Once again, I’d like to call your attention to the ALA magazine Book Links and my most recent “Everyday Poetry” column. In this issue, I focus on biographies told through poetry, a big new trend, IMO. Here is a brief excerpt:
If there’s a twenty-first century trend in poetry for young people, it may well be the marriage of poetry and biography. There are over a dozen recent biographical poetry books available for young people, with many focusing on subjects who are African American, Latino and/or women. Perhaps the poetic form allows the subject’s voice to emerge in a more personal way or perhaps this genre format simply allows for more creative experimentation. Whether the focus is on a key event in one life history or a cradle-to-grave complete biography, there are many excellent works that weave together history, biography, and poetry.
Individual verse biographies
Like the “novel in verse,” another trend in poetry is the biography told through a series of connected poems or poetic vignettes particularly appropriate for older children and young adults. Carole Boston Weatherford calls this a “fictional verse memoir” in her new work, Becoming Billie Holiday. Marilyn Nelson set the trend in motion with her award winning biographical poetry book, Carver: A Life in Poems, a blending of fact, poetry, and images of primary source material. Others by Nelson are fact-based, moving poetry collections in a variety of poetic forms:
Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem
A Wreath for Emmett Till
The Freedom Business
Carmen T. Bernier-Grand has also used the verse format for her biographical works, César; ¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! about activist César Chavez and Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life! about artist Frida Kahlo. Add to this roster of innovators Margarita Engle whose recent verse biography, The Surrender Tree, features Cuba’s legendary healer Rosa la Bayamesa, told from multiple points of view during several wars for Cuba’s independence.
Older readers can research primary source documents to help them visualize and conceptualize historical times. One excellent resource is Jackdaws Publications, a source of full-size facsimiles of actual letters, diaries, telegrams, newspapers, study maps and many other authentically reproduced documents from various eras. Create displays to showcase biographical poems alongside these contextual artifacts and realia. Weaving biography and poetry together makes sense. For poetry lovers, it’s way to absorb history, and for all readers, the poetic format provides a unique entrée into stories of people of the past.
I also wrote about collective poetry biographies and picture book poem biographies, with examples of each. And the most fabulous feature is a new original poem by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. It’s “Dear Diary” from the point of view of Anne Frank, capturing a snapshot moment with haunting details and lyrical language. Don’t miss it!
Next month’s column is about pairing poems and award books. We all tune into the major awards (especially the ALA awards announced at the end of January) and try to keep up with what the experts recommend as outstanding literature. Why not make a poetry connection here? In this column, I showcase the ALA multicultural award winning books of 2008 by connecting each with a work of poetry that extends the topic, theme, or tone in interesting ways. Watch for it.
Picture credit: ala.org