Friday, April 23, 2010

Poetry Makers - April Halprin Wayland

I first read some of April Halprin Wayland's poetry in Myra Cohn Livingston's book I Am Writing a Poem About . . . A Game of Poetry. In it, Livingston wrote about three of the assignments she gave to the students in her Master class. For each of the three assignments readers will find a number of poems written by her students—students the likes of Kristine O'Connell George, Joan Bransfield Graham, Ann Whitford Paul, Alice Schertle, Janet Wong, and of course, April. One assignment was to write a poem in which the word rabbit appeared. Here's the poem April wrote.
As I turn my head
sideways, a dark rabbit hops
onto the full moon.
I later found poems of April's in the Lee Bennett Hopkins anthology My America: A Poetry Atlas of the United States. Here's one of them.

"Don't dare come near,"
it says

with spike

with spear

with crossbow
poised to pierce . . .

But what really drew me to April's work was the "After Words" section of her verse novel Girl Coming in For a Landing. Here's how it begins.
A candle. That's what writing is for me. It lights up dark places in my life so that I can see them clearly. Writing poetry, usually late at night in my journal, is a way of sorting out emotions I can't express any other way.

Many of the poems in Girl Coming In for a Landing are from my journals. Some are the result of the kind of observation my poetry teacher, Myra Cohn Livingston, taught us. Don't just sit at your desk and try to remember what grass is like, she'd say. Go outside, look at it, smell it, feel it, lie down on it. Then write about grass.
I didn't need to read any further to know I'd found a kindred spirit. (And yes, I often read from the back of the book first!) Before we read more of April's poetry, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
April: Well…like so many writers, I have always been a journal-keeper. When I was seven I wrote about my allowance (50 cents a week) and how I spent it (on Pixy Sticks, of course—those striped paper straws filled with tangy colored sugar) and about our very stupid, very loving purebred cocker spaniel, Peanuts.

And when I was in middle school, I was a crazy night writer…typing poems about big life questions like the insanity of war, and how to be a better person…and also poems on important themes such as if Jordan Schwartz would ever kiss me (yes—in a spin-the-bottle game on my front lawn).

spin the bottle
on my front lawn
my bare feet were freezing
so I’ve got socks on

spin the bottle
go, baby, go
I pray it stops in front of
divine Carlo

he takes me in his arms
and kisses me hard
I can’t believe it’s happening
in my front yard

© by April Halprin Wayland
from Girl Coming In for a Landing—A Novel in Poems (Knopf)


he stopped
in the middle

of kissing me passionately on the lips
to give my neck a nip.

Beth said he didn't move aside her coat
to kiss her throat

when her spin
stopped at him.

I wonder why
he kissed my lips / neck / lips? What did it signify?

Was it a whim?
Just a dumb spin-the-bottle turn to him?

Was my breath so bad
that he just had to take a break?

Did he think I was a flake?
Was it a hair?

did he care?

Was he just being polite?
Or did he really want to kiss
just me all night?

© by April Halprin Wayland
from Girl Coming In for a Landing—A Novel in Poems (Knopf)
After college, I realized that I loved picture books. Loved the duet of words and illustrations. I was hungry to learn all I could about how to create them. So I took classes in the UCLA Extension Writers Program in writing for children—every class was stellar.

I heard that Myra Cohn Livingston was teaching Writing Poetry for Children. All I knew about her was that she was a very, very important children’s poet. I thought that if I took her class in poetry, my picture book writing would become more poetic. I would understand how to use words in new ways.

Also, I had heard that she was old. I was afraid she might die, so I immediately signed up for her class. She didn’t die. She was a strict and uncompromising teacher—one of the best I’ve ever had. After taking her class several times, she invited me into her Master Class. There were only about twelve in her Master Class—what an honor!

I studied under Myra for twelve years. She—and the poets in her class—changed my writing and my life forever.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
April: I love that I can close my eyes and swirl back to being five years old or ten or thirteen. I am playing make-believe, I am magic—and it’s my profession. How cool is that?

Who/what made you want to write?
April: My mother. Isn’t it always Mom? She and my father were in love with words, always words. Stressing the correct usage, helping me rewrite an essay, doubling over with laughter as she read Thurber and Dorothy Parker aloud to us each night.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
April: Yes—Myra was my bachelor’s degree, my master’s degree and my PhD in poetry.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
April: II learn by imitation. So sometimes I begin with a topic…like playing the violin, for example. First there’s that wild spill of words and thoughts—I just get them down. Memories of where I’ve played, of music lessons, of long hours practicing, and off-the-wall connections, too…no one’s going to read these notes but me.

Then I may page through books of poetry until I find just the right poem to imitate.

Here’s a step-by-step of my process:
  1. Think of a subject you’d like to write about.
  2. Write down everything you can remember about this topic—details, smells, incidents that comes to mind…invented words, crazy thought that comes to mind when you think of your topic…nothing is censured, nothing is off-limits.
  3. Choose one phrase or incident among all that you’ve written which fires you up.
  4. Find a poem you like and type it into a file.
  5. Now, using your subject, copy the poem’s structure, meter, use of sounds, and word choices.
  6. Read it aloud. (I often read my poems to Rosie, the world’s oldest dog.)
  7. Read it again. And again. Change what doesn’t work.
  8. Revel in it. Enjoy it. Do a happy poem dance.
  9. Share your poem with your friends and family.
And speaking of violins, I didn’t imitate anyone else’s poem when I wrote this, but I did do that mad brainstorming to get to this part of my musical life when I was a child:

I open my case
tighten my bow
pluck a string to tune.
I love to listen to it chirp across the echoing room.

My friends are in class
reading about
a famous English king,
But I am training this wooden bird upon my arm to sing.

from Call Down the Moon: Poems of Music (McElderry, 1995), selected by Myra Cohn Livingston, reprinted by Cricket Magazine (April 1995)
also in Girl Coming In for a Landing—A Novel in Poems (Knopf, 2002) under the title, Taking Violin
Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
April: It’s always the most recent one, I think. This one is in Lee Bennett Hopkin’s just-published anthology, Sharing the Seasons: a Book of Poems, beautifully illustrated by David Diaz:

Welcome, Flowers.
Write your name on a name tag.
Find a seat

Raise your leaf if you’ve taken a class here before.
Let’s go around the room.
Call out your colors.

I see someone’s petal has fallen—
please pick it up and put it in your desk
where it belongs.

Sprinklers at recess,
fertilizer for lunch,
and you may snack on the sun throughout the day.

Excuse me…
what’s that you have in your mouth?
A bee?

Did you
bring enough
for everyone?

© By April Halprin Wayland in Sharing the Seasons: A Book of Poems compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by David Diaz (Margaret K. McElderry)
Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
April: I won’t say much about my WIP novel-in-poems, because talking about things-just-being-born sometimes takes the energy out of them.

But I just sent off two picture books that I really love. I’m crossing my fingers!

One is about one man who spent his life creating a small oasis on the side of the Los Angeles River. I interviewed him before he died and have been writing this story and setting it aside for many years.

The other is a funny, very short manuscript based on what some friends of mine recently went through when they bought their first house.

I’m one of the poets who will be playing “Poetry Tag” for Poetry Month…one poet offers a poem, then tags another poet who must offer a poem that somehow connects to the last one. Tune into Professor Sylvia Vardell’s marvelous Poetry for Children blog.

And…I am planning to write a poem a day for Poetry Month—gulp! This is coordinated by the incredible Laura Evans of Teach Poetry K-12. The public-ness of this project is a bit concerning. We’ll see how it goes. You can follow along on my website. There will be a page in the Poetry section called Poetry Month.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
April: Ogden Nash popped into my head first, so he wins (for today…ask me again tomorrow!) I was named for his poem, “Always Married an April Girl” (See my silly quiz for more information.)

I love his invented words, his humor, and I always loved his long poem, Custard the Dragon, which has been illustrated many times as a picture book.

Your favorite place to write?
April: Writing while eavesdropping on teen conversations at The Local Grind or melting into a couch at the Catalina Coffee Company. Or sitting on my green exercise ball in my bedroom office with my cats, Elsie and Snot. (I know. My husband named her…)

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
April: There are so many! Today I have three:

“Yes, there is Nirvana; it is in leading your sheep to a green pasture,
and in putting your child to sleep, and in writing the last line of your poem.” ~ Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) [Sand and Foam]

“Poetry is a place I set up where others can join me. I clear the brush, rake the leaves, drag in an old log, plant some violets. Readers may not see the same things I see there, or think the same things I was thinking when I wrote the poem, but they can sit next to me on the log and smell the violets.” ~ April Halprin Wayland

Or how about this one?
“Poetry is an extreme sport.” ~ graffiti seen in Paris, 2007

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
April: Alice Shertle!

She is smart, deeply read, a fabulous teacher and a subtle, absurdly talented poet.

Sheesh! April's done all my work for me by sharing so many poems. Since she didn't talk much about her accomplishments, let me do the honors. In case you've been living in a cave or under a rock you may not know that April's newest picture book, New Year at the Pier—A Rosh Hashanah Story, won the 2010 Sydney Taylor Book Award Gold Medal for Young Readers. This is an award for best Jewish picture book of the year. In 2003 her verse novel, Girl Coming In for a Landing, received a Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor Award for poetry. This book was also awarded the Myra Cohn Livingston Award for Poetry that same year.

I'm going to leave you with one of my favorite poems from Girl Coming In for a Landing.
Interesting . . .

When I send in my heart
—my poetry—
to a publisher,
it's called submitting.
To learn more about April, check out these sites.
Many, many thanks to April for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All drawings and poems © April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.


  1. You are too cool, Tricia. Thank you sooo much for being so very, very, VERY thorough!

  2. Must read Girl Coming in for a Landing -- many wondrous poems there to be found. I have to love Budding Scholars! Seriously: if you've brought a bee, you know better than to hoard them all for yourself.

    I do a happy poem dance with April Halprin Wayland in celebration of the fact that someone does pay writers and poets to be magic and make-believe for a profession. It is the absolute best thing in the world.

    Thanks for a fun interview.

  3. Loved April's verse novel "Girl.." Can't wait to read more by her. Thanks again for interviewing, Tricia!

  4. April, I love all the poems you've shared here. And how wonderful to learn more about you, my dear co-blogger. You ROCK!
    Tricia, what a great idea for a series in honor of National Poetry Month!

  5. A great poem to imitate would be the one that April posted at last week. Kids would have a really fun time with the puzzle factor of the rhyme scheme, and using a few "new" words (Twitter, etc.) would be fun for them, too.

    Great interview!