Friday, April 27, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Janet Wong

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with this interview with Janet Wong about her new book, Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year. Graduate student Jessica Pollock offers this interview (plus) with Janet.

Janet Wong, the daughter of a Chinese father and Korean mother, was born in Los Angeles California in 1962. As a child Wong hated poetry and even saw reading in general as “too quiet and lonely." Wong attended UCLA and earned a B.A. in History; as part of that program she was able to study history abroad for a year in France at the Université de Bordeaux. She went on to attend Yale and obtained a law degree from that institution.

Upon graduation, Wong practiced corporate and labor law for the next four years. While browsing in a children’s bookstore she realized that she was not happy in her current line of work, and what she truly wanted to do was write for children in, ironically, her least favorite genre when she was young, poetry. Initially she received many rejection letters, but eighteen months after quitting her job as a lawyer she sold her first book of children’s poetry Good Luck Gold. Wong’s story about successfully switching careers became the subject of various articles and television programs, most chiefly an article featured in Oprah’s O magazine. To date Wong has written over twenty books and collections of poetry for which she has received numerous awards including the International Reading Association's "Celebrate Literacy Award" for exemplary service in the promotion of literacy.

This is the URL for Janet Wong’s website:

Poetry Suitcase is a website created by Janet Wong, which discusses creating a suitcase filled with poetry books, along with coordinating props, to assist in sharing poems with students. The website also provides Resources which include links to The American Academy of Poets, Poetry Foundation, Elaine Magliaro’s Wild Rose Reader blog, Sylvia Vardell’s Poetry for Children blog and an interview with Janet Wong on the website Reading Rockets. Finally, there is a section called The Store, in which you can purchase all of Janet Wong’s books and e-books through This is the URL for Poetry Suitcase:

This is a YouTube video created by entitled Meet the Author: Janet Wong. In this video she discusses her family and reads from her book The Trip Back Home. The video can be found at this URL: also has a series of video interviews with Janet Wong. The interviews cover such topics as her childhood, why she now makes a living writing poetry when she used to dislike it and discussions of her books Twist: Yoga Poems and The Dumpster Diver. The videos can be found at this URL:

Janet Wong’s latest book Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year was published in 2012. The inspiration for the book's poems which examine various aspects of the American political system was art by Julie Paschkis (Wong 1999). When Paschkis saw the damage that was being inflicted on people’s Civil Liberties, she was inspired to create postcards that illustrated the rights stated in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Proceeds from the sale of Paschkis's cards, dubbed Liberty Notes, benefit the ACLU. Wong herself admits to being “apolitical,” however after seeing Paschkis's art, she wanted to do something to further the effort. This book was her contribution. Like Paschkis, proceeds from the sale of her book are donated to causes that help instruct the public on political issues. Wong states that she hopes these poems inspire young people to “take the initiative to contribute."

This review excerpt comes from Julie Larios’ blog The Drift Record. Larios is a poet who teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts as part of their MFA-Writing for Children program. This excerpt, part of a larger post entitled “Poetry Friday: For a New Generation of Voters” was posted March 2, 2012:

“The book, perfect for classroom use (Teachers: Heads up!), contains twenty poems about "liberty, kids’ rights, free speech, political debates, unusual presidential candidates, the two-party system, voting, a declaration of interdependence, and a dozen writing prompts." To encourage classroom conversations about our electoral process (and we could use a new generation of pro-active voters who understand the need for civility and interdependence in that area, couldn't we?) Janet includes "A Voter's Journal" at the end of the book where kids from the youngest right up through young adults can jot down their thoughts about issues and candidates” (Larios 2012).

Jessica Pollock (JP)- from "We the People": Do you think a lot of teenagers see injustice and inequality in the voting system? If so why?

Janet Wong (JW)- When I was a teen, I remember resenting the way some adults treated me without respect, "like a baby" despite the fact that I was helping with dinner, paying bills and calling Medicare for my grandparents, and working for my parents' business on Saturdays and during vacations. I think I would've voted carefully and responsibly-- more carefully than so many of those people who make a lot of negative noise but don't seem particularly informed. I would love it if teens all across the country signed their relatives up for absentee ballots and sat down as families to hold informal mini-caucuses and vote together!

JP- from "Seed Speech": There appears to be a diminished desire among young people in our country to make a difference in life, and fight for issues they believe in. Why do you think this has happened?

JW- I think we have to look pre-Obama, mid-Obama (campaign), and post-election to talk about that question. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner wrote an excellent pre-Obama book called THE F-WORD: FEMINISM IN JEOPARDY that examined reasons why young women seemed not to care about politics. But then, happily, things changed: tons of young voters suddenly became excited about civic involvement during the peak of the Obama campaign. Now I think we're back to pre-Obama apathy among young voters. I remember opinion-makers saying in 2008 that they pitied whoever would be elected because that person was going to face a lot of disillusionment in the general population. Hopefully young voters will rise to the occasion this year and rediscover the need for passionate discussion of our many important issues. 

JP- from "Occupy the TV": Because some parents are not involved in the political process, and do not give credence to their children's ideas when they express political opinions, will this make their children more determined to become involved in politics or make them less caring adults?

JW- Kids' political views are shaped by their parents, especially when they are under 15. But I think that older teens become politically active because of their school environment and friends rather than their parents' opinions (true of everything, from clothes to extracurricular activities). This is why it's so important to get these young voters thinking and talking about the election--when they're sitting, as a captive audience, in the classroom!

JP- Your poems address serious issues in a humorous fashion. Why do you feel that humor is a good approach when you are trying discuss serious issues with a younger audience?

JW- Not just with a younger audience, but with all of us--I think that humor and politics just go together. (Some things are so sad or preposterous that all you can do is laugh.) My favorite political commentators are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert! 

JP- What is one topic you would like to write about in the future?

JW- Right now I'm finishing up an e-book called FOUR POUNDS OF TRASH: FOUND POEMS. Writing about pressing issues-- whether the election or endangered animals or putting our trash on a diet-- makes me feel like I'm doing my small part to make this a better world.


"Seed Speech"
By Janet Wong

If you think
of words
as tiny seeds
that take root
and hold
this earth together

then you see
why it matters for us
to scatter even our smallest
thoughts out there,
to make our voices

There are no stupid questions.
And, yes:
there might be simple answers.

The birds are chirping:
more seeds,
more seeds!

• In a library setting a display table would be created showcasing both Julie Paschkis art and Janet Wong’s book. The poem "Seed Speech" would be enlarged and exhibited, perhaps on the wall in poster form behind the display. Along with the poem and Paschkis art would be other items complete with captions describing what they are and their history with regards to American politics. Such items could be a copy of the Bill of Rights, a facsimile of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and models of the Stature of Liberty or Liberty Bell.

• A project, perhaps for a Civics or History class, evolving over several weeks would commence around John F. Kennedy’s January 20th 1961 Inaugural address. This speech includes the famous line “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Each student would be asked what they could do to help improve the country. The students would bring in newspaper clippings, Internet photos or videos or other media that coincided with their chosen topic. The goal of the project would be to encourage the students to “make our voices heard” as Wong states in "Seed Speech."

• An assignment for older students in a History or Social Studies class would be to examine a newspaper for any stories relating to politics or rights and freedoms. They would then scan those articles for words they found significant, as the poem says, words “that take root and hold this earth together.” Afterwards the class would discuss the findings and what they mean in the context of Wong’s poem and the world today.

• A semester, or perhaps yearlong project for older students with relation to History or Political Science courses, would involve students actually planting seeds in a garden. As the seeds grow, the teacher will discuss instances in which the United States expanded its rights and freedoms. Course topics would include, the emancipation of the slaves, the 1st and 19th Amendments, Freedom of Speech and women’s right to vote, the desegregation of buses and schools during the Civil Rights Movement concluding with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The students would be asked what changes they feel would be beneficial to the country today, and what rights or freedoms should be added or changed and why. At the end of the year the plants would grow into food, which served a useful purpose, just as all the rights and freedoms discussed had.

Works Cited 2012. “Bio.” Accessed January 25, 2012.
AdLit.Org. 2012. “Meet the Author: Janet Wong.” Accessed January 25, 2012. 2012. “A video interview with Janet Wong.” Accessed January 25, 2012.
Larios, Julie. 2006. “Poetry Friday: For a New Generation of Voters.” The Drift Record (blog),
March 2, 2012.
Magliaro, Elaine. 2007. “Sneak Peak: Janet Wong & Julie Paschkis.” Blue Rose Girls:
Children’s book professionals talk books (and other things) (blog). March 4, 2007.
Wong, Janet. 2012. Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year.
Wong, Janet. 1999. “Janet’s Biography.” Accessed January 25, 2012.
Wong, Janet. 2012 “Janet S. Wong: Web site.” Accessed January 25, 2012.
Wong, Janet. 1999. “Poems and Stories- Declaration of Interdependence: Poems on Liberty.” Accessed January 25, 2012.
Wong, Janet. n.d. “Poetry Suitcase.” Accessed March 2, 2012.

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


Craig Seasholes said...

My students and staff are enjoying Janet's new poems and have used Interdependence as a poetry month Version 2 after the Pledge of Allegience over the school PA

Robyn Hood Black said...

Great interview - thanks to Jessica and Janet both! Janet's poetry is always moving, whether humorous or not, and exudes authenticity. And this new book is so timely! I'll look forward to Janet's upcoming found poems collection, too.

Janet Wong said...

Thank you, Craig and Robyn, for leaving such terrific comments! I'm really proud of DECLARATION OF INTERDEPENDENCE: Poems for an Election Year, so your praise means a lot to me!