Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Poetry Makers - Heidi Mordhorst

Heidi Mordhorst is one of the newest poets to me in this series. I learned of her work this past fall while attending a Founders Workshop at the Highlights Foundation. It was on writing poetry for children, so we not only spent time writing poetry, but reading a lot of it. It was here that I discovered Heidi's book Pumpkin Butterfly: Poems From the Other Side of Nature. Upon reading the poems I was immediately struck by the terribly clever metaphors and found my head nodding in agreement, smiling at the new ways I was seeing and thinking of the world around me. Here's one of the poems that I particularly love.
Botanical Jazz

Quiet down, flower—
not so loud!

All this stretching your neck
and spreading your arms
bellowing your brassy yellow sass—

you’re breaking our eyedrums
trumpeting all that color and sun
blowing that blazing yellow jazz. . . .

Belt it out, flower—
we’ll join in!
Before we read more of Heidi's poetry, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Heidi: In 2nd grade Frettra Miller could already do an aerial. She ran down the mat with her long brown legs all knees and ankles and before you could see exactly how she did it, she had flung herself over-- hands behind her back-- and landed on her feet again.

Frettra made it look so easy, just like the Olympic stars on snow or ice, and yet in leotard, on skis or on skates, no part of my body had any idea what to do. But poetry was different. I listened to and looked at what writers were doing with words and it looked fun, it looked easy, so I tried it—and quite a few parts of me knew what to do. Here are the first lines of my 2nd grade poetry aerial:

          rain comes
slowly           quietly           inconspicuously
         rain comes.

I wrote the original version of “The Moon Moves” in about 4th grade--same title, same refrain and even the phrase “keening in her oyster voice.”

Of course, we who are born poets also feel that we have Something to Say. It’s a vanity, really, that I talk about with kids: poems are for noticing, for wondering, for describing something so interesting you want to capture it in words, save it forever, share it with the world, make people see what you see, feel what you feel.

Every class I’ve ever taught in 23 years has had at least a couple of born poets; the trick as a poetry teacher (actually as any kind of teacher) is to create the conditions that allow all kids to learn that they, too, have Something to Say.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Heidi: Children’s poetry got me hooked on children’s poetry—along with all kinds of other language: A.A. Milne voiced by my mother and RSV Bible verses voiced by my father from his Lutheran pulpit; “The Sound of Music” and Simon and Garfunkel; Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood and Louisa May Alcott (Eight Cousins was my favorite), Custard the Dragon and The Boxcar Children, and later The Cars, the Pretenders and Split Enz (no kidding) were among my vast array of influences. Music always mattered.

And I read the classic children’s poets: Eve Merriam, David McCord, Bobbi Katz, John Ciardi—too many to name. For years I saved the autograph of John Ciardi, who came to visit my school (thank you Mrs. Toler, my school librarian), tucked in a white wooden music box with red velvet lining where it eventually shared space with three Marlboro cigarettes. This contraband made me feel so guilty that I finally appeared downstairs late one night and confessed to my parents (which is a bit comical for a girl growing up in Richmond, the Tobacco Capital of the U.S.).

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Heidi: I like finding a mental/physical/emotional/spiritual image inside me, and then doing the highly pleasurable work of opening my mind to both reach out and wait for the words that will create the image outside myself. That’s the first fun. The next fun comes in tweaking and testing and tricking around with the ideas and the words to get the poem to “sound good to your ears and feel good in your mouth,” as I always say to children. The last fun is sharing a poem with readers or listeners and finding that I’ve brought them a little something, a “bon mot,” as my father (knowledgeable about many languages but not French) used to call a treat.

Who/what made you want to write?
Heidi: Funnily enough, I “identified” as a poet from age 7 to age 20, wrote hundreds of poems from 2nd grade till I was a junior in college--and then I discovered I was supposed to be a teacher. Between 1985 and 1999 I wrote, I think, not one poem. I wrote many other things, and I learned improvisational comedy and how to be sad and how to make quilts and dance salsa, and I learned to be a teacher of writing…but it was not until my first child was born that something made me want to write poetry again. This phenomenon probably has deep psychological meaning which I have never had time to explore, or maybe I was just feeling fecund.

I began taking classes at the local Writers’ Center and was thinking about getting published when I realized that a) all my poetry was rather G-rated compared to that of my classmates, and b) as the parent of a toddler and the teacher of 4-year-olds, my whole life was child-centered. So I made a conscious decision to a) write for children and b) skip all the sending-individual-poems-to-magazines stuff. Instead I put together 20 poems and sent out 11 copies of my manuscript to the 11 publishers who were still accepting unsolicited poetry manuscripts in 2003.

To my amazement, my cunning plan worked. Wendy Murray, who had just arrived at Wordsong/Boyds Mills, picked me out of the slush pile. (Take heart, ye seekers!) My gratitude to her and my debt to the universe remains immense.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Heidi: Often my poems start as I described above, with an observation and an image, but sometimes I start from the pure word play, the sounds and structures that lead to new ideas I couldn’t conceive myself. The title poem of Squeeze, for example, started with the two words “lemon heaven” spoken (who knows why now?) by a child in my nursery school class.

I’m certain that my process of drafting a poem by hand on paper is much different than if I begin with a blank Word document—and I prefer paper, because the PROCESS is visible. Occasionally I know the title, like I did with “Solar-Powered Sun Puppet” in Pumpkin Butterfly; but usually I draft a new poem several times in rapid succession—I’m learning finally to start on a blank doublespread—and just like Alice Schertle, there are crossings-out and arrows and my trademark squiggly underline that means “find a better word here,” and by the end of the third or fourth draft I’m ready to commit it to a document to see how it’s going to look. Another thing I’m learning is to copy and paste each successive draft on a new page so that I don’t lose any of the process.

I like the challenge of form and structure and most of my poems show me how they want to be organized: the first stanza materializes and then I follow its pattern for the rest of the poem. This sometimes gets me in trouble, though, when I get stuck on the form and forget to be free with my free verse.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Heidi: Being a teacher, I’m very good at loving each one of my poems just for who it is, but there’s always something special about the ones I’ve worked harder on. An example from Squeeze is “Honeysuckle Hunting” and one from Pumpkin Butterfly is “Night Luck.”

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Heidi: I always have too many ideas for my own good, and then I go and distract myself with epic projects like leading an effort to establish our county’s first public charter school. Right now—rather predictably—I’m focused on a collection called “Poetry School” which addresses “curriculum content standards” from some unusual angles. I’m incubating a poem for this book that might be called “Experiment in the Silence Lab.” And for years I’ve been chipping away at a book of poems composed of only the First 200 Common Words.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Gerard Manley Hopkins, for teaching me to fling
myself into the throng of song, deeply into the wallow
of bounding sound---then wing up steeply to follow
an own strumming-humming free leap of meaning.

e.e. cummings
::encouraging me to EMbrace my tend-(er)
ency to flOUT! authority (bre
ak rules) and re- re- re-
make them

Valerie Worth, for
showing me
and brevity.

Your favorite place to write?
Heidi: On foot, while walking, outside. I don’t actually write while I’m walking, but poems burble up and percolate…

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Heidi: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” This was the advice of Anne Lamott’s father to her brother overwhelmed by an enormous task of writing, and it’s also useful for those of us who tend to get paralyzed by our own grand plans.

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Heidi: Personally I favor more like a Children’s Poetry Cabinet or Bench or Quadranglewangle (since Pentagon’s already taken), on which several laureates would collaborate, synergize, jam and slam their way across the USA. More fun, more effective, more fair! (because there’s just too many to choose from.)

As someone who uses poetry to teach science, I especially appreciate Heidi's gift for observation and her use of metaphor to help us see the everyday in new ways. Here's a terrific example of this from Pumpkin Butterfly.

It's only because of
the low December sun bearing
down along the street
that I notice
half a dozen fires without flame
smoldering among the roots of

a monumental oak where
leaves and fat acorns have pooled.
Their whispering columns of smoke
climb the trunk,
turning it into a risky thing:
a chimney made of wood.

I follow the white morning beams,
mingle my clouded breath with
the twisting wisps of smoke, and
warm my hands
over the burning of those
acorn coals, of that timber chimney.
After reading Pumpkin Butterfly I went on a hunt for Heidi's first book. Squeeze: Poems from a Juicy Universe is a collection of 24 poems that explores small moments and simple things in life from a child's perspective. As someone who often contemplated running away but never had the gumption to do it, I'm quite fond of this poem.
How to Run Away

Take money. Pack light. Coast your bike
down the fastest hill in the neighborhood.
The one by the Baptist church is good.

Claim a weeping willow: plunge through
hanging curtains to find a private room.
the swish of long leaves keeps you company.

Or lie under a cedar with triple trunks
capturing air and space above you.
Its needles make a pungent carpet.

Or climb a dense magnolia. There are
leathery leaves to hide you from enemies,
fuzzy grenades to lob through the branches.

Then go shopping. You don't need much:
saltines, peanut butter, a carton of milk.
Your finger makes a perfect knife.

Now move in and build your nest.
Hang your bag on a twiggy hook.

Stay. Eat. Read your book.
Stay until you know they're worried.
Stay until you miss your brother.
Stay until the shadows cool your mood.

Then pump your book, your bag, your bike
back up that hardest hill
toward home.
Here's one more poem from the collection. It lends its name to the book's title.

Wherever you are
is somewhere sour or sweet—
a lemon heaven
full of juice to squeeze.

Some days sting
and others pour like sugar
from your spoon.

This lemon heaven isn't high or blue
but here, and yellow,
and you,
only you,
are holding it in your hand.
If you aren't familiar with Heidi's work, now's the time to check it out! To learn more about Heidi, try visiting these sites.
Many thanks to Heidi for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Heidi Mordhorst. All rights reserved.


  1. to fling
    myself into the throng of song, deeply into the wallow
    of bounding sound---then wing up steeply to follow
    an own strumming-humming free leap of meaning.

    Once I read How To Run Away, I knew I'd found a kindred poetic spirit. And we love the same poets, except I've not read Valerie Worth, and look forward to doing so now.

    An awesome poetic find - great interview!

  2. I LOVE Heidi's dead poet tribute poems! Brilliant! And the Quadranglewange of Poets (is that an new collective???)!!!

    Yes, Heidi was obviously a born poet.

  3. Words and Heidi have a mutual love affair. It's beautiful to watch; I adore watching her dance on the page!
    Thank you, Tricia, once again...