Saturday, April 14, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Dana Jensen

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with this interview with Dana Jensen about his new book, A Meal of the Stars. I interviewed Dana the old fashioned way-- on the telephone. We had a lovely chat and I look forward to hosting him next week at the 8th annual Poetry Round up at the annual Texas Library Association conference. Meanwhile, here's Dana.

Dana Jensen
Dana Jensen both writes poetry and teaches it to children. He has taught poetry with the Twin Cities' COMPAS Writers and Artists in the School's program for many years. It was fellow Minnesota resident Joyce Sidman who connected him with her editor who worked with him on A Meal of the Stars, his first book for young readers.

About this inspiration for this collection, he writes: "The roots of these poems go way back to an early appreciation for the work of Robert Creeley, the brevity of his lines, moving down the page rather than across, and the intensity of his imagery. That concision surrounded by the openness of the page appealed to me. For some time I had been familiar with Shel Silverstein's "Lazy Jane" and a poem called "Raindrops" by Sally Burrows, both of which have lines one word long and play with the idea of the words representing rain falling down. Okay, then how about poems of that same structure, but moving up the paper as well? After that, the poems just came one after another."

A Meal of the Stars: Poems Up and Down includes 15 poems about a range of kid-friendly topics with a fresh, terse approach. Young readers will enjoy the verticality of the poems in this tall, skinny book, particularly the challenge of figuring out whether to read each one from the top down or the bottom up. Illustrator Tricia Tusa's lively cartoon art and watercolor scenes provide context and energy for the elegant poem columns.

Reviews of A Meal of the Stars
"Imaginative and accessible, these verses show how the most ordinary of pleasures can pique a child's or a pair of friends' curiosity to explore the natural and urban worlds."--Booklist

"This quiet, thoughtful collection shows that not all poetry is meant to be read in a straightforward manner."--School Library Journal

"Words and pictures pull readers along in a visceral reading experience."--Publishers Weekly

Dana Jensen Interview
1. On the book flap you give a nod to the work of Robert Creeley for influencing the form of the poems in A Meal of the Stars. How did you decide that the one-word line was going to be your form for this book?

I had seen a couple of poems that were written in that form and I wanted to explore the brevity of it. It seemed to make sense. I was writing things that were going up and down that were about things that went up and down. The concept and the structure of the poem seemed to fit together so perfectly, it just seemed natural to make them one word per line. The poems are basically a sentence or two going up or going down based on what the subject of the poem was. It was a matter of fitting the form to the sounds, the music of the poem. In my poems the lines are always very short. I rarely write a line with more than five words. That brevity of the lines is kind of in-bound in my style.

2. Another format question—each poem is one page long and no longer. Was that intentional? Did you work with the book designer to ensure that one-page format?

Yes, we talked about that. That’s the way I presented them to Ann (the editor). One poem per page. That was always the idea for the book. Then the illustrator, Tricia (Tusa), came up with the idea to feature the poem with a little sketch and on the facing page show a full-blown illustration. That was the concept that we had from the very beginning, except for the first and last poems which are one page each-- otherwise two pages per poem and her art really illuminates the poems.

3. Many of the topics for the poems in this book capitalize on the up-and-down nature of their subject (such as a giraffe’s neck, a rocket blasting, a waterfall descending), but others cleverly “mine” the topic for this connection (such as grandfather and his clock, ladybug ascending a flower, or even bells ringing). What topics did you discard along the way? Or wish you could have included?

Some of the poems that were not included would be: a melancholy poem about a leaf falling off a tree, one about a snowflake and a raindrop each landing in a particular place, another about a cat chasing a squirrel up a tree and then not being able to get back down again. There is another batch of about 13 poems that did not make the “cut.”

4. Since you’re also a teacher and poetry writing consultant, I assume you’ve shared a lot of poetry with students. Did you share this book in development, in particular, with students? What input did they have to offer?

I did share it with a couple of schools that I visited. I read the poems both ways and they got a real chuckle out of that. The whole idea of having to figure out which way the poems go seems like such a big part of the fun of the poems—that there is a right way to read the poem and a very kind of strange language thing that is going on when you read them the other way. What I got from the kids was their delight in the poems themselves. Early on, I have a friend who was teaching fifth grade at the time and he read them to his class and each student picked one of the poems to illustrate. He sent me the illustrations and that was so fun. It reinforced for me the visual aspect of the poems-- that they hopefully provide a vivid, visual image that kids could see and visualize. And Tricia (the illustrator) just made a whole world out of the poems with her illustrations.

5. The vertical nature of these poems and the succinct, metaphorical descriptions have an almost mathematical elegance to them. They suggest scale, distance, and spatial references—even opportunities for measurement. Just wondering—do you love math, too?

I was quite good at math until I got to Calculus in college. I didn’t do well. I knew it was a hopeless case. I knew my future wasn’t in math. The evening before the final test, instead of cramming, I wrote a poem. I knew my future was there and not in math.

In the summer I teach a puzzle class for gifted and talented students and we do a lot with math. I love math puzzles—the whole mysterious world of numbers and how they relate to each other.

But that really wasn’t a part of my thinking writing the book, so it’s interesting that you saw that. I wasn’t really aware of it.

A sample poem



Follow up
*Many of these one-word poems invite movement. In multiple readings, volunteer readers can act out the poem through motions or pantomime.
*Use or create magnetic poetry with one word per magnet and then manipulate and arrange them in word column poems. Kids can post magnetic poems on file cabinets or cookie sheets.

Image credit:;

Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Joyce Sidman said...

I love this book, and I love hearing Dana talk about it. His work in schools is really tremendous.