Friday, April 23, 2010

Poetry Makers - Michael J. Rosen

Michael J. Rosen came to my attention with the publication of his book Our Farm: Four Seasons with Five Kids on One Family’s Farm. It's not poetry, but considering he's published more than 75 books, I was pretty darned discouraged that it took me so long to find him.

There was poetry in Michael's publishing past, all books for adults, but that changed last year with the publication of The Cuckoo’s Haiku: and Other Birding Poems.

Before we read some of Michael's poetry, let's learn a bit about him.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Michael: If you’ll indulge me in a long anecdote, I think I can get at the core impulse.

Several years ago, working as author-in-residence at an all-boys middle school, I finished lunch with the students while a teacher made announcements. He concluded by asking how the students wanted to spend their day between exams and Thanksgiving break. “Let’s do something special,” he urged, knowing the students would already be focused on vacation. “Want to come dressed as your favorite sports team?” he offered. The room exploded into cheers. Boys around me clapped each other on the back and slapped high-fives, shouting approval, calling the names of teams as though victory were suddenly at hand.

Amid that crowd of pre-teens, some thirty years more mature, accomplished, and confident, I was thinking: I don’t have a favorite sports team. I never did—not when I was their age, not in college, not now. I felt a shudder of exclusion and embarrassment as though the teacher had called on me particularly—particularly because I was known to be unprepared. I’ll just miss school on Favorite Sports Team Day, I thought to myself with an involuntary, but practiced, rationale.

I was considered popular, funny, smart, and plenty of other consoling adjectives in junior high school, but dread and anxiousness still plagued my adolescence. (Every kid finds some sort of dread and anxiousness, right? How else can adolescence do its job?) In gym class, team sports and cocky, loud-mouthed jocks made me feel marginal and mediocre. On the school grounds, kids we called, at the time, “hoods,” tormented me and the other obvious targets, which isn’t to suggest I didn’t construe it all personally. “Just ignore them,” adults would always advise, which really did ameliorate the situation: Instead of feeling like a chicken-shit loser I felt like a slightly more mature and aloof chicken-shit loser.

Indeed, I began to feel a precocious maturity, since most of what preoccupied the boys my age seemed to me ridiculous and crude. (And it was. As was the very expectation to go along with everyone else.) Yet this may be the point from which I began to dream of a world where the things I wanted to do, and could do well, would be the popular and enviable goals and attributes. I couldn’t entirely believe in a world that didn’t value and feature the traits and qualities that I identified as my own: being Jewish, for instance; being preoccupied with drawing pens and honors biology rather than RBIs and MVPs; being thought of as responsible and caring and empathic. Where was the world—and where were its occupants?—that held what I held dear?

Dreaming of alternatives, of course, is the root of making poetry and fiction. (Blessedly, libraries now brim with books—unlike when I was growing up—that lend commonality and credence to so many more experiences and backgrounds, to the broadest range of family groupings and cultures.) Being, or at least, feeling excluded often provokes introspection and self-consciousness; as well, it often provides an outsider’s ability to observe and assess.

All I needed to find was to find a form for such anxious and dreamy thoughts to fill.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Michael: The emphasis and need for form—rhyme and meter—are always welcome challenges. And the chance to create something I would have liked to have read as that kid I still imagine myself to be. I also relish the chance to use humor, which can be a serious way to understand ourselves in the world.

Who/what made you want to write?
Michael: I’ve had the gifts of working with several mentors in my life. That “being identified” is crucial. Someone to help you see the self that you haven’t yet the imagination to see yourself being. In high school, two of my English teachers offered both encouragement and opportunities. And, for almost 40 years, I’ve shared every inking, every inkling of work that I do with Mimi Chenfeld—by happy coincidence, one of the great early childhood educators in the nation was my neighbor growing up. Likewise, at writers’ conferences, I’ve met colleagues who value the same back-and-forth commiserating that I find indispensable to my own poetry.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Michael: Along with the mentors, the general support of teachers in high school, I took one class in poetry in college (while I was studying pre-med). And I worked at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference three years in a row before abandoning medical school to attend Columbia, where I received my MFA in poetry. But it was really though sharing poems with a few respected and indulgent friends, and through imitating writers I loved, that I came to share my own writing.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Michael: I’ve always cherish one of W. H. Auden’s definitions of poetry: clear thinking about mixed feelings. Mixed, muddled feelings compose so much of my life—and I surmise, others’, too. Art can be clear thinking that returns us to those clouded sensations and emotions in hopes of some better comprehension, some small reparation.

Writing poetry for kids, I often have lighter motives! But the verse is always to cause a thickening of perception, as if to say, Not so fast there! Look again. Look harder…and while you’re at it, listen harder, think harder. I’m all for making poetry something very rich. If life is milk, then prose makes a luscious, thick cream of it—or a pudding, maybe, while poetry makes butter…or yogurt…or ice cream! (In other words, it’s that further attention and time that creates the unctuousness, the extra tartness, the over-the-top pleasure. I know I’m going to regret that metaphor!)

So the process? When I served as Literary Director at The Thurber House, we brought about 120 great writers to the center for workshops and readings. And I’d say nearly everyone answered that question in a different way. I think the object is to learn what makes writing both difficult and possible for you. Not just difficult. And not just possible. But that friction that makes for the best work.

This is a vague answer since I write in so many different ways, in different genres, for different ages. But in every case, I can say, I begin with something impressionistic or inchoate, and go through a very liberal, inclusive, gathering process that is mining (a term from Ruskin), and then a prolonged period of molding (also from Ruskin) in which form helps me undergo the compression and shaping that creates—it doesn’t simply carry—the very subject of the work. It’s the process of writing that reveals actual theme or subject matter. Said another way: I don’t look to writing to document my thoughts, but to help me conceive of those very cloudy thoughts—to help me present them in a clear, crystalline form.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Michael: When kids ask me, “What’s your favorite book?” I can only reply, jokingly, “No, what YOUR favorite book of mine? My job is just to write them.” Maybe if all I wrote were narrative picture books, I’d have a means of comparing. But considering the range of work I’m drawn to do, I can’t chose one favorite among my apples and oranges, my pies and my cakes, and all the rest that’s in the cupboards, fridge, pantry…

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Michael: I’m fortunate enough (or that ambitious, self-indulgent, or unfocused) to work on many things at once. Some people write from a passion for a given subject—say, nature, historical figures, or animals—and I do have a passion for some subjects, bug my governing, motivating passion is for writing itself: the pleasure of puzzling and piecing together than is the actual creating of poetry and stories.

At the moment, I’m writing poems about baseball, creatures that co-own the vegetable garden (with me), and odd body parts. How about that for a mixture?

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Michael: I always love when I’m being introduced to a kindergarten class or an elementary school group by a well-meaning librarian or principal who says something such as, “Guess what boys and girls: Do you know who Michael J. Rosen is? That’s right! He’s a real, live poet…” I mean, talk about scary? Talk about a minimal qualification: at least I’m not unreal and dead? Yikes! Anyway, considering the fact that the entire canon of literature consists of dead folks, there are a lot of choices. And, to me, there’s no comparing what I love about, say, Elizabeth Bishop or Randall Jarrell, with Emily Dickinson or Homer. But just to suggest other dead folks I continue to reread, I’d say Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda, William Meredith, Marianne Moore, James Merrill…. Oh, and then there are those LIVE poets I love…!

Your favorite place to write?
Michael: With a portable computer, the sense of “favorite place” has changed into everywhere. I mean, it used to be that my writing life was anchored to one desk and chair. But now, even though I do spend a great deal of time in my home office/library, I like to write wherever I am. I think of it as a way of grounding myself wherever I am…motel room, friend’s house, vacation, outside on the deck.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Michael: Poetry is the one means I have of slowing down the speed of life in hopes of understanding, not life, but my own reaction to it. A poem is my attempt at a prism that reveals the identifying colors of some unknown subject.

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Michael: Let’s see, since we can’t name ourselves (LOL), why not the prolifically energetic, irrepressible J. Patrick Lewis?

Why birds and haiku? Here's what Michael had to say to Holly Richards, Zanesville Times Recorder journalist in the article Author opens haiku collection about feathered friends.
"Birding and writing poetry have been a part of my life for decades," he said by e-mail. "When I began writing haiku, rather than other forms that are more familiar, they sort of take over. So many observations suddenly had an opportunity to try to become a poem. My head percolated with alternative versions of poems. Haiku is a way of culling things from the stream of things that rush past the senses."
Looking much like a field journal, this beautifully written and constructed volume introduces readers to more than 20 common American birds. Grouped by season, each bird is afforded a double-page spread with a stunning watercolor illustration to accompany the haiku. Here are my favorite poems, one from each season. (Please note that the poems in the book are not titled. I have highlighted them this way only as a means of organization.)
Spring - American Crow

blooming apple tree
round and white as one peeled fruit
crow-seeds at its core

Summer - Pileated Woodpecker

woodpecker knock-knocks . . .
riddled with the same question
trees yawn, answering

Fall - Black-billed Cuckoo

the cuckoo's haiku
hidden like the chance of rain
its name, repeating

Winter - Dark-eyed Junco

phased like titled moons
half shadow, half reflection
juncos cross the snow
The book concludes with "Notes for Birdwatchers and Haiku Lovers," informational bits about each of the birds identified in the book. Here are the notes for the American Crow.
A roost of crows can number two million individuals. Since they're omnivores (eating most everything), they do no small amount of damage to orchards, fields, and crops--yet they also help farmers by eating destructive beetles and grasshoppers. Among the most clever, inquisitive, adaptive, easily trained, and aggressive birds, crows create complex family units, which may include fifteen family members with young from five different years.
The Cuckoo's Haiku was so well-received that it was nominated for both the 2010 Ohioana Book Award for Best Juvenile Book and the 2009 Cybils award for poetry. To see some of the illustrations and read more about the book, check out the review at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

I don't know about you, but I'm certainly hoping that Michael has more poetry for young people up his sleeve.

To learn more about Michael, check out these sites.
A hearty thanks to Michael for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Michael J. Rosen. All rights reserved.


  1. I am not familiar with this prolific poet, but the bird haiku are simply beautiful. Wow.

    I want to know if he skipped Sports Team Day! I know that there were some other boys who were thinking, "Oh, no!" in that crowd. I hope he came in something creative.

  2. Loved "The Cuckoo's Haiku"...I'll be reviewing it on my blog early in May. I look forward to Michael's future collections for children especially the garden critters. I live on a farm so I can relate. :) Thanks for interviewing, Tricia!

  3. Hooray for the hometown boy!