Saturday, April 04, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Margarita Engle

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 Margarita Engle, a Cuban-American poet, novelist, and journalist. She is the author of a number of children's books and young adult verse novels, including The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino. Margarita's most recent books, all 2015 releases, include Orangutanka: A Story in Poems, Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl's Courage Changed MusicThe Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist, and Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir.
How do you begin a poem? 
Margarita: This is a really great question, because the writing process is different for each poet. I’m a morning person, and a nature lover, so I begin each poem early, still halfway lost in a dreamlike state of mind.  I begin with peace and quiet.  So many of my poems are parts of historical verse novels that re-entering the flow of emotions from previous poems is essential.  I have to feel whatever my characters feel.  It’s a bit like combining time travel with shape shifting.

How do you choose the form of your poems?
Margarita: I experiment!  I often end up returning to free verse, sometimes with a bit of rhyme, as in Drum Dream Girl, but I also write prose poems, haiku, tanka, and occasionally a metered form.  One of my new picture books, Orangutanka, is written entirely in tanka. After trying different forms, it’s easy to see which one works for a particular story or theme.

Are there any forms you haven't tried but would like to? Why or why not?
Margarita: I would love to try more rhymed, metered forms.  In particular, I am eager to try a collection of related poems in a picture book format.  

What would you like students or children to know about poetry?
Margarita: I hope they realize that any emotion they experience can find a home in a poem.  It’s a safe place to pour sadness, joy, hope, and rage.  Poetry can give them the freedom to express themselves honestly.

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?
Margarita: Yes, the following is a legend from my Taíno ancestors, re-told in the Cuban décima form. The décima is a rhymed, metered poem that most commonly has ten eight-syllable lines in a rhyme pattern abba aa abba.  In this poem I’ve used twelve lines with a rhyme pattern abab  cdcd  efef. Changing a décima is perfectly acceptable!  When they’re used as the lyrics of rumba songs, they are often improvised.


In a time when people were stars
in deep, hidden caves of the sea,
a fisherman ventured so far
that a hole in the cave set him free.

He burst from the cave up to sky
and reached the bold shimmer of light.
No longer a man who could cry,
he was silent until darkest night.

Then the song that flew from his heart
was the sweetest song ever heard,
a melody about the start
of life as a winged, singing bird!

Poem ©Margarita Engle, 2015. All rights reserved.

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


  1. Missed yesterday, but didn't want to miss a little poetry information from Margarita, Tricia. Lovely to hear more, and this form seems perfect for telling a story, doesn't it? Thanks!

  2. Lovely interview! Lovely poet! I'm a huge fan of Margarita's!

  3. Oh, a favorite poet/writer interviewed by a favorite poet/blogger... :0)
    I especially love the notion that writing a historical verse novel is "a bit like combining time travel with shape shifting," and that Margarita wants children to know "any emotion they experience can find a home in a poem."
    Thanks to both of you for this great post.

  4. BRAVO! Love this poet, these questions and answers and her playing with form. This post is a keeper. Thank you so much!