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.

1 comment:

  1. I love Joan's evocative poems and have read them to many eager children. I especially fell in love with "The Poem that Will Not End." It is addictive and makes your own brain start to construct your own poem that won't end!

    Thanks for sharing this great interview. I am going to print this one!

    All best,

    Sharon Lovejoy