Monday, April 19, 2010

Poetry Makers - Kathi Appelt

It wasn't until I read The Underneath that I began to wonder if Kathi Appelt might be a poet. The book is beautiful and stunning, so when I finished tit I decided to learn a bit about her. A WorldCat search turned up all manner of publication, including picture books, poetry, and memoir, but it was an interview she gave in the journal Teacher Librarian that made me a true believer. Here's what she had to say when asked about the germ of an idea for a book (the sand in the oyster).
Image, character, setting-these all count, but if I were being honest, I would say that often the grain of sand is a word or a handful of words. I listen to the sounds they make, and the images they create, and from there I try to allow the story to unfold. Sometimes it unfolds as a poem, or a picture book; sometimes it's something larger. God wasn't kidding when she said, "First there was the word."

I love to wrap my mouth around juicy words, love the way they sing in my ears and chest. It's probably why I like rhyme so much. Robert Pinsky, our former Poet Laureate, wrote a wonderful book called The Sounds of Poetry. lt's a dense little book, but the gist of it is a call for musicality, for noticing the "breath" of language in our ears, for taking in the rhythm of a line, and at the same time feeling the resonance of it in a subliminal or inner way as well as in a superficial way.

To me, the sounds of words are as critical as the meaning because they have the ability to transport us as readers to that place without words, where only meaning in its purest form exists, and I can only call that understanding.
How's that for poetry? Before we explore some of Kathi's poems, let's learn a bit more about her.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Kathi: I think I started writing poetry as soon as I started writing, which was in the first grade or so. I’ve always loved to play with words, to rhyme, to twist lines into something new, to find meaning in a new way of saying something. My father read Rudyard Kipling to my sisters and I when we were very young, and it feels to me as though poetry was my native tongue. As far as writing for kids, I think the goal is always to present something that is fresh, as though you’re seeing it for the first time. I love that.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Kathi: I really enjoy working with kids. I like doing workshops, watching kids put their thinking caps on, writing with them, and then standing back and being delighted, surprised, overjoyed with what they come up with. It’s very gratifying.

Who/what made you want to write?
Kathi: I’ve always gotten a lot of encouragement from my parents. My dad is gone now, but my mom is still my biggest cheerleader.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Kathi: Yes, I studied in college. When I was a graduate student, I had the good fortune of taking a class with Andrew Hudgins. I learned so much from him.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Kathi: Hmmm…it seems like the initial urge to write a poem comes quickly, as though I’m “catching” the words. But then I slow down and poke around for awhile, moving a word here, deleting a word there, trying the poem in a different form. I think I do a lot of noodling, pondering, shape-shifting.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Kathi: Not really, but I do love a poem I wrote for my son when he was fifteen called “Keeping His Head.” It’s published in a book called Just People and Other Poems.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Kathi: I’m not working on a poetry “project” right now. I just finished my second novel, so I’m in that in-between time, picking and choosing and catching my breath.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Kathi: William Carlos Williams.

Your favorite place to write?
Kathi: In my studio, where I have a live oak tree just outside my window, that is home to a host of critters.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Kathi: “Who know anyway what it is, that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live.” --Mary Oliver

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Kathi: Rebecca Kai Dotlich.

The first poetry work of Kathi's I explored was the book Poems from Homeroom: A Writer’s Place to Start. Divided into two parts, the first section includes 26 original poems that speak to the heart of adolescent experiences. There are poems in the form of acrostic, free verse, haiku, sestina, and villanelle. In the second part of the book Kathi describes the inspiration behind each poem and the motivation(s) of the character. She then asks readers a series of open-ended questions to examine their own motivations for writing. Here's the first poem from the book.

Poetry is the home for all my yearnings
each poem a separate room
where wandering words
find a cool bed, a bowl of soup

where names of trees and cities
and people I know who want to know
knock on doors, ring bells,
invite me in for coffee and a rhyme

where a loose tooth
and a caladium can meet
in the same stanza
share the same breath
split a doughnut on the sofa . . . .

Let me come home then, and
let me bring my lusting with me
and if you find a room
that fits, that pulls you
in and pushes you out
then call that a "homeroom"
hang your own pictures
on its invisible walls
(use juicy colors
that fill up your mouth like a sneeze--
crocodile green, periwinkle,
carve your own desires
on its invincible hearth.

Make a poem
build a home.
You can read some of the writing suggestions related to this poem at Kathi's Poetry Starter #3 page.

Speaking of poetry starters, Kathi has a page devoted to them. Here's what she says about them.

What are "poetry starters"?

Every so often, I'll post a poem, either an original by moi, or one that I particularly love by another poet. Then, I'll suggest two or three ways to use the poem as a "starter" for your own poem(s).

Use these starters for yourself or, if you are a teacher, feel free to download them and use them in your classroom.

Here is an excerpt from one of her poetry starter poems.

Moon Children

When my grandmother Katherine
blew into my ear a secret
"you and I are moon children . . ."

it was a surprise since
she wasn't a child at all,
but the oldest person I knew.
I stood, watching her
her arms, reaching up to
pin the corners of
her bedroom sheets on the line
stretched across the backyard,
a milky way of pillow cases
and cotton towels.

Read the poem in its entirety.

The poem is rich with description, and the brief analysis that Kathi offers provides a number of suggestions for jumping off points, such as writing your own horoscope poems, or writing about chores.

I'd like to end with an excerpt from My Father's Summers: A Daughter's Memoir. Not a verse novel but rather a series of prose poems that describes her life as her father is first working overseas and then living across town with his new family. Kathi isn't afraid to share glimpses of family life, warts and all. Funny, bittersweet and at times heartbreaking, this is a moving story of love and acceptance. Here's one of my favorite poems.

First Ever

It was my first birthday without him. The middle of
the summer. He wasn't supposed to be gone so long.
"Only a few months," he said. Then he left, a winter
morning so early the sun didn't see him go, only my
mother and her three daughters waving from the window
of the airport as he boarded the plane. Up it flew, all the
way to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, to a barge atop
the deep blue sea, atop a billion barrels of crude, floating
there, away from us. My mother didn't change her
sheets for two weeks, not wanting to lose his scent. One
morning I awoke before her and found her still asleep,
arms wrapped around his pillow, her breath soft, cat at
her feet.

To learn more about Kathi, check out these sites.
Hats off to Kathi for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Kathi Appelt. All rights reserved.


  1. "...poetry was my native tongue."
    What a beautiful way to describe it.

    Thanks for a great interview; I, too, hadn't realized Kathi Appelt had written quite so much.

  2. Tricia , thank you for the wonderful interview, and for pulling together so many great elements re how Kathi Appelt uses language. I love people who write wonderful prose, letting poetry inform the word choices.

    Poetry Month: love it, but my list of books to read seems to grow every day!

  3. Thank you, Tricia and Kathi.

    I love Kathi's poetry. Poems from Homeroom and Just People & Paper/Pen/Poem are wonderful visits into her poetry world!

    I'm gong to have to read the poetry memoir about her childhood...Another book to add to my list:>)