Thursday, April 30, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Writing Poetry

On this last day of the month I thought I would wrap up this year's National Poetry Month project by highlighting books that focus on form and the writing of poetry.

When I was in high school I wrote free verse, largely because that's all I knew. While I recall writing the occasional haiku as a English assignment, I was never instructed on how to write poetry. Oh, how I wish I had been! Poetry can be so much fun to play and puzzle with. Trying to make your ideas and favorite words fit into a structured form can be a daunting task, but one that gives much satisfaction upon its completion.

Today I rely on a varied collection of books while writing poetry. In addition to the "adult" books on poetry reading and writing, I often turn to books for children and young adults to help me think about form and process. Here are some of the books I use with regularity.
A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms (2005), compiled by Paul B. Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka, begins with an introduction about poetic forms. It reads:
Why, you may ask, do poems have rules? Why 17 syllables in a haiku? Why 14 lines in a sonnet? The answer is: rules make the writing of a poem more challenging, more exciting. Think of a game you enjoy, like baseball. Imagine how much less intriguing the game would be if there were no foul line or limit to the number of outs in an inning. The rules often ask, "Can you do a good job within these limits?" Knowing the rules makes poetry—like sports—more fun, for players and spectators alike.
What follows are 29 poetics forms. Each form is accompanied by some kind of visual clue in the top corner of the page. For example, the page for couplet shows two birds on a wire, epitaph shows a headstone, and ode shows a Grecian urn. Once the form has been identified, readers find a short informational description and poetic example. Here's what you'll find on the page for Riddle Poem.
The beginning of eternity
The end of time and space,
The beginning of every end,
The end of every place. 
A riddle poem indirectly describes a person, place, thing, or idea. The reader must try to figure out the subject of the riddle. A riddle poem can be any length and usually has a rhyme scheme of abcb or aabb.
This volume not only contains many familiar forms, such as haiku, cinquain, acrostic and limerick, but also forms such as aubade, pantoum, villanelle, and double dactyl. At the end of the book readers will find a bit more background information on each of the 29 forms.
Getting From Here To There: Writing and Reading Poetry (1982, OP), written by Florence Grossman, is a book I pulled out of a discard pile years ago, but one that I still crack open. If you can find a copy, it is an informative volume to have. Here is how it begins.
Most people have never written poetry, yet most people, at one time or another, have had the vague sense of a poem lurking somewhere, something they had experienced that had to be told in a special way. This book is addressed to you if you have ever wanted to write a poem and did not know the place to begin, or if you have not trusted yourself because you thought you did not know the language of poetry. 
... And rhyme? Most beginning writers are boxed in by rhyme because they're busy thinking about the word that will rhyme instead of allowing words and ideas to bounce off each other. For now, forget about rhyme. Focus on rhythm. When you begin to listen to yourself, the poem will find its own rhythm. It will find its own length. Once you get rolling, the poem will assume a life of its own. It will tell you what it has to say.
The book is organized into the following chapters: (1) Lists; (2) Then; (3) Things; (4) Signs; (5) Image; (6) People; (7) Clothes, etc.; (8) Sound/Silence; (9) Persona; and (10) Dreams and Fantasies. What I love is that in the introduction to each chapter, Grossman gives readers a perspective and an insight into writing poetry that is often profound. Here is an example from the chapter "Things."
Paper clips, rubber bands, a book of matches, these small things that go about daily business of their lives—most people would never think of them as subjects of poetry. But as walls have ears and pillows have secrets, each of these things has its own story. It has been places and done things. For the poet it's a matter of tuning in, of holding the spool of thread until we have heard what it has to say. Look long enough at a pencil and the poem will begin.
In addition to these insights, each chapter contains numerous example poems, thought prompts, and writing suggestions. The text ends with a section entitled Some Notes on Self Editing. There are 10 bulleted items here that are pithy and helpful. Here are a few.
  • What we are after here is honesty.
  • We all have our own words, words that we've carried around with us for years, words that we've tried on and we're comfortable with. These are the words of "our voice" that tell the reader someone has written this poem. Be true to those words.
  • Honest also means the exact word rather than the well-that-will-do word. Poetry is concise—no time to fool around with approximations. "The best words," says Wallace Stevens, "in their best order."
A Crow Doesn't Need A Shadow: A Guide to Writing Poetry From Nature (1994), written by Lorraine Ferra with illustrations by Diane Boardman, focuses on the "integration of our inner and outer landscapes. Through nature field trips, children and adults are invited to reflect on their personal place in the world." Sections of the book include: (1) Poetry Field Trips; (2) Building a Nature Wordscape; (3) Keeping a Nature Journal; (4) Other Explorations (which includes such topics as finding a companion in nature, creating a landscape, colors in the natural world, dreaming up a place, nature in your hand, and more); (5) Anthology--a sampling of original poems by young authors; and (6) A Note To Educators (written by Mona Hirschi Daniels). The book begins this way.
Open the Door
An Invitation to Readers 
Over three hundred years ago, the poet Matsuo Basho said, "To learn about a tree, go to a tree." Basho was considering more than the scientific facts you learn about trees. He was suggesting that the creatures of the natural world speak a language, one perhaps different from yours, but one you can understand if you listen with your imagination. 
...Every chapter of this book, every poem, is a different door you can open to the natural world. Choose any of these doors, open it, and step quietly outside with your pencil, paper, and imagination.
In the section Creating a Landscape, Ferra shares a recipe poem by a twelve year old boy and guides readers through the process of writing their own. Here's an excerpt.
Look through a cookbook. As you read the directions for several different recipes, write down the verbs which tell you what to do with the ingredients. Make a list of about ten or twelve different verbs. Keep in mind that you probably won't use all the verbs you find. Be selective for your poem.

Some possible subjects might be a recipe for a cave, foggy morning, a bird refuge, a season or particular month, a moonlit field, a river, or a sunset. Once you decide on your subject, start listing some ingredients.
While there is no emphasis here on form, this is wonderful book for encouraging close observation, a skill so vital to the poet's craft.
Fly With Poetry: An ABC of Poetry (2000), written and illustrated by Avis Harley, uses the alphabet to organize 26 different poetic forms (two for the letter A and none for Y). Each page includes a poem written in the named form with information at the bottom of the page describing the form. Additional poetic forms are included in the end notes.

Leap Into Poetry: More ABCs of Poetry (2001), written and illustrated by Avis Harley, is a companion to FLY WITH POETRY that uses the alphabetic format to introduce a variety of poetic forms and techniques. Each letter introduces an arthropod in a poem that uses the stated form or technique. Facts about each animal are included in the end notes.
Write Your Own Poetry (2008), written by Laura Purdie Salas, is a book that provides a thorough introduction to the process and tools of writing poetry. There are chapters on poetic forms, language of poetry, imagery, point of view, meter and rhyme, and more. Jam-packed with sample poems, helpful tips and advice from poets, this is a comprehensive introduction to writing poetry.
Immersed in Verse: An Informative, Slightly Irreverent & Totally Tremendous Guide to Living the Poet's Life (2006), written by Allan Wolf and illustrated by Tuesday Morning, is a how-to guide on becoming a poet for middle grades and young adults. 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 you 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.
How to Write Poetry (1999), written by Paul Janeczko, is a Scholastic Guide that organizes the poetry writing process into easy-to-follow steps. The chapters on starting to write, writing poems that rhyme, and writing free verse poems all offer a wealth of information, sample poems, and "try this" suggestions. Different poetic forms are introduced along with checklists to keep writers focused on important features. Includes an extensive glossary.

Poetry from A to Z: A Guide for Young Writers (1994), written by Paul Janeczko, is a collection of 72 poems arranged alphabetically by subject. Also included are 14 poetry-writing exercises that show how to write specific types of poems and advice from more than twenty poets on becoming a better writer.
Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem From the Inside Out (2002), written by Ralph Fletcher, is a good guide to writing poetry from the heart. Chapters deal with imagery, rhythm, crafting poems, wordplay, and more. Major poetic forms are defined and there is a section on ways to share your work. Interviews with Kristine O'Connell George, Janet Wong, and J. Patrick Lewis are included. A number of poems written by Fletcher are included as examples in these chapters.
Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for New Poets (2002), compiled by Paul Janeczko, contains a collection of letters and poems by children's poets. Written to and for aspiring writers, this volume provides advice and inspiration.

The Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their Work (1990), selected by Paul Janeczko, is a collection of poems, advice, anecdotes, and recollections of 39 poets. Following their poems, poets describe their inspirations, memories, where they get their ideas, their writing processes, and how they go about translating their ideas into poetic form.

If you are looking for additional resources on poetry writing, try these sites.
April may be ending, but that doesn't mean the poetry goodness must stop. I hope you'll revisit some of the posts from this month as you incorporate more poetry reading and writing in your classroom. You can find a list containing all this month's posts at NPM 2015 Poetic Forms.

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by this month. It has been a joy sharing poetry with you.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Michael J. Rosen on Form

While Michael Rosen and I connected over a possible interview, we had a series of interesting conversations about this project and my interest in form. I was thrilled when he offered to write a piece on form, so I gladly accepted. That is what I am sharing today.

I had to resist the temptation to highlight the points that struck a chord as I read, but I realized they may not be the same points that stand out for you. This is an important piece and part of a larger conversation. I hope teachers, writers, and poetry lovers alike will take these wise words to heart.
The Problem with Poetic Forms? Not Thinking of Them as Solutions
—Michael J. Rosen
(You can learn more about Michael at his web site.)

After 35 years of teaching kids poetry (this would be some series classes and many visiting author workshops), I can report that writing poetry is way too easy for kids. And way too hard. Rhyme is too easy; and too hard. So are syllabics such as haiku. Dare I say that poetic form—any one—is both too easy and too hard. And these troubles (and there are many) stem from a fundamental absence of the very opportunities that poetry is supposed to provide for a writer: the rewards of challenging work, the gratification of a new perspective or appreciation, the stumbling upon breakthroughs and surprises. 

Consider these fragments that follow “corrective measures.” Consider them notes—to myself, to my colleagues, to young writers—that aim to reframe the way we offer forms of poetry to children. 

*    *    *

Form is structure. It’s support. It’s solidity. It’s what words and lines and sentences and narrative and images and ideas are build upon or within. Form keeps writers (kids and adults) from just saying the first words that come to mind, from being okay with (done!) whatever sentiment, observation, word choice, etc., hits the page first. We all need a challenge to our thoughts. Indeed, the poet W. B. Yeats said that poetry was a writer arguing with himself. 

We need to let poetic form be the ring in which young writers can wrestle with their thoughts. 

*    *    *

Think of the role that gravity plays in dance. It’s what makes lightness remarkable. Just how thrilling would a lift be in ballet, say, if gravity weren’t an issue? If a dancer could float across the stage in a leap. Dance would be an entirely different art if weightlessness were a factor.

Poetic form is gravity. It’s what adds weight to our words. It’s what adds bravura, boldness, and originality to our ordinary expressions.

*    *    *

Even if a poetic form—sonnet, tanka, ballad, limerick—possesses, by some definitions, a standard pattern or a required structure, it can’t be an ice-cube tray into which words are merely poured, frozen, and dumped out. That form has to be an ice sculpture in which the writing reveals something remarkable. 

If we simply describe the structure of a form and agree that anything that “fits” it, is, indeed, a successful use of the form, that’s like saying that reading the progression of letters in a series of words is the same as comprehending what that sentence means. 

*    *    *

Instead, poetic forms uncover possibilities. They don’t take “what we know” and simply add rhymes or break up lines. They take “what we don’t know,” and inch us, revision by revision, toward knowing. They take impressions and memories and general topics and things we’re curious about, and put them under pressure so that all the words begin interacting—banging into one another, ricocheting off the “walls” of the form—and, thereby, create heat and light. Yes, too often, we never give kids a chance to feel that illumination, that charge of power! 

*    *    *

Another trouble: Ideas. In my book, we shouldn’t expect that what a kid writes about is going to be…wow! brilliant! truly inspired! utterly remarkable! And we shouldn’t set them up with that expectation. (That’s why the library isn’t filled with the work of kids, right?) So what’s our job as teachers? To help them master the forms? Oh, sure, to some degree. But more importantly, it’s to create exhilarating experiences, to afford enormous and unexpected pleasures, to make the writing of poetry a practice that nourishes and enlivens. A kid who loves the act…will continue it. Will get better at it. Will eventually master forms. And, eventually, will write poems of substance and significance. The great 20th century poet W. H. Auden believed that “hanging around with words,” was more crucial for a young person’s development as a writer than having something to say.

Give kids a chance to feel the rewards that come from concentration and struggle, the fulfillment that comes from puzzling, repeated attempts, and invention. See if you can’t remove the pleasure (that’s mostly just “relief”) from that initial coming up with something. And remove it from the “relief” of quickly turning in something, with its coincident pleasure of getting to go on to whatever’s next. 

Sustain the pleasure of right now…for as long as possible. 

*    *    *

For a reader or listener, rhyme can lift a poem into music, insinuate lines into memory, and afford the intrinsic pleasure of repetition. But for the writer, the role of rhyme is to challenge and, therein, elevate the language of the poem. Rhyme’s role is to be unrelenting, so that the writer must search for that just right word, adjust the line breaks or description or content or phrasing, in order satisfy the rhyme scheme…in a pleasing way. 

Rhymes confer an aural emphasis on certain words—typically, end words, which are already cued up in that important terminal position. Ideally, rhyming words are important ones…that produce more than just a repetition of a syllable or vowel sound. And to that end: It’s key to remember that the first word in a rhymed pair doesn’t rhyme. It sets up the second word, so that  I T   R I N G S  O U T…and, most often, we let kids work in a way that allows them to force a match to the first word in a rhyming pair with an unimportant second word. So the second word merely sounds—and sounds lame or illogical—rather than reveals something as it echoes. 

So changing the whole way of composing rhymes is vital. Pry loose words that offer hackneyed or obtuse rhymes. Use a rhyming dictionary. Generate a pool of possible rhymes. Use a thesaurus to try a different word that might generate a whole new set of options. 

*    *    *

Likewise, counting syllables, as in haiku or tanka or other forms, creates a similar trouble: That process should involve uncertainty, not certainty. It’s so easy to let kids feel the contentment of being quick and being done…rather than the genuine contentment with the work itself. Counting syllables should happen LAST. It, too should be part of the argument with the content itself. It should create tension. (Ah! Think of a line of poetry as a string on a violin or guitar. In order to resonate, that line has to be taut, not simply stretched out.) Syllabics causes compression and expansion that should initiate a new flow of words, options, and subject matter. The way kids are typically given the form, they stuff words into a syllabic form like tepid leftovers into a Styrofoam clamshell (that is typically left at the restaurant or in the car or in the back of the fridge…forgotten because, well, it really wasn’t that good in the first place!). [You must block that metaphor, and yet that goofy overextension does hint at why students  lack motivation to revise or illustrate or read aloud something they drum up so easily and execute so hastily.] 

*    *    *

One other trouble. When it comes to poetry, we don’t give kids enough time to dive in, come up for air, dive in again. And then we typically give them one chance. Try this form. Great! Now, let’s move onto some other form. And even writing poetry of any sort is typically confined to one unit or just a once-in-a-while treat (or torture). And this survey approach—one form after another—doesn’t let any familiarity or efficiency or experimentation kick in. So it’s like doing a preliminary sketch, and then adding the finishing touches and the frame…even before the perspective, the composition, the details, or the colors have been thought through. 

Think of anything you’ve learned to do well—casting a fly-fishing rod, crimping the edges of a perfect pie crust, floating up into a yoga head stand. If you only had one chance to try these “forms,” your success is going to be limited. As will be the pleasure in the…frustrating? slapdash? improving?...accomplishment. How do we improve except by repetition? 

Let me leave you with this: Practice doesn’t only make perfect. Along the way, practice makes for possibilities, including the possibility of enjoying the craft enough to…one day…master it. 

*    *    *

Thank you, thank you, a million thank you's to Michael J. Rosen for providing us with such rich food for thought on form.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Interview with Kristine O'Connell George

In preparation for sharing forms this month, I wrote to a number of poets and asked if they would respond to a short list of questions on poetry, writing, and form. I'm thrilled every time one responds positively and find they have all been extremely generous with their time.

Today I'm sharing the thoughts of Kristine O'Connell George, author of numerous books of poetry for children including Emma Dilemma: Big Sister Poems (2011), Fold Me a Poem (2005), Hummingbird Nest: A Journal of Poems (2004), Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems (2002), Little Dog and Duncan (2002), Toasting Marshmallows: Camping Poems (2001), Little Dog Poems (1999), and Old Elm Speaks: Tree Poems (1998). Her first book of poetry, The Great Frog Race and Other Poems (1997), was awarded the Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award from the International Reading Association.
How does a poem begin for you — with an idea, a form, an image, or something else? 
Kristine: All of the above. Poems—and fledgling ideas—flit into my mental inbox in many different ways. Although it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint why or how a particular idea will snag my attention, it’s most often because I have a personal connection with the topic. Perhaps it’s something I’ve seen, heard, experienced, or even dreamed.

Many of my poems (and rhymed picture books) were sparked by observation: The crows hassling a young hawk in our cedrus deodora tree; wind rustling aspen leaves; a puppy curling up in a splash of sunlight. Book! (Clarion Books) was the result of spending time with a toddler who was beyond delighted when she suddenly realized she could ‘operate’ the pages of a board book all by herself. The poems in Little Dog and Duncan (Clarion Books) were based on my observations of two rascally dogs while serving as hostess of doggie sleepovers.

While working on this interview, I decided to see to take a walk to see how many ‘poem ideas’ I could discover. Here’s a photo of one of them:
What’s interesting to me are not only the paw prints of a long-gone dog in old, cracked concrete, but also the position of the prints. I imagine a child—seeing that tempting swatch of wet cement—held the dog’s two front feet in one hand and pressed down firmly.

Sound also inspires poems: “Owl” in Old Elm Speaks: Tree Poems (Clarion Books) was the result of hearing an owl calling late at night from our native oak tree. At 2 a.m.—with the lines of the poem were still circling in my head—I got up and wrote a draft. Sound also inspired “River Messages” and “Chipmunk” from Toasting Marshmallows: Camping Poems. In both cases I tried to choose language that echoed the sound of a mountain river and a chipmunk’s chatter.

The poems in both Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems (Clarion Books) and Emma Dilemma: Big Sister Poems (Clarion Books) were inspired by personal experiences. [Listen to poems from Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems and other titles at Kristine O'Connell George: Poetry Aloud.]  Camping and fishing trips in Colorado and family expeditions exploring ghost towns served as rich resource material for Toasting Marshmallows: Camping Poems.

Dreams, and those muzzly moments of half-consciousness when one is drifting off to sleep or just waking up, are another wellspring of ideas and images for poems. A dream about flying in a windstorm—using a jacket as a sail—resulted in my first published poem, ‘Skating in the Wind.’ [Here is a young boy reading the poem at Homemade Mama.] (While I often hope to discover good ideas in the notebook I keep by my bedside along with my handy-dandy flashlight pen, I rarely can decipher my scrawl.)

How do you choose the form of your poems?
Kristine: If I’m lucky, the poem will give me hints. Perhaps it’s tidy and polite and best tucked into cozy couplets. Maybe it’s a ‘free-range’ poem that longs to stretch its free verse legs into boundless white space. (Most of the poems in Emma Dilemma: Big Sister Poems (Clarion Books) and Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems (Clarion Books) are primarily free verse. In both cases, I ‘heard’ my narrator’s voices in my head as conversational.)

Sometimes I deliberately choose a ‘non-form’ that hints at a more formal structure. An example of this would be Little Dog Poems and Little Dog and Duncan (Clarion Books). Because the ideas for the poems captured discrete moments in the lives of two dogs, they could easily have been haikus. However, after much deliberation, I chose to create ‘looser’ poems (someone described them as haiku-ish) in the hopes that they might serve as easily-mastered templates for very young writers. (Based on the bushels of ‘Little Pet’ poems I have had the pleasure of reading, I think it worked out.)

Last, when I encounter a stubborn poem, I will rewrite (endlessly) in as many forms as possible until a form shouts:  Me! Pick me! During school visits, I often share all (All!) of the revisions I wrote for ‘Polliwogs’ from The Great Frog Race (Clarion Books). Students are astonished (and horrified) as I have them count the number of revisions. Forty seven!

What surprising things have you learned by accepting the challenge of fitting meaning into a structured form? What are the benefits of accepting these disciplined restrictions?
Kristine: In our poetry writing classes, Myra Cohn Livingston often had us rewrite poems in a variety of forms (and voices). This invaluable training forced me to think deeply about my topic and not merely skim the surface. As a result, I often write poems in strict metered and rhymed forms and then ‘deconstruct’ as I play with ideas, layout, and readability. What often remains is the sense of a form and, rather than rigid rhymed lines, there are internal/slant rhymes.

Sometimes, while writing in a structured, rhymed form, I discover that while it’s fun to read aloud, I’ve added so much padding that it distracts from and dilutes the main idea. Increasingly, I lean toward ‘less is more’ and often distill or condense longer poems into short, tight poems such as haikus. The four haiku about a flashlight in Toasting Marshmallows: Camping Poems (Clarion Books) are an example of my ‘get on and off the page quickly’ approach

What tools (rhyming dictionary, book of forms, etc.) do you use in writing poetry (if any)?
Kristine: All! I have yards of how-to poetry books of all flavors. While I do read and study these books, I don’t often refer to them when I am working on a poem. I may, however, dip into a rhyming dictionary if I am really, really stuck.

What would you like students or children to know about poetry?
Kristine: I keep thinking about Kate DiCamillo’s reply to a young reading asking why there are words in a book: "Words are a special way for me to tell you a story and I don’t have to be there. It’s like magic.” [A Conversation with Kate DiCamillo facilitated by Lisa Von Drasek of the Kerlan Collection can be viewed on YouTube.]

I think poetry is magic as well. It is nearly unimaginable to me how words—mere marks on paper—have this surprising power to make an intimate connection with a reader across centuries, continents, or cultures. I hope—at least once in a lifetime—that every student might experience that elusive, breath-catching moment when they realize that another human feels as they do. One of my favorite memories is of a 4th grader curled up in the corner of the library reading one of Myra Cohn Livingston’s collections. I’ve forgotten which collection it was, but not what the student told me as she hugged the book: “This lady is just like me.” I have also not forgotten what a very shy 3rd grader whispered to me after an assembly: “I feel like you wrote your poems just for me.” These experiences that connect us are what I’d like students to know about poetry. I’d also like students to know that—through poetry—they can send their own unique voices out in to the world.

Finally, one of your esteemed colleagues suggested I ask for a poem in a foreign verse form. Would you be willing to share a poem for this project?
Joan: Happily! Will you be naming said esteemed colleague? ;)
When asked to contribute a poem for Jan Greenberg’s Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth Century American Art, I chose a pantoum to try to capture the repetition and sense of an echo in Kiki Smith’s ‘These Eyes.’ Here is the poem along with some interesting responses from students at PoetryRed5-7.
Poem ©Kristine O'Connell George. All rights reserved.

A million thanks to Kristine for participating in my Jumping Into Form project this month.

Monday, April 27, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Concrete Poems

What is a concrete poem? On his web site John Grandits says that "Concrete poems are poems that use fonts, and shape, and texture, and color, and sometimes motion."

Shadow Poetry distinguishes among concrete, shape and visual poetry in this way.
Shape and Concrete Poetry go hand-in-hand; however, Concrete or Visual Poetry don’t have to take on the particular shape of the poem’s subject, but rather the wording in the poem can enhance the effect of the words such as in this line:

an angel tumbling
         to earth . . .
There are many terrific examples of concrete poetry in books for kids. I would like to share a few here. Keep in mind that concrete poetry is about the marriage of words and form. Therefore, you need to SEE them to truly appreciate them. That means this post will have lots of links to sites where you can see the art in these poems.
Poetry Basics: Concrete Poetry (2009), written by Valerie Bodden, is an analysis of the concrete poetry form, beginning with its origins and history while providing a range of examples through the present day. Here are some of the things Bodden says about this form.
The goal of the type of poetry known as concrete is to have the shape or appearance of a poem reflect what the words express (p.3).

While most traditional poems are meant to be read, concrete poems are meant to be seen. Looking at a concrete poem can be almost like looking at a painting. In fact, if you try to read a concrete poem out loud, much of its meaning may be lost (p.12).
The book ends with a section entitled "Think Like a Poet," which provides steps and encouragement for readers to write their own concrete poems. Also included are a list of books for further reading, a glossary, and bibliography.
A Poke in the I: A Collection of Concrete Poems (2005), selected by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka, includes a wide range of poems that are cleverly shaped and written. Eskimo Pie and Popsicle are both poems in the shape of ice cream. Swan and Shadow looks exactly like its title and is a lovely piece of work. You can view an inside spread from the book and download an activity page from the Candlewick web site. You can also get a brief preview from Google Books. Notice that the table of contents is in the form of a table!
Ode to a Commode: Concrete Poems (2014), written by Brian Cleary and illustrated by Andy Rowland, is a collection of 24 shape poems about such topics as trees, fireworks, balloons, silverware, pretzels, and more. Each one of the poems in this volume takes the shape of it's subject. This book has a terrific introduction to the form. It begins this way.
What is a Concrete Poem?
When you think of poems, you probably think of words in straight lines. But some poems actually look like animals or objects! The verses can be curvy, jagged, or even round. These kinds of poems are called concrete poems.   
A concrete poem takes on the shape of whatever it is about. The topic of the poem is always an object (instead of a feeling or an idea). The letters, words, or symbols are arranged on the page to form a picture of that object. So a poem about a flight of stairs is actually shaped like a flight of stairs. In this fun, visual type of poetry, the words and their shape work together to create the poem.
Back matter includes books for further reading and some helpful web sites. You can view some examples of the poems at Google Books.
A Curious Collection of Cats (2009) and its follow-up, A Dazzling Display of Dogs (2011), both written by Betsy Franco and illustrated by Michael Wertz, are collections that explore the peculiarities and absurdities of cats and dogs in wildly energetic ways. First, just look at those covers! If the use of animals in forming the letters of the titles doesn't immediately suck you in, then hopefully a few of these interior shots will. Michael Wertz has generously posted images from the books on his web site. Take a look at Kids page to view them.
Two books written by Joan Bransfield Graham, Splish Splash (2001) illustrated by Steve Scott, and Flicker Flash (2003) illustrated by Nancy Davis, are collections of concrete poems about the physical world. SPLISH SPLASH is a collection of 21 poems about water in a myriad of forms, including crocodile tears, ice cube, popsicle, snow, hail, dew and more. FLICKER FLASH is a collection of 23 poems that explores natural and man-made light sources, including the sun, birthday candles, an incubator bulb, lightning, a firefly, and more. At Google Books you can see examples from both Splish Splash and Flicker Flash.

Here are two examples from Flicker Flash. Keep in mind that these are shape poems, so they may not reproduce particularly well here.

one flick
I am the SUN,
I chase the shadows
one by one, growing scary,
jagged, tall - with brilliant beams
I ' L L    M E L T    t h e m    A L L ! 

miles away I bring
you this dynamite, ring-
a-ding day. I'll shout in
your window and bounce
near your head to solar
power you out of
your bed."
Poems ©Joan Bransfield Graham. All rights reserved.
Doodle Dandies, (2007) written by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Lisa Desimini, uses wordplay and surprising "movement" to make the topics come alive. The 19 poems in this book cover a variety of subjects, including giraffe, weeping willow, skyscraper, baseball, basketball, the oyster family, and more. Synchronized Swim Team uses the legs of upside-down swimmers to make its point, while Creep and Slither appears in the shape of a snake, until midpoint when the bulging word bull frog announces what's been eaten. You can view some poems/images from the book at Lisa Desimini's web site.
Meow Ruff: A Story in Concrete Poetry, written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Michelle Berg, is the story of a dog and cat trapped under a picnic table in a rainstorm. Since much of the verse forms the images on the page, readers will enjoy searching for the buried verses while reading the story. You can find a reader's guide at Joyce Sidman's site for Meow Ruff.
Lemonade: and Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word (2011), by Bob Raczka and illustrated by Nancy Doniger, might not be considered concrete poetry by some, but to really see the genius of what he's done you must LOOK closely! As the jacket flap says, "Play with your words! Part anagram, part rebus, part riddle—this brand new poetic form turns word puzzles into poetry. Using only the letters from a single word, each of the poems in this collection capture a scene from daily life and present a puzzle to solve." Check out the Macmillan Books' photostream to view a number of images from the book.
Technically, It's Not My Fault (2004) and Blue Lipstick (2007), both written and designed by John Grandits, are two collections designed for older readers. The first book is written from the point of view of a young boy named Robert. The poems reveal Robert's concerns with all things adolescent. He is at turns smart then immature. Poems topics include his older sister, the school bus (dubbed TyrannosaurBus Rex), ordering pizza for dinner, mowing the lawn and more. The second book is written from the point of view of Robert's older sister, Jessie. Her concerns are those of a typical teen, but Jessie is anything but typical. She is funny, sarcastic, and totally her own person. Poem topics include a bad hair day, a pep rally, volleyball practice, Advanced English, her mother's birthday and more. Both books use graphic design in unusual and surprising ways. You can see a few of the poems from Technically and Lipstick on Grandits' web site. You can see a few more images using Google Book Preview for both Technically AND Lipstick

Concrete poems are fun to write and challenge children to think in different ways about the objects and events they see in their world. For additional ideas on writing concrete poetry, here are some resources you may find useful.
Before you go, here's one more piece that may interest you. Take a look at this Getty Museum video on How to Make a Visual Poem.
That's it for today. Join me back here tomorrow for an interview with Kristine O'Connell George.

Monday Poetry Stretch - Terza Rima

I read and wrote a lot of poetry this weekend and it seems I have iambic pentameter on the brain. I thought we should try a form that uses this meter, so this week I've chosen Terza rima. The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms (2000), edited by Ron Padgett, defines terza rima in this fashion.
Terza rima is a tumbling, interlocking rhyme scheme that was invented by the thirteenth-century Italian poet Dante for the creation of his long poem, The Divine Comedy.

Terza rima (an Italian phrase meaning "third rhyme") consists of a series of three-line stanzas (tercets) with the rhyme scheme aba bcb cdc ded and so on. It can go on as long as the poet wishes. At the end of the poem an extra line is often added to complete the structure: yzy z.
You can read more on this form at Here is a poem written in terza rima by Robert Frost.
Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
You can read another example in Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem, Ode to the West Wind.

I hope you'll join me this week in writing terza rima. Please share a link to your poem or the poem itself in the comments.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Interview with Joan Bransfield Graham

In preparation for sharing forms this month, I wrote to a number of poets and asked if they would respond to a short list of questions on poetry, writing, and form. I'm thrilled every time one responds positively and find they have all been extremely generous with their time.

Today I'm sharing the thoughts of Joan Bransfield Graham, author of the books Splish Splash (2001), Flicker Flash (2003), and The Poem That Will Not End (2014). In addition to these books, Joan's poetry for children has been published in numerous anthologies, textbooks, and children's magazines.
How do you begin a poem? OR How does a poem begin for you — with an idea, a form, an image, or something else? 
Joan: There are so many ways that poems tempt me to write them. Sometimes it starts with "a rhythm, a rhythm and a rhyme" and, then just like Ryan O'Brian, I'm off and writing. After we went on a family camping trip to Yosemite and hiked up Vernal Falls on the Cold Shower Trail, I wrote a "Waterfall" poem. When I thought about how it might look on the page, I decided to experiment with shaping it like a waterfall. Whole stanzas solidified into "Ice Cubes," I froze words into a "Popsicle," and took a "Shower" in words . . . Splish Splash evolved. Having an ongoing interest in photography, I often think of poems as wide-angle (the big picture) or telephoto (zoom in for the details) poems.  With poetry, as with my camera, I can capture a moment in time, an emotion, a new perspective. I like to play with the shape of language and the language of shape. Also, if you rub words together, how can you not ignite a spark?

How do you choose the form of your poems?
Joan: Perhaps the poems choose their own forms, the one that fits best. It helps to try out various forms for the same idea to see which is the most effective. Musicians jazz our world with soul, rock, classical. Artists amaze with oil paints, watercolor, collage. Poets surprise our senses and shake us awake with delicious forms and voices to best express what they want to say. It is exciting to have so many options. It's fun to experiment until it clicks, and you know you've found the perfect fit. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz said, "A common fallacy is to think that a poem begins with a meaning which then gets dressed up in words. On the contrary, a poem is language surprised in the act of changing into meaning."  

Are there any forms you haven't tried but would like to? Why or why not?
Joan: I'm always eager to try something new. I have information in my files about the Arabic ghazal and might have to give that a try. An example is Patricia Smith's "Hip-Hop Ghazal." I just got home from the gym where I stretched my way through yoga with peaceful music in the background and then danced through a loud Zumba class with hip-hop, Middle Eastern, and salsa rhythms. A woman said to me, "My brain is ready, but my body's not." I don't think she actually spoke in iambic pentameter, but that's how I remembered it. Music and dance can have repetitive movements and moves, and I am thinking maybe I need to write a Zumba/exercise/dance villanelle.

I'm quite fond of the villanelle. Here's "Fever," compliments of Ryan O'Brain, from THE POEM THAT WILL NOT END. When I wrote this, I had visions of Amadeus at his creative crescendo and could hear Peggy Lee singing and snapping her fingers. I've color-coded the repeating lines. When I'm working on a villanelle, I fill in the repeating lines I've chosen and then work backwards, forward, around—it's an intriguing challenge. I'm planning to use this for a choral reading sometime with one side of the room reading the red lines and the other side reading the blue lines. I have written those lines on large strips of oaktag. Then students can see and feel this form before they encounter Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art." I dedicate this to all poets, artists, actors, and musicians who have a fever to create. 


I cannot stop this fever in my brain,
I feel compelled to write, and write, and write.
Day in, day out, the words just fall like rain.

Is there some way that I can plug the drain—
To rescue me, to save me from this plight?
I cannot stop this fever in my brain.

I’ve stepped on board a rhythm kind of train,
That’s traveling, zooming at the speed of light.
Day in, day out, the words just fall like rain.

What made this happen no one can explain,
I toss and turn and twist each sleepless night.
I cannot stop this fever in my brain.

What’s that? You say that I should not complain?
I’m tired and hungry, but you might be right.
Day in, day out, the words just fall like rain.

Now, I just wrote this villanelle refrain.
Hey . . . maybe I should NOT put up a fight.
I cannot stop this fever in my brain.
Day in, day out, the words just fall like rain.

Poem ©Joan Bransfield Graham. All rights reserved.

What tools (rhyming dictionary, book of forms, etc.) do you use in writing poetry (if any)?
Joan: My senses are the most important tools. (A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman is a terrific book.) I don't own a rhyming dictionary. If I'm looking for a rhyme, I go through the alphabet in my head for possibilities. Myra Cohn Livingston's Poem Making, Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook, and Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry are all resources I enjoy using. And, of course, reading lots of stimulating poetry.

What would you like students or children to know about poetry?
Joan: I'd like them to know that poetry is fun, useful, and a great adventure. Each poem is an act of discovery; you can learn more about yourself and more about the world around you; it helps us widen our vision and our hearts. Poetry is a bridge that connects us and allows us to step into another's experiences, ideas, life. We are all connected, and nowhere is that connection stronger than in poetry. C. S. Lewis said "We read to know we are not alone." When someone responds to what we have written, then we are singing a duet.

Finally, one of your esteemed colleagues suggested I ask for a poem in a foreign verse form. Would you be willing to share a poem for this project?
Joan: Edward Hirsch reports that "pattern poems have been found in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chinese, Sanskrit, ancient Persian, and in most modern European languages." Today we often use the term "concrete" (the opposite of "abstract")—having a definite form. The Pattern Poem shows a visual relationship between form and meaning. And so I offer two versions of my poem "Birthday Candles" from Flicker Flash—one in English and then the same poem in a foreign language—Japanese. What an amazing job they did! The Japanese version of Flicker Flash came out in 2013 from Fukuinkan Shoten, Japanese text ©Chie Fujita. I am astonished they were able to translate the poems and maintain the shapes so successfully.
To refer back to question #1, when I was attempting to write this poem,  I put candles on a cake, lit them, and sat alone at the dining room table in the dark.  I thought about all the celebrations we had experienced around that table . . . and the glowing faces, which made all those occasions so special.

A million thanks to Joan for participating in my Jumping Into Form project this month.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Interview with Joyce Sidman

In preparation for sharing forms this month, I wrote to a number of poets and asked if they would respond to a short list of questions on poetry, writing, and form. I'm thrilled every time one responds positively and find they have all been extremely generous with their time.

How does a poem begin for you--with an idea, a form, an image, or something else?
Joyce: For me, a poem begins with a need to express something I have noticed or felt about the world. But often I cannot start writing until I hear a line, or capture a voice, or experiment with a format. Once I have some structural direction, the need and the emotion and the language begin to come together in a kind of dance.

How do you choose the form of your poems?
Joyce: Hmmm . . . depends on subject matter, maybe? More playful poems might demand rhyme (although not always). I think it is a mysterious process. Sometimes I choose the wrong form, and have to start over again when nothing is working. I'll try another structure, which will give me a different tone.

What surprising things have you learned by accepting the challenge of fitting meaning into a structured form? What are the benefits of accepting these disciplined restrictions?
Joyce: Structure can lead you in unexpected ways. The poem sometimes becomes something it did not start out to be—which can be thrilling but also confusing. You have to constantly monitor meaning vs. impact. I weigh each word, asking myself: Does this add to the meaning, or is it merely a concession to the form? A formal structure can fail miserably, but if it works, it can be a knockout! Helen Frost is a master at this: her poems convey emotion and meaning, but often have some sort of fascinating structure to them as well, that adds a double punch.

What tools (rhyming dictionary, book of forms, etc.) do you use in writing poetry (if any)?  
Joyce: I always have my thesaurus and rhyming dictionary at hand, plus several literary manuals I picked up in college and still use. Also, my bookshelves are full of lots and lots of excellent poetry books, which I use for reference and inspiration.

What would you like students or children to know about poetry?
Joyce: That it is as much fun to write as it is to read. That everyone has poems inside them: interesting thoughts, secret observations, unexpected emotions. And there are many, many ways to write poems. Here are some ideas--try them out!  

Finally, one of your esteemed colleagues suggested I ask for a poem in a foreign verse form. Would you be willing to share a poem for this project?
Joyce: Tricia, here is a pantoum that has not yet been published, though I use it as a model poem on my website. A pantoum is one of my favorite poem forms, because it repeats lines, shedding new light on them. has a great explanation of the pantoum form. My favorite quote from this explanation is: "An incantation is created by a pantoum’s interlocking pattern of rhyme and repetition; as lines reverberate between stanzas, they fill the poem with echoes."

Spring is the Time

Spring is the time for eggs:
soft air and sprigs of green.
Bright lemon sun,
wet nights singing.

Soft air and sprigs of green,
snug nests and puddles.
Wet nights singing,
feathery days.

Snug nests and puddles—
new life, new hope.
Feathery days,
yellow as yolk.

New life, new hope!
Bright lemon sun,
yellow as yolk.
Spring is the time for eggs.

Poem ©Joyce Sidman, 2009. All rights reserved.

A million thanks to Joyce for participating in my Jumping Into Form project this month.