorite. It was one of the first poetry books published about life in our elementary school classrooms and has been in print for twenty years.

My second favorite is always the one I’m working on right now.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Kalli: Happy Birthday, Belly Button
A child makes the delightful discovery that every part of his body (eyes, nose, kidneys, toes) turns a year older on this birthday.

Poet at the Top of the World
I taught at Sir Alexander Mackenzie School in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada. This wilderness town is 200 miles above the Arctic Circle.

I love to visit the children in Inuvik, and am now writing my first novel about a young girl who lives in the far north. She discovers that poetry empowers her life and helps her to deal with sadness and grief. It also helps her to celebrate her unique world above the Arctic Circle.

I Heard You Twice the First Time
This book is a collection of original poetry for teachers.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Kalli: I love Shakespeare’s poetry, and adapted it for my book, Our Principal Promised to Kiss a Pig. The pig in the book is Hamlet and he speaks in Shakespearean verse:
    To kiss or not to kiss
    The principal in school?
    Why choose a pig,
    To be their fool?

Your favorite place to write?

Kalli: I love to sit cross-legged on a couch overlooking my river, with a manuscript in front of me on paper ( the old-fashioned way).
Later on, I will take my ideas and rework them on the computer.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Kalli: When I work with teachers, I always share the following quote from the book, Dead Poet’s Society.
    One reads poetry because he is a
    member of the human race, and
    the human race is filled with passion.
    Medicine, law, banking—these are
    necessary to sustain life. But poetry,
    romance, love and beauty. These are
    what we are alive for.
Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Kalli: Poetry has always been both a great joy and a great help in my life. I don’t know how I’d get through the challenges and difficulties of this world without great words to support and guide me.

I believe that, “A poem can change a child and a child can change the world,” But, the child has to brought into the world of poetry first.

There are so many wonderful, passionate children’s poets today who are helping children to discover the joys of poetry. Hopefully, many of them will get the chance to serve in this capacity.

I so love that Kalli's poems are inspired by real events. Her poems are sure to delight teachers and kids alike as they ring so true. Speaking of ringing, this next poem comes from the book The Goof Who Invented Homework: And Other School Poems.
Countdown to Recess

Sun climbs,
Wind chimes.
Five-minutes until recess.

A baseball glove,
A game I love.
Four minutes until recess.

I whisper to Pat,
"Get ready to bat."
Three minutes until recess.

My work's all done,
I gotta run.
Two minutes until recess.

Clock, hurry!
Hands, scurry!
One minute until recess.


Gone in a flash!
As a former reading specialist, Kalli knows the importance of sharing poetry at an early age. Her book The Bug in the Teacher's Coffee: And Other School Poems is an I Can Read Book and designed to introduce poetry to children learning to read independently. The mask poems in this book are short, rhymed, and full of bouncy fun. Here are two poems from this book.
Monkey Bars

Rightside up,
and upside down,
Back and forth,
And all around,
The kids
are making money sounds!


Schools Get Hungry Too

I'd like a bowl
Of ruler stew,
A pencil sandwich,
And some glue.

Some purple paint,
I'd like to drink,
And for dessert,
A classroom sink.
Since we are celebrating poetry, I thought I'd end with one last poem from If You’re Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand.
Shakespeare's Gone

A book fell out the window
In reading class today,
John happened to see it fall
And yelled out in dismay:

"Shakespeare's gone! Shakespeare's gone!
He's fallen off the shelf.
I know it's true, I really do,
I saw him fall myself."

"Shakespeare's gone!" the others yelled,
"John saw him slipping out.
He must be lying on the ground,
Of that, there is no doubt."

Then Matthew jumped up from his chair
And yelled, "I'll volunteer
To run outside and get him
And bring him back in here."

Ten minutes of commotion passed
Before the book was found;
Shakespeare was back on the shelf,
When Dr. Seuss fell down.
To learn more about Kalli, check out these sites.
Many, many thanks to Kalli for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © Kalli Dakos. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Poetry Makers - Brod Bagert

When I was teaching science there was a "No Yuck" policy in my classroom. I didn't want to see wrinkled noses and sounds of disgust. I was much more interested in hearing oohs and aahs. Just like then, there are still words and phrases I don't like to hear in the classroom. Brod Bagert became a favorite of mine when I found he'd written a poem about one of those taboo phrases. You'll find this one in Giant Children.
Bad Words

She actually said it,
She said it in class.
It sounded so nasty,
It sounded so crass.

The children stared,
The teacher scowled,
The custodian cried,
The principal howled.

Then poor little Patti,
My very best friend,
She opened her mouth
And she said it again.

"Bad words, bad words!"
We all began to chant.
"Never! Never! Never!
Never say the words . . . I CAN'T."
Before we read more of Brod's poetry, let's learn a bit about him.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Brod: I wrote my first poem in third grade. My mother was very sick, and I wanted to tell her I loved her for what could have been the last time. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Toups, had told us that poets write words that last forever, so I decided to put what might have been my last I-love-you to my mom in a poem. My mother recovered and saved the poem, which I had framed and hanging on the wall of my writing studio when Hurricane Katrina filled the room with seven feet of water for three weeks. The water dissolved the paper. All that was left was an empty frame. (I do, however, have a scanned image of the poem that I use in my school assemblies.)

By the time I graduated from high school I had written only a few poems of my own. That all changed in college. I wrote a lot during my undergraduate years: some self expression, some to entertain friends, some to “woo women.” I was published in a number of journals and had begun to form strong aesthetic opinions about poetry, but never considered myself “a poet.” I was headed for law school, and poetry was something I simply could not take seriously.

Over the next fifteen years—law school, law practice, and politics— I wrote only a dozen or so poems, but the poetic impulse inside me shook itself out of hibernation when my children needed poems to recite in school elocution competitions. In 1980 there were almost no poems in English written in the voice of children and therefore suitable for recitation by a child. So I wrote them, in the voices of my own children, for them to recite in competition, to help them perform successfully and grow in confidence. They succeeded; I was hooked. Twelve years later I closed my law office and became full time poet.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Brod: When I make a poem, I try to simultaneously entertain and empower the reader. I know no greater joy than when I make a poem that succeeds at doing those two things.

Who/what made you want to write?
Brod: Writing makes the loneliness go away. Social interaction is difficult for me. I am told that I seem confident and socially at ease, but it’s like I have a little robot I bring out to interact with people, while the inner-me remains hidden and protected. That inner-me is an intense, intellectually aggressive, overly sensitive, insecure combination of philosophical black and whites and paradoxical emotional extremes. I have only a few very close friends who are comfortable with the inner-me, yet I truly love to communicate with my fellow human beings, and poetry is the medium that permits it.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Brod: In high school I was immersed in poetry. By the time I graduated I had read several of the Greek poets (mostly Homer) in the original Greek, almost all of the Latin poets in the original Latin, and at least a sampling of all the traditional English poets. In college I did the usual English literature course work, took some advance classes on Shakespeare and the Romantics, and had one extraordinary semester with the now moderately famous poet Miller Williams. Formal education had taught me enough about poetry to conclude that, with some rare but notable exceptions, the poetry of the English language had not yet gotten it together, that the world of contemporary poetry was dysfunctional, and that if I wanted to write poetry that found an audience I’d have to figure it out on my own, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 45 years.

Along the way I’ve had a lot of help. Toward the end of my political career I developed a friendship with Gary Esolen: newspaper editor, fellow poet, and community activist. It was about the time I had written and self-published a book of poems for children which I titled “If Only I Could Fly— Poems for Kids to Read Out Loud.” Gary, a devotee of the notion of poetry as an oral art form, was intrigued by the title’s emphasis on oral performance. After a brief conversation during which I sprayed him with a barrage of unfocused ideas about poetry, Gary told me that I didn’t yet “know enough about poetry to have a productive conversation” with him on the subject and that he was willing to teach me if I were willing to learn. We formed what we joking called the “Caffin Ave Poetry Society,” a group of poetry lovers who for ten years met once a week to read and talk about poetry. It was an eclectic group of brilliant, non-academic professionals, each with a penchant for thinking “out of the box.” We taught each other a lot.

It was against that backdrop that I taught myself to write my poetry. I did it by writing, rewriting, reading the result to an audience, honestly assessing what succeeded and what failed, then writing and rewriting again. I scoured the compendium of poetry in English for poems that I personally loved, poems that touched me, poems that “worked.” I then figured out how they worked, committed them to memory, and performed them, thus storing both the technique and the voice in the part of my brain that produces language. It’s an ongoing process that continues to this day, as a result of which my writing continues to improve, and I get to live with dozens and dozens of the great poems of our language, and some other languages, alive in my active memory and always on the tip of my tongue.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Brod: My writing process would be more aptly called a “rewriting” process. I see ideas for poems everywhere. When an idea is strong enough to move me to write, I jump right in and start writing, and I start by permitting myself to WRITE MY WORST. That’s right. I never try to write my best. I never even try to write well. I simply start by writing badly, celebrate successfully writing my worst, and then start rewriting. In each rewrite I search for ways to make my poem better. Not good. BETTER! With each rewrite I focus on a different aspect of the language—sound, rhythm, surface meaning, unconscious connotation, even the facial expressions produced by the pronunciation of the words (which I call “visual onomatopoeia” —and I keep rewriting until I can’t make it any better, which is how I know I’ve written my best. Then I read it out loud to the intended audience to see both how they react to the poem and how it feels to me when I perform it. Then I start rewriting again.

How many rewrites does one of my poems go though? It’s rare for me to finish a poem with fewer than thirty rewrites and not uncommon to require a hundred or more.

Then, when I put a book together, I compile all the poems I’ve written that are appropriate for the book, two hundred or so for a book that will eventually include twenty poem, and start rewriting all over again. In the end, about one in ten will make it into a manuscript which I send to my editor, which is when the rewriting process starts all over again.

The weeding process employs both a negative and a positive criterion. For the negative part of the process, I simply identify the weaker poems and eliminate them; while on the positive side, I’m looking for poems with connection, an connective emotional thread that functions largely at the unconscious level, the net effect of which is to empower the young reader. It’s the source of a little personal frustration that no one has ever noticed this feature of my work. I don’t blame anybody, if it were easy to spot it wouldn’t work, but it tends to drive me crazy when people say that I write “silly” poems. I never write silly poems. There’s always, in every poem, a serious core.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Brod: My books are like my children, it’s hard to have favorites. Giant Children was illustrated by Tedd Arnold which is pretty special. Hormone Jungle has won several awards. I’m also deeply gratified that my work improves a little every year, driven, I think, by obsessive passion. I read, write, think about, and perform poetry upwards of a thousand hours a year. (For a sense of what that means, please see Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (November 18, 2008.)

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Brod: I’ve got three books coming out this year with Teacher Created Materials, and I’m pretty excited about it. It’s called the Poet and the Professor series; I’m the poet and Tim Rasinski is the professor. Each book combines a collection of grade level specific, read-aloud poems (by the poet), with materials and suggestions for reading teachers (by the professor).

I’m pretty pumped about working with a super-star like Tim Rasinski, and the editorial and graphics staff at Teacher Created Materials is over-the-top. But as a poet I’m most excited about a new technique that I first used in Hormone Jungle (2008 International Reading Association's Young Adults' Choices Award), and have continued in the Poet and the Professor Series.

In the past my books have been collections of poems written in the voices of children united, not by subject, but by the flow of emotional development. These books have done well, but no one ever noticed emotional flow as the organizing principle, a frustration that eventually drove me to the reinvent for children’s poetry the simple but powerful device of presenting poems in what I call fictional context. It’s a technique first used in English as a storytelling device in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales in which Chaucer tells stories through the voices of fictional characters in the context of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Jump ahead to the early 20th century and we find Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems written in the voices of the residents of a town.

So in the three books of the Poet and the Professor series (for 4th, 5th, and 6th-8th grades), the poems occur in the context of a fictional framework in which the poems are written by various characters in each story. From the fictional framework the reader knows the poet’s personality, point of view, and motivation for writing the poem. If you’re the reader, it’s like reading poems written by one of your friends. I’ve now done four books this way and feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the poetic potential. I’m absolutely thrilled about it, not only about what I might write next, but about what other poets might do with this as a launching pad; what you might do. It’s very exciting.

Pop Quiz!
Brod: In English: Robert Burns.
In Spanish: Jose Marti.
In Latin: Horace.
In Greek: Homer.

Your favorite place to write?
Brod: On a computer, connected to a projector, with a head-mike, in front of a live audience for whom the poem is intended, to whom I provide a running stream out loud of what’s going on in my head as I write. For the last ten years, this is how I’ve written the rough draft and the first dozen or so rewrites of virtually all of my poems.

I then do the final twenty or thirty rewrites at home in my writing studio, sitting on a recliner with my computer in my lap, where the hours and the world and time itself disappear, night turns into day, and being alive is a very good thing.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Brod: In his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra Friedrich Nietzsche characterizes some poets as “shallow seas” who “muddle their water that it may seem deep.” In 1891, when Nietzsche wrote those words, he could not have known how prophetic his statement would seem in light of the poetic output of the 20th Century, a veritable cornucopia of bad poetry, bad not because it’s difficult to understand, but because it makes itself difficult to understand as a mask to hid it’s lack of artistic power.

I feel a little guilty because I’ve chosen a negative quote, but it’s important. The golden age of poetry in English lies not in our past but in our future. It may be written by the young poets who read this paragraph, maybe by you, and it’s important that you not be misled by the insidious apocryphal doctrine of contrived ambiguity that has poisoned a century of poetry in English and alienated three generations of human beings from the poetry we desperately need.

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Brod: Poets shouldn’t nominate poet laureates.

Brod's poetry is remarkable because he writes so clearly from the perspective of the child. Moreover, his work is so vivid that when I read his poems I can actually see kids I've taught as the narrators or subjects. And THAT makes me laugh. The kid with the booger? Taught him. The "perfect children?" Taught them too! In drawing these kids so clearly, he also captures their teachers and their feelings quite accurately. Here's a poem that many a teacher will understand. It's from School Fever.
The Invisible Line

She punished me for nothing.
It's totally unfair.
She punished me for nothing.
And she doesn't even care.

I know sometimes I talk to much,
I talk and talk all day,
But how can I keep quiet
When I have so much to say?

I shouldn't should the answers,
I'm supposed to raise my hand,
But she knows I get excited,
And I wish she'd understand.

It's true I use the toilet
At least twenty times a day,
And sometimes, when I get there,
I decide I want to stay.

But she's always been so easy,
What made her get so tough?
I guess this time she meant it
When she said, "Enough's enough!"
Brod believes strongly that poetry isn't just for reading, but also for performing. Here's what he advises young readers at the beginning of The Gooch Machine: Poems for Children to Perform.
When I wrote these poems, I imagined your voice saying the words out loud with lots of expression. So please, don't just read these poems. Perform them like an actor on the stage. That way you'll hear the poems the way I hear them.

Here's a hint about reading with expression: If you want expression in the sound of your voice, all you have to do is put expression on your face. To make your voice sound happy, smile as you say the words. To sound sad, make a sad face. Give it a try. You are going to be a terrific performer.
On the next page he has this to say to parents and teachers.
Those of us who love poetry have felt its power to enrich. Sadly, we are few. I yearn for a world in which we are many. The thrust of this collection is to help broaden the number of children who experience poetry in their lives.

. . . . .

I have a favorite passage from this book. It occurs on page thirty-two at the end of the last poem: Or do they live forever,/With green grass and blue skies,/Like the flame of poet-fire/When it burns in children's eyes. These words contain the passion of my life, for I believe the fire of poetry, ignited in the child, will burn in the adult and pass from generation to generation. I hope these poems help you light that fire.
Here's a poem from The Gooch Machine. Why don't you read it aloud?
The Homework Guarantee

I would have done it yesterday
If it weren't for the rain,
All that lightning and thunder
Are so tricky on my brain.

And I'd like to work real hard tonight
To raise my grades right out of sight,
But my finger has a splinter,
And it hurts me when I write.

Now tomorrow is another day
So we'll have to wait and see,
I intend to do my homework
But there's still no guarantee.

I know I've got to do it
If I want to grow up smart,
But something always happens
Every time I try to start.
I can't possibly leave you without sharing a little booger love. This poem can be found in Giant Children. It bears a warning that reads "WARNING TO ALL CHILDREN. This poem is totally disgusting, and should not, under any circumstances, be recited to a grown-up!" Alright then, you have been warned!
Booger Love

I love this little booger,
All shiny green and black.
You can hold it for a minute,
But I want my booger back.

It stays right where I put it,
It sure knows how to stick.
And if it gets too dry . . . ?
It just needs a little lick.

I can hold it on my finger,
I can flick it in the air,
I can stick it underneath a desk,
Or underneath a chair.

I can make a ball and roll it
Just to see which way it goes.
I love this booger anywhere . . .
Except inside my nose.
To learn more about Brod, check out these sites.
Three cheers for Brod and a boatload of thanks for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © Brod Bagert. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Monday Poetry Stretch - Eggs

I've been wondering and thinking about eggs lately. In March I watched eagle eggs hatch and have been following the growing eaglets/fledglings at Eagle Cam. Just this weekend I made some heavenly dishes that all required eggs, including French Toast, cookies, a frittata and more. My sister is coming to visit and she hates eggs, so, I'm wondering what I should serve for breakfast. Sara Lewis Holmes once wrote a poem entitled I cannot that began "Do not fear the poaching of an egg." I hear that line every time I crack an egg.

See? I have EGGS on the brain! So let's write about cooking with eggs, or hatching an egg, or the egg as a metaphor, or ... anything at all relating to egg(s)!

Leave me a note about your poem and I'll post the results here later this week.

Nonfiction Monday - Smart-Opedia Junior

Smart-Opedia Junior: The Amazing Book About Everything, is the perfect book for kids who love to ask questions and their parents. The following seven chapters are divided into more than 90 topical pages:
  • Our Bodies
  • A House to Live In
  • In the City
  • History
  • A World of Plants and Animals
  • A Big, Wide World
  • The Universe

Smart-Opedia Junior
opens with an introduction that describes the features of the book. Beyond the information presented on each topic, readers will find these five fun additions (as described in the book).
  • Figure It Out! - Have fun with puzzles and games. Spot hidden animals, read Egyptian Hieroglyphics, make movie sound effects.
  • What About You? - You are a very special person. What are your favorite colors? What's your birthday? What was the first word you said?
  • Did You Know? - Eye-opening facts about animals, plants, people, and places add more information -- to make you even smarter.
  • Number Time! - Discover the size of a lion, how many blocks in a pyramid, and the speed of your sneeze!
  • Kids' Question - Why does the Moon change shape? How do fish breathe underwater? Why are leaves green? Find answer to real questions like these, asked by kids just like you.

Here is a sample spread showing the What About You? feature. (Click to enlarge.)
The book covers a lot of ground in 192 pages. It includes an extensive table of contents and index. It starts small with an introduction to the child's world, and then branches out to include the community and larger world. The section on Our Bodies provides a nice introduction to many of the questions kids ask about human growth and development, as well as parts of the body and illness. I found the section on A House to Live In to be the only one that was hard to follow, with individual pieces seemingly unconnected. It begins by looking at the physical structure of the place ("How Do We Get Electricity, Water and Gas?" and "Who Built the House?") and then goes on to look at "One Day at Home" (lots of chronology and time-telling) and "What to Wear?", which looks at clothing and seasons. Next comes nutrition with "A Good Breakfast for Holly", and "Linked In Living Room", which looks at all the ways we use technology to keep us connected. It ends "In the Bathroom".

The next section, In the City, looks at the community and all it offers. The section on History is only 20 pages long, so the areas highlighted need to reflect the interests of readers this age. Need I say more than inventions, dinosaurs and pirates? The choices all make sense for the target audience. A World of Plants and Animals includes information about farming, domestic and wild animals, plants, habitats and life cycles. A Big, Wide World focuses on continents and the biomes found in them, as well as the people who live there. The final section, The Universe, examines space exploration, the solar system (correctly ending with Neptune and describing the dwarf planets of Pluto, Ceres, and Eris), and living in space.

The colorful cartoon drawings and simple sentences make this an appealing book for young readers. There is much here that curious kids will love.

Smart-Opedia Junior: The Amazing Book About Everything
Publisher: Maple Tree Press
Publication Date:
192 pages
Source of Book: Review copy received from Raab Associates.

This post was written for Nonfiction Monday. The round up is being hosted by Jone (MsMac) at Check It Out. Do take some time to check out all the great posts highlighting nonfiction this week.

Poetry Makers - Jenny Whitehead

It was the book Lunch Box Mail and Other Poems that introduced my to Jenny Whitehead's work. I was looking for some poems about school when a friend recommended this collection. While the 38 poems are not all about school, they cover a wonderful mix of subjects and use a variety poetic forms. They are playful and fun to read aloud. Here are the first two poems from the book, which provide contrasting views of school. (I've posted them here side-by-side since they appear on pages 6 and 7 in the book.)
The 1st Day of School

Brand-new crayons and
      unchipped chalk
Brand-new haircut,
      spotless smock.
Brand-new rules—
      "No running, please."
Brand-new pair of
      nervous knees.
Brand-new faces,
      unclogged glue.
Brand-new hamster,
      shiny shoes.
Brand-new teacher,
      classroom fun.
Brand-new school year's
      just begun.
The 179th Day of School

Broken crayons and
      mop-head hair.
Scuffed-up shoes and
      squeaky chair.
Dried-up paste,
      chewed, leaky pens.
Dusty chalkboard,
      lifelong friends.
One inch taller,
      bigger brain.
Well-worn books,
      old grape-juice stain.
Paper airplanes,
      classroom cheer.
School is done and
      summer's here!
Before we read more of Jenny's work, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Jenny: Shel Silverstein's poem "Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout" from Where the Sidewalk Ends. My dad had all of his albums and recorded the "appropriate for children" poems and songs for us. Hearing Shel recite his poems is entirely a different experience than reading them on paper. I remember as a kid listening to the "Sarah…" poem in particular and memorizing not only the words but the nuances of phrasing—how he would speed up or slow down, get louder or softer, pause for effect etc. And to this day I can recite it the exact same way.

My dad also played a lot of folk music when I was growing up. He typed up hundreds of folk songs and so I learned a sense of rhythm through his playing and singing. I realize now I probably studied the rhymes, the structure of the songs and the story-telling content more so than your average twelve year old!

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Jenny: The freedom of expression and the challenge of good structure is what I enjoy most about writing poetry. I usually figure out the content/story of the poem before adding rhyme so I know my poem will have a solid beginning, middle and end…and then I set out to "solve" the problem of getting just the right words into a form that will flow the same, no matter who reads it.

Who/what made you want to write?
Jenny: My 7th grade English teacher, Ms. Mary Kreager, was the hardest teacher I ever had and I loved every minute of it. She taught us about creativity and how to push our minds to think beyond the obvious. It was as if she opened a dam in my right brain and it hasn't closed since. (My brother, a comedian, also credits this same teacher for inspiring him to write comedy.) She had us write plays and perform them. She taught us every form of poetry and how to construct a story. We had to do a newscast with three other students—two anchors, one weatherman, and one sportscaster—and develop all our own stories, visuals, even commercials. And if we were even a minute over our 30-minute slot, she started docking points off our grade. We quickly learned the value of practice and perfecting what we did. I remember in a college art class, a professor gave me a compliment I will never forget. He said, "While Jenny's work may not be the best executed in class (I was still learning technique!), I can always pick out her project because it's the most unique." Thank you, Ms. Kreager!

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Jenny: I have taken various writing classes throughout high school, college and as an adult, but I mostly trust my ear and gut instinct for getting the meter right.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Jenny: I figure out "the story" or "the angle" of what I'm trying to say and write it using longhand first. Next, I use my rhyming dictionary, my thesaurus (I've been using the same one since 7th grade), and lots of paper to write, rewrite and craft each line until I feel like it's finished. The real test is to have someone else read it; it has to translate from my head to someone else's voice successfully or it "isn't done yet."

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Jenny: Lunch Box Mail was a joy for me to write because my intention was to capture childhood through the eyes of a child. I used empathy, humor and point-of-view to make observations about what kids experience in the early years (i.e. the children's menu always being the same for kids, the temptation of a puddle, the first day of school jitters etc.) Holiday Stew was my biggest challenge—finding a unique take on a familiar holiday or learning about holidays I didn't celebrate required extra time in the library before sitting down to write and illustrate the eighty poems.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Jenny: I recently signed a contract with Holt for a picture book on moods I will write and illustrate called 'You're A Crab'. Although it's not written in poetic form, I approached it in the same way I do a poem, making every word count. I have several more poetry picture books making the rounds—'Don't Dawdle, Doris', 'Subway Station Conversation' and "It's Hot! Hot! Hot!"

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Jenny: Shel Silverstein!

Your favorite place to write?
Jenny: Lunch Box Mail and Holiday Stew were written in a little enclosed room at the public library…no distractions, just a desk and a chair. Now, I go to my studio.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Jenny: A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom. ~Robert Frost.

Published in 2001, Lunch Box Mail was Jenny's first book of poems. Did I mention that she also illustrated the volume? The gouache and acrylic cartoon style images nicely complement the poems' playful themes. You can view samples of the poems and artwork at Jenny's web site. I'm quite fond of the poem "The Bug Hotel." The poem appears on the surface of a glass jar that holds a variety of invertebrate creatures.
The Bug Hotel

Hello, front desk?
How do you do?
So sorry to be bothering you.
But on behalf of all your guests,
I need to make a few requests:
Our room is kind of stuffy,
we could use a little air—
would you be so kind and tap
a hole or two up there?
I hate to sound too picky
or make a bigger fuss,
but baloney disagrees
with vegetarians like us.
Could you serve, instead,
some fresh green grass for us to munch?
And may I have a roommate
who won't eat me up for lunch?
We do appreciate
that we can rest our tiny feet,
and have the time to chat with bugs
we often never meet.
But when the day is through
and it is time for us to roam,
could you kindly let us go
so we can find our way back home?
Jenny's second book of poetry was Holiday Stew: A Kid's Portion of Holiday and Seasonal Poems. More than 60 pages in length, this bulging collection of 80 poems is organized by season. Beginning with spring and ending in winter, the poems address major holidays, both secular and religious, as well as seasonal observances. You can view samples of the poems and artwork at Jenny's web site. Here are two of my favorites from the section on spring.
The Clock's Gone Cuckoo!
(A Daylight Savings Poem)

They say we lost an hour,
I'm not sure where it went.
Our clocks are all mixed up—
My head feels like cement.

Down the stairs I stumble—
Hey, who turned on the sun?
Dad's newspaper is sideways,
His shave is halfway done.

Look! Mom's pouring cat food
In all our breakfast bowls.
My sister's twisted sweater
Has mismatched button holes!

Luckily, this strange time change
Starts quietly on Sunday.
Imagine what could happen
If it started on a Monday!


Mother Earth

Mother Earth has brown skin—
With hair of swaying wheat,
Her snow-white teeth are mountain caps,
Her heart, the lava heat.
She sewed her dress from farmers' fields,
She topped her hat with gourds.
Her tummy rumbles quietly,
She shifts when she is bored.
She blushed when the sun rises
And hides during an eclipse.
The wind is but a sigh from her,
The rivers are her lips.
She's older than the oldest tree
And softer than the sand,
She'll be here for us always,
If we gently hold her hand.
To learn more about Jenny, check out these sites.
A hearty thanks to Jenny for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © Jenny Whitehead. All rights reserved.