The Poetry Blast is always held on Monday evening of the ALA conference (so plan now for NEXT year’s Blast #8 in New Orleans on Monday, June 27, 2011). We had a nice crowd in Washington D.C. (200 or so?) and a terrific line up of poets. This year’s group included: Debbie Levy, George Ella Lyon, Tony Medina, Arnold Adoff, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Lois Ehlert, Heidi Mordhorst, Carole Boston Weatherford, Calef Brown, Marilyn Nelson, and co-host (with uber-librarian Barbara Genco) Marilyn Singer. All in the same room—what a terrific way to conclude the conference, don’t you agree? (I couldn’t stay for Tuesday morning’s Coretta Scott King Award breakfast which is also a wonderful event, BTW.)
I’m not sure how Barbara and Marilyn decided on the order of presenters, but it worked perfectly and the mix of voices, styles, and poetry blended beautifully. As always, Barbara and Marilyn alternated introducing the poets and provided a lovely, succinct entrée into their works, lives, and quotes. (Never underestimate the power of a well-researched, but personal introduction!)
Debbie Levy kicked off the evening with bold hilarity, donning a hot pink terrycloth bathrobe and bringing her mini-tub to the podium, complete with bright yellow rubber duckies! These were the perfect props for sharing poems from her brand new anthology, Maybe I’ll Sleep in the Bathtub Tonight. Each ducky had a poem title on it’s bottom, so the poems were chosen at random via ducky—more playfulness! Her animated readings warmed up the audience and had us all ready to laugh. [FYI: Debbie is providing an original, unpublished poem to accompany my next Book Links column in October. She does funny beautifully, but also has “serious” poetry published, including the powerful book-in-verse for young people, The Year of Goodbyes.]
Next up was George Ella Lyon (who gamely participated in my blog game of Poetry Tag in April with a tender kitty cat eulogy, you may remember). She shared several lovely, thoughtful poems, full of intriguing and layered word repetitions, including “Invocation” and “Open, Open.” She revealed that she has often created homemade books of poetry as gifts for friends and family—a wonderful reminder of how to share poetry with kids and for kids to share favorite poetry with others. George Ella concluded by reading from her new book due out this fall, All the Water in the World, an evocative eco-poem.
Tony Medina followed with rousing readings from multiple works including, I and I Bob Marley, Deshawn Days, and Love to Langston. He also read excerpts from works in progress (which is always a treat), including a sampling from a biography-in-verse of Supreme Court justice Sonya Sotomayor and from a manuscript entitled, “The President Looks Like Me.” This guy is not afraid to get political and is adept at channeling a young sensibility about the world’s major players.
Speaking of political, grand master Arnold Adoff was up next reading from his first new poetry collection in ten years (he noted), entitled Roots and Blues. He described the selection as “a small suite of poems” and called his poetry “shaped speech” as he shared the staccato rhythms in his distinctive gravelly voice. He also advocated for reading any/every poem three times: first simply for information (like reading a work of nonfiction), secondly for meaning (what is the poem/poet saying), and thirdly for nuance (how does the poem work, make you feel, do what it does). Interesting strategy, don’t you agree? He also noted good poetry says something “always expected, always a surprise.” Such a wise assessment of the ying and yang of what poetry makes possible, I think.
The poet of poets, Lee Bennett Hopkins, followed Arnold and read from three of his newest works (the man makes prolific looks pedantic!). He shared the four opening poems for each of the four seasons in his anthology, Sharing the Seasons (which is gorgeously illustrated by David Diaz). I hadn’t thought of pulling those four out for a separate reading, but loved that idea. That whole collection is a complete delight and SO school and library-friendly. (More on that later). Lee also read from City I Love, the picture book collection of all his own poetry (which I adore and created a mini-guide for on March 6, 2009.) He concluded with poems (by other voices) from his new collection of “portrait” poems in Amazing Faces, sumptuously illustrated by Chris Soentpiet.
Lois Ehlert was up next wearing a distinctive “collage” jacket that looked like it came right out of one of her books. I have always thought of her works as poetry (such clever, direct, succinct rhymes) and she was every inch the poet in her wry, deadpan reading of animal rhymes from Oodles of Animals and Lots of Spots. She called her works “poems for very short people” and surprised the audience with her humor and wordplay, channeling the child’s clear-eyed pleasure in both facts and nonsense.
Speaking of jackets, poet Heidi Mordhorst said she was “reclaiming” her pink jacket, after wearing it to a disappointing school board meeting. She rocked the audience with selections from her two books, Squeeze, Poems from a Juicy Universe and Pumpkin Butterfly, Poems from the Other Side of Nature. Her smart phrasings and surprising rhythms capture the natural world with freshness and sophistication, while still accessible to the young reader or listener. (Heidi is also contributing a new, unpublished poem to my Book Links column next spring. Watch for it!)
The very brave Carole Boston Weatherford opened with singing a song as she took the stage, channeling her muse, Billie Holiday. She read “Strange Fruit” and other selections from her biography-in-verse, Becoming Billie Holiday, sharing some of the back-stories behind the writing of this amazing book. I always love hearing Carole reading from her work—she has such a rich, resonant delivery—but this was extra special. Hearing these first person “memoir” poems in Billie’s “voice” made them come alive for me. This would be such an excellent audiobook. (Talk with Live Oak Media, Carole!) I know Carole has a reading guide and more for the book on her web site, complete with podcasts, too.
Next, we were blown away by Calef Brown performing his poetry completely from memory in rapid fire, pun-filled delivery! He began with two epic political satires. My jaw was on the floor in response to his mastery of memory, amazingly witty wordplay, and outrageous skewering. It was bold and hilarious! He also shared several poems from his upcoming poem collection, Hallowilloween: Nefarious Silliness, including a special poem with a Texas connection (woo hoo!). I can’t wait to get a copy of this gem.
We switched gears to hear the grande dame Marilyn Nelson read three “narrative sequences” from three different works. She began with a sonnet from the fictional narrative, Pemba’s Song; A Ghost Story co-authored by Tonya C. Hegamin, then shared from the historical narrative, Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, written in collaboration with Elizabeth Alexander. Powerful works! She ended with several poems from Sweethearts of Rhythm, giving voice to the persona poems featuring a WWII all-girl African American swing band. Inspiring!
Marilyn Singer ended our amazing evening by sharing selections from her six-starred-reviewed collection, Mirror Mirror. She has created a new form of poetry, the reverso, that is actually two poems—one read in the usual way, the second is a “reverse” arrangement of the same lines, but resulting in a completely different meaning. For example, in one half of “In My Hood,” we get Red Riding Hood’s point of view, and when we read the same lines in reverse order, we see the Wolf’s perspective. Clever, right? The fairytale theme runs through the entire collection, with a variety of tales and characters brought to life in this innovative approach. Marilyn has hit a home run with this collection and it was a great way to end the evening.
Look for these poets, their web sites, their works (buy them!), and perform their poetry yourself. Look for local poets in your area and plan your own blast. I love this idea so much, I moderate a similar event (called the Poetry Round Up) at the Texas Library Association annual conference. But even if you can’t arrange for actual poets, invite the kids to choose their favorite poem by their favorite poets (or share their own works) in your own poetry “blast,” party, jam, performance, or event. It’s a night to remember!
Check out the Fans of the ALSC Poetry Blast Page on Facebook to keep up with next year's event.
P.S. Lovely to see so many fellow poetry-lovers at the conference. Thanks for asking about my Mom, too, who after 10 weeks in the hospital moved to rehab last week and is finally, finally doing better.
Posting (not poem) by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2010. All rights reserved.
Image credit: http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/confevents/alscannual/poetryblast/poetryblast.cfm