Friday, March 06, 2009

LBH interview for City I Love

I’m a city gal. I love the hustle and bustle of cities, people walking everywhere, cars and cabs honking, shops and restaurants of all kinds, museums and theaters—all of it. So, when I saw Lee Bennett Hopkins’s new collection of poetry, City I Love, I was excited to see it, get it, and read it. And I think it’s completely wonderful.

There are 18 original Hopkins poems (that’s right, this is not an anthology of many poets this time) and I recognized a few of Lee’s poems from years gone by, alongside many new gems. Together, they create a wonderful cityscape of the sights, sounds, and smells in a variety of poetic forms from rhyming to free verse to haiku.

Add to that the genius of the book’s art and design. New Yorker artist Marcellus Hall is an inspired choice as illustrator and he has created a backdrop that provides a story frame that grounds the poems without limiting them one bit. The end pages show a world map with 18 cities labeled across multiple continents. Upon close examination, one sees that each of these cities is the locale for one of the poems. Identifying which is which is so fun!

Plus, a backpack-carrying brown dog and a blue Parisian pigeon appear on each page, having adventures and encounters that young readers will pick up on before the grownups do.

The poetry starts with a city anthem and ends with a kind of city lullaby. In between, we celebrate city summers and city winters, city skyscrapers and big bridges, city sounds and city lights, taxis and subways, and city zoos and merry-go-rounds. The first person voice is strong and immediate and the language is spare, rhythmic and lyrical. Here’s a sampling:

City Lights
by Lee Bennett Hopkins

Blazing lights

















Lee was kind enough to answer a few quick interview questions to give us a bit of backstory on this wonderful new collection of his own writing. Enjoy.

What prompted this particular poetry book with its focus on cities? How did you decide on that theme? And on doing a solo collection, rather than an anthology?

It is odd. I lived near or in cities my entire life. I worked on CITY I LOVE after moving to Cape Coral, Florida, a rather suburban little place on earth. I guess I had to leave New York City to do this collection. There are very few books of poetry reflecting city life. I knew I had to do this book. Cities are a vibrant part of America, of the world.

This collection has a lovely variety of forms and rhythms and structures— even a haiku poem. Was this a conscious element in writing the new poems and selecting the previous ones? Can you describe that writing/selection process?

I love experimenting with form...rhyme, free verse, list poems, haiku, et. al. Since city life is so diverse I thought it would be a good idea to include a diverse amount of poetic form.

I wish I could describe my writing process. Frankly I don't know how it all comes about. It just does, thankfully! It all begins with imagery -- looking up at a skyscraper being built and seeing men and women eating from lunch boxes atop a girder...trying to get a taxi cab in the rain...observing many faces on a subway...wishing I could pet a seal...being dazzled and amazed at city lights at night. It is the imagery th
at comes first, then the writing process. Oft times a verse will come full-blown; other times it is working with a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus...two of the best tools a poet can have.

Did you have any input on the selection of the illustrator or on any of the art? What do you think about the artist’s interpretations of the poems and the connecting “travel” thread?

Like most books, authors have little input as to an illustrator. A writer writes, an artist draws. It is usually up to an editor to select an artist. When I first saw sketches from Marcellus Hall for CITY I LOVE, I knew he was the right artist. A jazz musician living in the midst of New York City? What could be better? Poetry and music belong together. It was the idea of my brilliant editor, Tamar Brazis at Abrams, in consultation with Marcellus, to bring the text out of New York City and focus on cities around the world. What an inspired idea! And why not? There are pigeons in Paris, bright lights in Tokyo, snow in Moscow, balconies on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and "mile-long skyscrapers" in the midst of glorious New York.

Adding that winsome pooch and his companion bird to every page brings added fun and excitement to the whole of the book.

CITY I LOVE is my ode to cities everywhere. It also seems like an omen coming out this year, the year I receive the National Council of Teachers of English Excellence in Poetry for Children Award... an Award I shall cherish for many reasons including coming from its founder, Bee Cullinan, who established the Award in honor of her young son w
ho was tragically killed, and having been present at the beginning of the Award while serving on the Board of Directors at NCTE in the late l970's, and having Chaired the Award Committee twice, the years Aileen Fisher received the Award (l978) and Valerie Worth (1991).

I am shamefully awed and proud to be among such a distinguished list of poets, each of whom I know personally and love.

Finally, here’s a little mini-guide of 5 activities to accompany this wonderful book.
1. Start with the map. Identify each of the cities (and it’s country and continent). Challenge the kids to figure out which poem is set in which city. Use the poem references and landmarks pictured.

2. Here are a few choral reading options. Several of the poems have a repeated line that can be a “refrain” for the kids to join in on, including:
• “Sing a Song of Cities” (“Cities will sing back to you.”)
• “Subways are People” (“Subways are people.”)
• “City I Love” (“In the city I live in—city I love”)
In “Taxi” and “Get ‘Em Here” there are lines in quotes for kids to shout out.
For the poems “City” and “Subways are People,” break the kids into two groups to read them aloud antiphonally, in a back-and-forth way. Record the read alouds.

3. Create jazz dog and Parisian pigeon cut-out characters of your own as poem puppets to pair with the read aloud, display with the book, and use to inspire new poems about new cities.

4. Challenge the kids to work in pairs or as a group to compose a poem about THEIR city or town, noting the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, landmarks, and feelings that the kids associate with their homeplace. Create a collage illustration or mural to go with the poem.

5. For more place-based poetry, be sure and look for Lee’s anthologies with a focus on geography including Got Geography! (Greenwillow 2006), My America: A Poetry Atlas of the United States (Simon & Schuster, 2000), Home to Me: Poems Across America (Orchard, 2002). For more pictures and more poems on cities and landmarks, find J. Patrick Lewis’s books, A World of Wonders: Geographic Travels in Verse and Rhyme (Dial Books 2002), Monumental Verses (National Geographic, 2005), and Castles, Old Stone Poems (Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press 2006) co-authored with Rebecca Kai Dotlich, as well as Diane Siebert’s Tour America: A Journey Through Poems and Art (Chronicle Books 2006) and Jane Yolen’s Sacred Places (Harcourt Brace, 1996).

For more poetry Friday fun, check out: Picture Book of the Day. (Thanks, Anastasia!)

Image credit:;


Debbie Diesen said...

City I Love looks terrific. Can't wait till it's released.

I enjoyed reading the interview very much.

Linda said...

I've been a fan of LBH for many years and try to collect all of his books. Thank you for the teaching ideas, they are always appreciated!

Anonymous said...

City I Love really does look good, I look forward to it!

If you have a spare minute I've put a children's poem on my blog (click my name)along with another story - several more fairy tales on their way, including another poem. I'd very much appreciate anyone having a look and a comment, thanks very much!

Jen Strange said...

fascinating! I'll have to look for it - great review!

megdemaria said...

I too am a complete city gal, so this poetry book sounds like so much fun, I can not wait to get my hands on a copy! Observing everything that makes a city so wonderful I can imagine will help young readers embrace cities as opposed to being intimidated or frightened as well. =]

laurasalas said...

Sylvia, thanks for this peak/review. I can't wait to get this book. I love Lee's poetry--his anthologies are, of course, tremendous, but I hanker for more of his poetry, too.

This looks like an exciting collection, and I loved learning that he wrote it about New York, and the illustrator expanded it to include other major cities, too. Fun!

tess said...

Thanks for the active learning strategies to pair with City I love -- more delight.

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thanks, one and all, for stopping by and leaving a note. Hope you enjoy Lee's new book as much as I did. It's one of my favorites of the year, so far!