Monday, April 23, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Michael J. Rosen

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with this interview with Michael J. Rosen about his new book, Running With Trains: A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices. Graduate student Chrissy Adkins offers this interview (plus) with Michael.

A Bit About Michael J. Rosen
Michael J. Rosen, author, editor, illustrator, literary director, and humanitarian, writes for a multitude of audiences. Rosen’s creations include cookbooks, young adult novels, picture books, books of haiku for older children, articles about pet care, and individual poems published in various journals and magazines. His works have been featured in publications such as The Bark magazine, The New Yorker, and even Arby’s kid’s meals!

As a humanitarian, many of Rosen’s works benefit causes such as Share Our Strength—an organization fighting to end child hunger. Rosen also founded a program called The Company of Animals Fund that grants money to animal welfare agencies.

Rosen’s books for children have earned several awards, including the National Jewish Book Award, the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance Once Upon a World Book Award, and the Southside Settlement House’s Arts Freedom Award.

Rosen studied Pre-Med at Ohio State University where he could combine his love of children with his interest in natural history. He majored in animal behavior and attended medical school for a while before earning a Master’s degree in Poetry from Columbia University. Rosen still resides in his home state of Ohio.

For more information about Michael J. Rosen, visit his website:

Running With Trains: A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices
Running With Trains: A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices is a verse novel that tells of a chance encounter with two boys—Perry and Steve—from different lifestyles in the 1970s.

Is the grass really greener on the other side? Perry seems to think so. He wishes for a life of stability rather than the back-and-forth life he is currently living as he travels by train from his grandmother’s house to his mom’s house. Steve, however, wishes for some adventure away from his life of farm chores and responsibilities. When Steve’s cows hold up the train, Perry understands how trapped Steve is within his structured life. Perry begins to embrace the freedom found in his unconventional family life and in his ability to move forward.

An Interview with Michael J. Rosen
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Rosen about his new book and the challenges of writing a verse novel for two voices. Check out his responses.

1. In your interview with Wordswimmer, you described how you overcome obstacles when writing. What obstacles did you face when writing Running with Trains, A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices, and what strategies did you use to overcome those obstacles for this particular text?

This novel started as a thousand-word poem. A picture book that the publisher had acquired. Paired, alternating stanzas: one spoken by a boy aboard; one, by a boy watching the train. Each set centered around a common aspect: whether vibration or windows or the blurring of passing objects, each boy spoke from his perspective.

But then we made the decision to change the book into a novel. A book of poetry for older readers where the boys’ identities would be central to their observations of the train—would, somehow, change them.

The first obstacle was simply the void in which I now found these two voices. They had no history, family, era, location—they only had the original poem’s premise: two people, engaged by a train, long for the other’s (ad)vantage.

It was a slow process of situating each boy. Deciding the era in which to set the book provided a much needed momentum. Researching a 1969-70 “school year,” prompted new directions and complications. Yes, I was a middle-grade student then… but it was also the moment when train travel in this country came to a crisis, when the Concorde, the space program—when the world seemed to be accelerating faster than we could keep up.

As I wrote to fill in history, establish context, and advance plot, each addition had to work as a poem but also as a means of steadily contributing to the development of the boys and the overall narrative. My editor challenged me relentlessly (thank you, Rebecca!) to ensure that the deliberately slow and somewhat difficult dual narrative of this book wasn’t bogged down or confused by passages that might be intrinsically interesting, but didn’t directly serve the steady pacing of the story. A poet always has a somewhat deaf ear to the self-indulgent pleasure of making the music of meaning.

Short prose headers before each poem helped suggest where the speaker might be, what the speaker might be doing—these were a later additions that identified the progress from fall to summer; they were like identifiable stations on the long ride from the first page to the final page.

The last hurdle I’ll mention was verifying facts about this particular line of this particular train during this particular year. This was just before the government’s introduction of Amtrak, which ended much of the already diminished rail service in this country. So the services offer, the configuration of the cars, the train schedules—only some of those details could be authenticated. I tried to be only as specific as I could feel confident.

2. Who or what inspired the creation of Perry and Steve?

Most characters I create possess some aspect of myself. (I can’t be unique in this, can I?) So… a youthful avatar I try to reimagine. An elder self, I try to imagine. I suppose that even the antagonists or characters that I can’t fathom being a part of any life I’d ever want to live, have to issue from more than just observations or awareness of others—they have to come from empathy, from that sense of how I, too, might struggle or prevail under other circumstances.

I received a too kind letter from William Maxwell in response to nothing more than a fan letter that I’d sent in my mid-twenties about The Folded Leaf, a novel whose lyrical prose was as emboldening to me as the story itself. I often think of why he said that he remained so fond of this early book: “…though it is only partly autobiographical, it contains the whole of my youth.”

I neither grew up on a farm nor rode trains as a boy. But I remember the years though which Running with Trains rides as volatile, formative, uneasy. They were the years I began writing and drawing and reading voraciously. I couldn’t have said so at the time, but those arts helped me to slow down “the speed of life,” a velocity that I can’t make sense of—even today—without the painstaking methods of composition, revision, patient work.

Even without hallucinating drugs, in 1969 it was dizzying to conceive of the war in Vietnam, overpopulation, civil rights, pollution, assassinations, famine…. Some of that uneasiness and disbelief and naïveté infused the two characters of this book.

3. Describe the differences and challenges in writing one cohesive story for two voices compared to writing from one perspective.

Well, it’s more than just twice the work. There’s a third aspect, at least in Running with Trains, where I wanted the speech patterns, vocabularies, and energies of each boy’s voice to be distinct. (Ideally, a reader would know who’s speaking… even without the book’s two fonts that distinguish the boys.) I also wanted their words and image choices, their circumstances and instances and references, to play against one another. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they diverge. Sometimes it’s intentional and obvious; other times, more nuanced.

I suppose this is how a composer creates a musical phrase for the winds, say, or a choreographer creates a movement for, say, a trio, and then discovers ways to modify, enlarge, repeat those elements for the brass or soprano…for a pas de deux or the full company.

4. After researching you as an author, I notice that you have written both novels and poems, but this appears to be the first verse novel you have done. Why have you chosen this form of poetry to tell Perry and Steve’s stories?

My passion, my subject…is really writing: the problem-solving and puzzling of going from mining to molding, from not-knowing to some sort of discovery. The genre—in this case a novel in verse—is meant to be a “regulation” court in which this game is best played. To belabor the sport’s metaphor: would the compression and speed of a handball court make the material more exciting and challenging, or would the slower, more spacious baseball stadium provide me—and, ultimately, the reader—the best arena in which to engage the complexity of the subject?

For this book, a variety of poetic forms, anchored by blank verse, the traditional conveyance of longer narratives in English, gave me the flexibility to accommodate the boys’ two cultures: a precocious, verbal, confused thirteen-year-old trying to regain a sense of home and family in an era of enormous progress and pervasive turmoil; and a younger farm boy whose sensibilities have been both limited and liberated by his independence, by the distances and chores and animals that order his life.

Poetry’s rhythms offered me the sound of the train for the twice-weekly shuttling back and forth between Perry’s two cities. It offered me the twice-daily movement of the cows between pastures and barn on Steve’s farm.

5. Is there a message or lesson you want readers to digest from reading this novel in verse?

Forgive me for seeming to shrug off the question of “message.” I want the reader to enjoy the journey—the train ride, the walks across the pastures—not to “arrive” at a destination. It’s my experience that finding elements of my own story while reading another’s story—however offset by time, ethnicity, circumstances, age—is one of literature’s great gifts. It’s our uniquely human, empathic nature that allows us to see our own inchoate or fumbled feelings in works of art, to see them in a broader perspective that affords us the chance to calibrate or better appreciate their nature.

So I want the poems/novel to crisscross a reader’s own life, calling up whatever associations and memories they might. I want a reader to feel included in the story.

I don’t want to elicit an summary statement or overall answer…which would imply that the book posed a simple question…and I don’t sense that Perry, Steve, you, I, readers—none of us experiences the world as anything resembling a short-answer essay question that’s either right or wrong. (Of course, spelling counts! lol)

No, it’s that ride—on wheels, on feet…on metrical feet—that has to be the deepest pleasure.

Sneak Peak: “Everyone Has a Point of View”
Each poem is set up with a bit of prose giving the reader some indication of where the speaker might be and what he may be experiencing.

Everyone Has a Point of View

A mother and daughter are arguing in whispers in the seat behind Perry. He tries not to listen, but he can’t help it, just as he can’t help thinking about the return trip even before he’s arrived. They both go back and forth over the same ground. It all reminds Perry of something Gran says: “A dog will scratch his fleas in the kennel, but not on the hunt.”

Across the cabin, my view is newspapers
stretched between other passengers’ hands.
They don’t see anything through the windows
behind me. They don’t see me. I don’t see them.

I don’t see anything through the windows
behind them. On their side of the papers,
the headlines and photos and comics and ads
compose their view. My side stays the same.

When someone walks past, the pages flutter,
just a little, like a bedsheet the breeze
rustles on a laundry line—like a flag
the train’s gusts ruffle in our draft.

When someone turns a page, their hands clap,
but softly, almost like when you pray,
and the paper shuts like a butterfly’s wings,
becoming, for just that moment, a single line,

as if all the news turned into just one headline
announcing…that love had finally made peace
in the world or that war or air pollution
or overpopulation had finally made…

the final edition—nothing left to report.
But in that same instant, the view reappears
in the train windows behind that thin headline:
the rushing smear of orchards, pastures, barns,

school yards, traffic…strangers sweeping or shopping
whether the latest news was better or worse
than feared. And then the pages spread open—
another beat of the wings—and what’s changed?

From Running with Trains, by Michael J. Rosen, published by Wordsong, a division of Boyds Mills Press, 2012. Used by permission.

Sharing the Poem
A fun way to share this poem with a group of students is to act it out. Rosen creates vivid images with his words, which gives clear details for setting the stage.

Align chairs as if they are seats on a train: two rows, two seats per row facing each other, and an aisle. Students acting as passengers will sit in the seats. One student will serve as a narrator for the prose header, and another student will walk through the aisle at the indicated time. One dramatic student (or the teacher) on the train will read the poem. Give all other students newspapers to hold up as if they are reading them.

As the poem is being read aloud, non-readers can act out portions such as “When someone walks past, the pages flutter / just a little, like a bedsheet the breeze / rustles on a laundry line—like a flag” and “When someone turns a page, their hands clap, / but softly, almost like when you pray, / and the paper shuts like a butterfly’s wings.”

Allow students to record their performance with 3-5 students filming from different positions. View the videos and discuss how what is seen from each videographer’s point of view differs. Compare these points of view to the perspectives of the passengers, including Perry.

Book cover image retrieved from
Rosen, Michael J. (n.d.) More about Michael and the resident pack. Retrieved from
Rosen, Michael J. (n.d.) More than you need to know about me and my work. Retrieved from
Rosen, Michael J. 2012. Running With Trains: A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.

Image credit:;

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

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