Friday, January 23, 2015

Poet to Poet: Jane Yolen and Lesléa Newman

I'm pleased to post another installment in my ongoing "Poet to Poet" series in which one poet interviews another poet about her/his new book. This time it's Jane Yolen and Lesléa Newman who have very generously volunteered to participate.  Lesléa has a powerful, heartbreakingly beautiful new book out just now, I Carry My Mother, a work for adults that has crossover appeal for teen readers too. 
Jane Yolen hardly needs an introduction, but I'm often surprised to find that people don't know about all the POETRY she has published. Her poetry for children includes these and more:
- Snow, Snow: Winter Poems for Children; Once Upon Ice and Other Frozen Poems, and more weather and seasonal poetry
- An Egret’s Day, Birds of a Feather, and many more wonderful bird-focused poetry books
- Mother Earth, Father Sky: Poems of Our Planet, Bug Off! Creepy Crawly Poems, and many more beautiful nature-themed poetry books
*Plus those very appealing "How Do Dinosaurs" books
*As well as collaborations with other poets such as:
- Self Portrait with Seven Fingers: A Life of Marc Chagall in Verse; Take Two! A Celebration of Twins both with J. Patrick Lewis
- Grumbles from the Forest: Fairy Tales with a Twist (and a forthcoming follow up book) both with Rebecca Kai Dotlich
- Switching on the Moon: A Very First Book of Bedtime Poems Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry both edited with Andrew Fusek Peter.

Her book for adults, The Radiation Sonnets, inspired Lesléa's new book, I Carry My Mother. Both focus on coping with the serious illness of a loved one-- such a tough topic-- but poetry is such good therapy.

Lesléa Newman may be best known for her groundbreaking book, Heather Has Two Mommies (which will be reissued this year!) and she has many other picture books to her credit, but her poetry is also very compelling and engaging. Did you read October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard? So powerful, such craftsmanship. And last year, she published Here is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays, a fun and engaging family treasure.

Jane read I Carry My Mother (and heard drafts read in the writers' group they share) and asked Lesléa several questions. Here we go. 

1. Mourning poems have a fine, long, old tradition. Did you think about that when choosing to write in forms?

The idea for the book was actually inspired by your collection, THE RADIATION SONNETS. I was so moved by both the poems themselves and the concept of a poet writing a poem each night after tucking a loved one who is ill into bed. So the first section of the book, which is a fifteen-part poem called “The Deal” and consists of triolets (a French form using a strict pattern of repetition and rhyme) was written while I was taking care of my mother. Each night for two weeks, after I’d tucked her into the hospital bed we’d set up in the living room, I’d climb upstairs, retreat to my childhood bedroom, and write a poem. After she died, I picked up my pen and began the second part of the book. It made sense to continue writing in form.

2. How long did the writing of the poems take, and when it ended was it like the lighting of a yahrzeit candle?

The poems took about a year, so yes, it was like lighting a yahrzeit candle. It was bittersweet because while I was writing, I felt my mom very close to me. She wanted to be a writer, and for various reasons never pursued it. I literally heard her voice in my ear while I was writing, encouraging me, and being proud of me. When I was finished writing the book, it was like losing her all over again.

3. I know you workshopped most of the poems, which could have felt like people stepping on your deepest emotions or taking flint and knife to your mourning. How did you sidestep such a feeling?

I have been writing poems for a really long time—half a century!—and I know that I am not the best judge of them. I am always grateful for honest, kind, thoughtful feedback which helps me make the poems the best they can be. I am also very careful about choosing my readers. For example, I trust the women in my writers’ group completely. I have learned to detach from my poems emotionally and just look at what’s on the page, almost as if someone else wrote them. You have to be tough on yourself! I tell my students that the first draft of a poem and the final draft of a poem resemble each other as much as a fish resembles a bicycle. I hold myself to the same standard. I am not my poems and my poems are not me. So it wasn’t difficult to receive feedback. Though it never fails: the lines that I am the most attached to are always the ones that need to be cut. And that can be hard. But only momentarily. Then I see that the cut actually improves the poem, and once again, I am impressed with my own brilliance!

4. You pull no punches. Some of the poems are relentless and unsparing—the pukes, moans, groans, asking for a pill to die. And yet even within the tough, gritty poems, your voice of love soars. I wonder which was harder—recording the disorderliness of your mother’s dying or chronicling your own shattered heart?

I definitely felt more emotional when I wrote about my own grief. While my mother was still alive, no matter what shape she was in, she was still among us, and she was still very much herself. Her absence leaves such a large hole. It is almost unbearable, even more than two years later. So the poems in the third section of the book, such as “Looking at Her” in which I describe applying makeup on my mom while she’s lying in her coffin, and “How To Bury Your Mother” were rather excruciating. But necessary.

5. There is anger in these poems, too, as when you say, “I am an orphan and not an orphan…” or the poem that ends with the thought that your mother, who died of a cancer brought on by cigarettes, had a life that had “gone up in smoke.”

It’s interesting that you read them that way. I don’t see the poems that way.  Which doesn’t mean you are reading the poems “incorrectly” as there is no right or wrong way to read a poem. I never felt anger about my mother’s illness and death. Lots and lots of sadness, and much despair, but never anger. My mother was very clear about her choices. She was also very smart. She knew the risks of smoking two packs a day for more than sixty years. When the doctor told her she had six months to live—actually he told me, and I was the one to tell her—my mother absorbed the news and then said matter-of-factly, “Everyone dies of something. This is my something.” She felt no anger. I felt no anger. Only sorrow.

6. And then there is a sprinkle of galgenhumor—gallow’s humor. My favorite of these is the Seussical: “Pills.” Were those written to lighten the book or because you needed a moment of playfulness to hold yourself together?

Humor is a tool of survival that I inherited from my mother. Actually everyone in my family uses humor—often self-depreciating humor—to get by. One day I was thinking about all the pills my mother had to take and I tried writing a poem in the voice of her pills but that didn’t work. Often when something doesn’t work on the page, something else emerges. What emerged was the poem “Pills” which of course is modeled after Dr. Seuss’ poem, “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” The start of the poem is amusing:

One pill
two pills 
red pills
blue pills

Then the poem turns darker, though still maintains its humor:

pills so that her blood won’t clot
pills so that her brain won’t rot
pills to only take with food
pills to change her rotten mood

And the poem ends with no humor at all:

pills that make her stomach churn
pills that make her insides burn
pills that make her wonder why
she has no pill to help her die

In a way a poem like this is more devastating than the others because the tension between the lightness of the form and the heaviness of the content pulls at the heartstrings in a very painful way. But to answer your question, the whole book held me together, both while my mom was dying and afterwards. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t write poems. Writing poems has gotten me through all the tough times in my life. I am exceedingly grateful that I have this outlet and that the poems often resonate and offer comfort to others.

+++ 

THANK YOU, Jane and Lesléa-- for this wonderful exchange. I really feel like I'm eavesdropping on two friends talking deeply about a serious subject, but with the care and lightness of a long friendship. What a privilege! 

Now head on over to A Teaching Life where Tara is hosting this week's Poetry Friday gathering. 


Friday, January 16, 2015

BOOK LINKS: Diverse Verse

The January issue of BOOK LINKS features multicultural literature, as usual, and this time my column focuses on novels in verse with the clever title (thank you, Gillian) of “Diverse Verse.” Here’s a chunk of that piece which you’ll find in its entirety here

With roots in ancient epic poetry, the verse novel or novel in verse, continues to grow in popularity, particularly with tween and teen readers. A narrative unfolds poem by poem, frequently with multiple points of view, plenty of dialogue, and in colloquial language. The best verse novels are built on poems that are often lovely stand-alone works of art. The novel in verse form offers the generous white space, short lines, and conversational tone that young readers who are still developing their comprehension expertise find helpful. This format is wooing many young people both to poetry and to reading in general—a promising trend.
Add to this the emergence of more diverse perspectives in the creation of verse novels with many new poets to know. In his essay for The New York Times in March 2014, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Walter Dean Myers, author of several novels in verse, talks about his own development as a reader and a writer. He describes the turning point for him as follows: Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.” This “permission” has ushered in a whole new generation of diverse verse novelists.
In the last five years, we have seen an explosion in the publication of novels in verse, particularly written by poets offering rich, diverse experiences. They’ve received Newbery recognition (e.g., The Surrender Tree), as well as Printz, Schneider, Batchelder, Coretta Scott King, and Pura Belpre distinctions. Seeking out poets that reflect parallel cultures with many diverse viewpoints enables us to show young readers both the similarities and the differences that make the human landscape so dynamic and interesting. These poets are using the language, experiences, and images of their cultures in ways that are fresh and powerful. The special succinctness of poetry is also an appealing introduction into culture for students. Sometimes powerful points about prejudice, identity, and cultural conflict can be made in a very few words. In addition, we can also rediscover our human universality in the words and feelings of poems that cross cultural boundaries. These poets speak of their lives, of their color, of their humanity, of their humor. Some write in dialect, some use rhyme, some focus on racial pride, some share emotional universals; readers of all cultural backgrounds deserve to know their names and read their works.
Diverse Novels: An annotated bibliography
  1. Alexander, Kwame. 2014. The Crossover. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  2. Brown, Skila. 2014. Caminar. Candlewick.
  3. Burg, Ann. 2013. Serafina’s Promise. Scholastic. 
  4. Cheng, Andrea. 2013. Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet. Lee & Low.
  5. Clark, Kristin Elizabeth. 2013. Freak Boy. Macmillan.
  6. Crossan, Sarah. 2013. The Weight of Water. Bloomsbury.
  7. Crowe, Chris. 2014. Death Coming Up the Hill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  8. Engle, Margarita. 2013. The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  
  9. Engle, Margarita. 2014. Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 
  10. Flores-Scott, Patrick. 2013. Jumped In. Henry Holt. 
  11. Frost, Helen. 2013. Salt. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  12. Grimes, Nikki. 2013. Words with Wings. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press. 
  13. Grimes, Nikki. 2011. Planet Middle School. Bloomsbury.
  14. Herrera, Juan Felipe. 2011. Skate Fate. HarperCollins. 
  15. Janeczko, Paul B. 2011. Requiem: Poems of the Terezín Ghetto. Candlewick. 
  16. Lai, Thanhha. 2011. Inside Out and Back Again. HarperCollins.
  17. Levy, Debbie. 2010. The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family and Farewells. Hyperion.
  18. Lewis, J. Patrick and Lyon, George Ella. 2014. Voices from the March: Washington, D.C., 1963. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.
  19. MacDonald, Maryann. 2013. Odette’s Secrets. Bloomsbury.
  20. McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. 2011. Under the Mesquite. Lee & Low.
  21. Nagai, Mariko. 2014. Dust of Eden. Whitman. 
  22. Nelson, Marilyn. 2014. How I Discovered Poetry. Dial. 
  23. Newman, Lesléa. 2012. October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Candlewick.
  24. Ostlere, Cathy. 2011. Karma. Razorbill.
  25. Pinkney, Andrea Davis. 2014. The Red Pencil. Little, Brown.
  26. Sax, Aline. 2013. The War Within These Walls. Eerdmans.
  27. Thompson, Holly. 2011. Orchards. Random House.
  28. Thompson, Holly. 2013. The Language Inside. Delacorte.
  29. Venkatramen, Padma. 2014. A Time to Dance. Penguin.
  30. Woodson, Jacqueline. 2014. Brown Girl Dreaming. Penguin.
Sharing diverse novels in verse: ACTIVITIES
As we select and share these verse novels with students, we can use a variety of approaches to engage them in reading, listening to, performing, discussing, and understanding these works. Here are just a few ideas.
  1. Guide students in discussing the experience of reading or listening to an excerpt of the book read aloud in contrast with hearing a professional audio adaptation of the book. We can help students contrast what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text with what they perceive when they listen to a professional production. Look for these audiobook adaptations as examples: The Crossover, Caminar, The Weight of Water, Salt, Words with Wings, Planet Middle School, Inside Out and Back Again, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, The Red Pencil, and Brown Girl Dreaming. Does the audiobook version employ music or sound effects? What do these elements add to their understanding of the book? Is there a sole narrator, two narrators, or a full cast? How does that narrator use her/his voice to suggest character, create tension, or add emotion? How does listening to the audiobook enhance the understanding of cultural details, new names, and unfamiliar words?
  2. These diverse novels in verse can provide entrée into a discussion of culture, identity, roles, and expectations as depicted in literature. Work with students to identify cultural details in the verse novels they read that reveal specifics such as names, language/dialect, family structure, forms of address, foods, celebrations, musical references, and religious practices. Collaborate to research background information using nonfiction literature, websites, YouTube videos, local resources, community members, etc. Talk about the cross-section of similarities across cultures; their own and those they read about. Check out the discussion available on the “Official Campaign Tumblr” at the WeNeedDiverseBooks site: http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com.
  3. Lead students in creating a PowerPoint slide show presentation or simple digital trailer (using Animoto, Vimeo, or other sources) of an excerpt from a selected novel in verse. Use key words from the poem to guide the selection of pictures or images, as well as their interpretation of the scene. Then add the poem text and read the poem aloud as you view the slide show with the students. If possible, record the audio of the poem reading with a timed narration for the slide show. Consider adding relevant sound effects or a musical soundtrack as the background for a poem performance. Then play it for another class, in the library, at a public event like Open House, or air it on the school cable channel. 
  4. Novels in verse written from multiple points of view lend themselves readily to readers’ theater adaptation. Work with students to choose crucial excerpts for each character and then give them time to become familiar with their characters’ selections. Students read their selections aloud (with or without simple props) in sequence. Consider recording their reading in audio and/or video format to share with others. This is also an excellent moment for talking about “point of view,” particularly when each reader voices a different persona or character. In addition, for students who compete in UIL or other similar events or for oral interpretation practice in drama/theater class, use verse novel excerpts with monologues or dialogues for solo and duet performances.
  5. Talk with students about how a novel in verse is different from a prose novel (e.g., the use of white space, line breaks, poetic forms) and why an author might choose this verse format. Rewrite a poem page to show it in prose form for contrast. In many cases, the authors of these novels in verse incorporate a variety of poetic forms and types within the narrative, such as haiku, free verse, list poems, sonnets, invented formats, and more. Work with students to identify the specific type or form of your chosen verse novel(s) and talk about its distinctive features. Consider how the poem’s lines or stanzas fit into the overall structure of the poem and contribute to its meaning. Talk about why the poet might choose to include this particular form. If you have an ambitious group of students, try creating a short collaborative verse novel together, with everyone contributing poems on the same agreed-upon event with multiple perspectives or a chronological, sequential story with multiple authors.
I recently noticed that Monday, January 26, has been declared Multicultural Children’s Book Day! (Has that been around awhile and I just didn’t know?) Very excited to see this development, along with the WNDB movement (We Need Diverse Books). I’ll post more next Friday, too.

Meanwhile, join the crowd celebrating Poetry Friday at Live Your Poem hosted by the lovely Irene Latham. See you there!

Image credit: ALA;Jumpintoabook


Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2015. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Sneak Peek list of poetry for young people in 2015

It's time again to forecast the new poetry to be published for children and teens in 2015. I've scoured all my usual sources (notes, emails, newsletters, publisher previews, etc.) and this is the list (so far). I know there will be more and I hope you'll alert me to any books I've missed. (For example, there have to be a LOT more novels-in-verse coming. I have very few on my list thus far.) But I'll be adding to this list all year long and even have a link to this list posted in the sidebar of this blog, so you can refer to it any time. I hope to get copies of these (and look for more at the ALA Midwinter conference at the end of the month) and post more info as they roll out. I'm already working on more installments in my "Poet to Poet" interview series and other fun surprises. Meanwhile, here we go:
  1. Appelt, Kathi. 2015. Counting Crows. Ill. by Rob Dunlavey. New York: Simon & Schuster/Atheneum.
  2. Argueta, Jorge. 2015. Salsa: Un poema para cocinar/ A Cooking Poem (Bilingual Cooking Poems). Ill. by Duncan Tonatiuh and Elisa Amado. Toronto, Canada: Groundwood. 
  3. Brown, Calef. 2015. To Hypnotize a Lion: Poems About Just About Everything. New York: Macmillan/Henry Holt/Ottaviano.
  4. Bulion, Leslie. 2015. Random Body Parts. Atlanta: Peachtree.
  5. Cannon, Nick. 2015. Neon Aliens Ate My Homework and Other Poems. New York: Scholastic.
  6. Cleary, Brian P. 2015. Chips and Cheese and Nana’s Knees: What is Alliteration? Ill. by Martin Goneau. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook.
  7. Cleary, Brian P. 2015. Something Sure Smells Around Here: Limericks. (A Poetry Adventure) Ill. by Andy Rowland. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook.
  8. Crowder, Melanie. 2015. Audacity. New York: Philomel.
  9. Engle, Margarita. 2015. Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  10. Engle, Margarita. 2015. Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir. New York: Atheneum.
  11. Engle, Margarita. 2015. Orangutanka: A Story in Poems. Ill. by Renee Kurilla. New York: Holt. 
  12. Engle, Margarita. 2015. The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist. Ill. by Aliona Bereghici. Two Lions. 
  13. Frost, Helen. 2015. Sweep Up the Sun. Ill. by Rick Lieder. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.
  14. Grimes, Nikki. 2015. Poems in the Attic. Ill. by Elizabeth Zunon. New York: Lee & Low. 
  15. Hopkins, Lee Bennett. Sel. 2015. Lullaby & Kisses Sweet: Poems to Love with Your Baby. Ill. by Alyssa Nassner. New York: Abrams. 
  16. Hosford, Kate. 2015. Feeding the Flying Fanellis. Ill. by Cosei Kawa. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner/Carolrhoda. 
  17. Hoyte, Carol-Ann. 2015. Dear Tomato: An International Crop of Food & Agriculture Poems. 
  18. Lewis, J. Patrick and Nesbitt, Kenn. 2015. Bigfoot is Missing! San Francisco: Chronicle.
  19. Lewis, J. Patrick. Ed. 2015. National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry. Washington DC: National Geographic.
  20. Paschkis, Julie. 2015. Flutter & Hum: Animal Poems/ Aleteo y Zumbido: Poemas de Animales. New York: Holt. 
  21. Raczka, Bob. 2015. Presidential Misadventures: Poems that Poke Fun at the Man in Charge. Ill. by Dan Burr. New York: Roaring Brook. 
  22. Rosen, Michael J. 2015. The Maine Coon's Haiku and Other Poems for Cat Lovers. Ill. by Lee White. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.
  23. Ruddell, Deborah. 2015. The Popcorn Astronauts and Other Biteable Rhymes. Ill. by Joan Rankin. 
  24. Salas, Laura Purdie. 2015. A Rock Can Be… Ill. by Violeta Dabija. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook. 
  25. Sonnichsen, A. L. 2015. Red Butterfly. Ill. by Amy June Bates. New York: Simon & Shuster. 
  26. Vardell, Sylvia and Wong, Janet. 2015. Eds. The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations: Holiday Poems for the Whole Year in English and Spanish. Princeton, NJ: Pomelo Books.
  27. Wardlaw, Lee. 2015. Won Ton and Chopstick: A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku. Ill. by Eugene Yelchin. New York: Holt.
  28. Young, Ed. 2015. You Should Be a River: A Poem About Love. New York: Little, Brown.
  29. Zolotow, Charlotte. 2015.  Changes: A Child’s First Poetry Collection. Ill. Tiphanie Beeke. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks. 
And this one is not poetry, per se, but I can't wait to see it and must include it here:
Kousky, Vern. 2015. Otto the Owl Who Loved Poetry. New York: Penguin/Paulsen.

[Thanks to Jeannine Atkins for the nudge to add Vardell & Wong to the list! Unbelievably, I forgot to include my own new book with Janet featuring 115 fabulous poets and all new poems. That made me laugh!]

Now head on over to Tabatha's place for the Poetry Friday gathering at The Opposite of Indifference. I have a link to all the Poetry Friday hosts (for half of 2015) in my blog sidebar too (thank you, Mary Lee), just FYI. 

Image credit: I created this crazy quilt of book covers, but obviously each publisher is the image source.
Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2015. All rights reserved.