Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Poetry Makers - Allan Wolf

I've always been a fan of Wallace Stevens, so you can imagine how I felt when I read a poem entitled "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Your Knees and Elbows." No, seriously. This was the poem that introduced my to Allan Wolf. You can find it in The Blood-Hungry Spleen and Other Poems About Our Parts, a book that celebrates our gross, disgusting, fascinating, and amazing body parts and functions. Here's an excerpt from the poem that got me hooked (and made me buy the book).
The knee wears a cap
all year long,
even in church.

If elbows did not bend
you could not scratch
your nose.

If knees did not bend
there would be no
marriage proposals.

Elbows and hair bows
do not look alike

When two knees meet
they say, "I love you.
I want you. I kneed you."
Before we read more of Allan's poetry, let's learn a bit about him.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Allan: When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I began writing on my bedroom walls. This became something of an obsession that lasted for about six years. I began by writing the date: April 12, 1976. After that, I wrote everyday. It happened pretty much the way I describe it in my verse novel, Zane’s Trace. Like most “tweens,” I had a LOT of emotions bouncing around in my head and my heart. The act of writing was a soothing balm. Mostly I drew pictures or scribbled nonsense phrases. Whatever poems I wrote were somewhat, er, melodramatic. A couplet from a poem written across four feet of metal ductwork, titled “The Mind Worm,” went like this:

My mind’s been at war for twelve long years,
Yet most of my battles are drown in my tears.


What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Allan: When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I began writing on my bedroom walls. This became I left my teaching job at Virginia Tech to go on the road as an actor with Poetry Alive!, the national touring group that performs poetry as theatre. Up until then I had never attempted memorizing a single poem. The first poem I learned was “Things” by Eloise Greenfield. After my first official performance in front of a couple hundred elementary school kids I was hooked. That was twenty-two years ago; I’ve been writing and performing children’s poetry ever since.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Allan: Wow, that’s sort of like asking, “What do you enjoy most about scratching an itch?” Writing, like scratching, is just something that I’m compelled to do. Writing poetry for young people comes easiest to me because I’m very clear who my audience is. Writing for grown-ups is tricky, because your reader could be a professor or a priest or a plumber. They might be eighteen or eighty-eight. At least when I’m writing for kids, I know with certainty that my audience is youthful, imaginative, optimistic and open-minded.

Who/what made you want to write?
Allan: Again, it comes down to my bedroom walls. My entire adolescence is documented there in Sharpies and El Markos. It all started when I accidentally lost a penny behind a strip of baseboard. Unable to remove it I wrote on the wall just above it: “Penny lost down here on the evening of April 12, 1976 at 9 PM and 5 seconds by Allan Dean Wolf.” I just wanted the world to know where the penny was. And I felt it was my responsibility to speak out. You might say that I felt as if it was me hidden behind that baseboard. And it was me who was compelled to write my way out.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Allan: I have a Master’s degree in English. And I’ve taken a few writing classes in college. Mostly though I am self-taught. I consider reading to be the best training possible. I write so that I might become a better reader.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Allan: It changes from day to day, and from project to project. The verse novels I’ve written are mostly works of historical fiction, so I begin with research. The characters, events, and voices grow from the ever-deepening body of historical details. For these novel-length works, I usually do a good bit of outlining. I have to create a hybrid timeline containing real and fictional events. It’s complicated, what I do. I don’t even really understand it myself. For my simpler poem collections, many times I just get a phrase or image stuck in my head and build the poem around it. I have a little notebook in my back pocket and a pen in my front pocket at all times. I actually get a little panicky when I’m without them.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Allan: All of my books are like my children which makes it impossible to pick a favorite. But I do appreciate different books in different ways. The Blood-Hungry Spleen was my first major book. It was fun to write from the first word to the final publication. I love More Than Friends because it was a collaboration with my very good friend, poet Sara Holbrook. The verse novel’s I’ve written have stretched me to the limit of my endurance and talent. After each one I swear I’ll never do another, and yet I keep coming back. The verse novel genre is just too compelling. I’m very proud of the quality of my work in New Found Land. But I’ve gotten more letters from young readers about Zane’s Trace than any other book. Immersed in Verse allowed me to put into writing all the ideas I have about writing poetry and living the poet’s life.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Allan: Zane’s Trace, which is very autobiographical has just come out in paperback with a slick new cover. I’ve just finished the third draft of another verse novel (Candlewick Press, 2011) set aboard the Titanic, titled The Watch that Ends the Night. Like New Found Land, this book has multiple narrators and a variety of formats. One of the book’s main characters is the Iceberg, an existential holier-than-thou antagonist who speaks in iambic pentameter. Other characters include a baker, a con man, a millionaire, the captain, the lookout, a kidnapper, a Lebanese refugee, a Norwegian emigrant, and a ship rat. I’ve also just begun a cycle of poems for Candlewick Press that features Sacagawea and her son. I’m trying to find a publisher for a collection of double-dactyl poems about famous people. Also in the works: a great little book that combines Haiku and Cootie Catchers. I’m having a ton of fun with that one.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Allan: Adult Poet: John Keats. Kid’s Poet: Karla Kuskin.

Your favorite place to write?
Allan: The second floor of Ramsey Library at UNC-Asheville. It is pin-drop quiet there. Sshhhh.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Allan: “Poems are not meant to be solved; they are meant to be savored.” --Allan Wolf

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Allan: If she weren’t already in office, I would nominate Mary Ann Hoberman. How about an anthologist like Lee Bennett Hopkins or Paul Janeczko? Charles Ghigna never gets the attention he deserves. Marilyn Singer is another children’s poet who has been at it a long time. There are a lot of us. J. Patrick Lewis? Janet Wong? Kristine O’Connell George? Joyce Carol Thomas? George Ella Lyon? Now here’s an unusual suggestion: what about Bob Falls, the founder of Poetry Alive!. He doesn’t actually write poetry, but he is likely the most knowledgeable person in the biz.

My second Allan Wolf find was his book Immersed in Verse: An Informative, Slightly Irreverent & Totally Tremendous Guide to Living the Poet's Life. Immersed in Verse is a how-to guide for middle grades and young adults on becoming a poet. The book begins this way.
Have you noticed how rhythm makes you move? How heave bass vibrates the door panels of passing cars? Have you noticed the colors of a rainbow? How the stench of fireworks burns your eyes? How your cold winter hands sting under warm water? To be a poet is to notice.
Poems are all around us, waiting to be written. The world teems with words, images, ideas, sights, sounds, colors, anecdotes, notions, and emotions. Just as water is the stuff of life to a fish, the world is the stuff of life to be a poet. all you need to do is dive in.
The book is divided into several sections, each color-coded for ease of use. Poetry & You offers readers a quick guided tour of poetry, nine habits of successful poets (such as get gonzo over words, write every day and play), a writing pledge and more you. Your Poetry Toolbox explains the tools of the trade, such as poetic devices and the anatomy of a poem. The Poet's Decisions delves deep into the process of writing, providing lessons on point of view, tense, form, playing with structure, revising and much more. Always Something to Write About provides ideas for journaling and writing prompts. The last major section, Ta Da!: Presenting Your Work is about reading, performing and publishing poetry. Liberally sprinkled throughout the text are examples and lots of poems from a range of poets.

One of my favorite sections is entitled Your Best Revising Tools. Having just spent a significant amount of time revising a poem, I can tell you how much these ring true. Here they are in abbreviated form.
  1. Time - It's very difficult to read a poem objectively on the day you wrote it. It's best to let it age--a day, a week, a month.
  2. An Audition - With poetry, there's no room for words that aren't pulling their weight. Make those words work for you. Make them prove they belong where they are.
  3. A Sense of Fearless Tinkering - Don't be afraid to take apart what you've done. . . . Take your poem apart and put it back together. Don't worry about the extra parts still on the floor.
  4. Highlighting the Poem's Golden Moments - Use a yellow highlighter to designate your poem's top three golden moments (be they a single work, a partial phrase, or an entire line) that are vital to the poem's life. . . . Once you've highlighted the poem's golden moments, examine the remaining words with a critical eye.
  5. Vivacious Vocal Cords - Poetry is ultimately a spoken art. . . . but it's also a great revision tool. It helps flag a poem's awkward phrases, blips, bleeps, and blemishes.
The book ends with appendices of selected poems and poets, as well as publishing resources for young writers. In addition to containing valuable insights and directions about writing poetry, the book also contains a number of Allan's poems. Here's one I especially like.

The first burst when egg becomes child,
our hearts start the show.
Slow and steady when we sleep.
Keep the beat, the meter—steady rocks.
Clocks, they tick and tock to track the time.
And when two lovers meet—they chime.
I'd like to end with a poem of Allan's from More Than Friends. Co-written with Sara Holbrook, the poems are told from male and female points of view. How these two managed to so adroitly capture adolescent dreams, hopes, desires, fears and romantic entanglements is simply astounding. It's also pure magic. (I also love that the poetic forms are identified at the bottom of every page!) Here's one of Allan's poems, written in the form of a sonnet.
I Hope She Likes the Way I Wear My Tee

I hope she likes the way I wear my tee—
my sleeves rolled up, my shirttail hanging loose.
'Course I don't dress for her; I dress for me.
If how I look's not me, then what's the use?
I hope she likes the way my blue jeans sag—
the boxer shorts exposed. The belt bum-wrapped.
I wear 'em inside out to show the tag:
But being fashion-forward isn't free,
especially when styles change every day.
My look is wrong if how I look ain't me.
I'll be myself. I'm better off that way.
I'll just be cool when I see her today.
It's time! You think my outfit looks okay?
To learn more about Allan, check out his web site.

Three cheers and a boatload of thanks to Allan for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Allan Wolf. All rights reserved.


  1. OH, I remember another one from More Than Friends; those poems are so sweet and funny and real. Lovely.

    Yay for savoring poems and for fearless tinkering.

  2. IMMERSED IN VERSE is such a helpful (and joyously-romping!) read. I love Alan's clarity and honesty.