I was corresponding with master poet and anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins about a project I am working on about trends in the last 20 years of children’s poetry (for an upcoming Book Links article). He said some things I found really intriguing—like the anthology is dead—and it led to a barrage of questions! He was kind enough to answer them all and allow me to share his responses here. See what you think…
SV: Shall we start with the bombshell? Your observations about the death of the children’s poetry anthology? Is it due strictly to the profit margin, given permission costs?
Lee: Anthologies of poetry for children have seen a dramatic decrease. In 2009, about twenty collections appeared; in 2010 a mere seven. I believe there are several reasons why collections are not appearing:
Permission costs are one problem. We cannot expect poets to write without compensation. Reprint fees, which were normally low, have sky-rocketed mainly due to publishers asking for all rights. Dealing with certain agents is another problem. Many are fair, yet one agent who handles a huge grouping of America’s top poets charges a high fee for one-time use in hardcover, another fee for paperback, another for book club rights, another for world rights. One single poem might add up to $l,000. It is totally impossible to use certain poet’s work with such fees. One cannot put the blame on publishers who have to pay the compiler an advance, an illustrator an advance, a permission budget – all before a manuscript moves from an editor’s desk to production.
A recent collection I did, SHARING THE SEASONS (McElderry Books, 2010), a book of 48 selections ran close to $10,000 in permission fees. Few readers realize the time and expense involved in merely clearing permissions.
Another problem is that certain major publishers who once published collections simply will not take on additional anthologies. It is frustrating that several have turned their back on the genre after having a history of publishing mega-hit volumes.
For a collection to work it has to have a strong backing from the house. Now we are seeing ‘celebrity’ collections, for example, Julie Andrews with Little, Brown, Caroline Kennedy with Hyperion. Few can compete with such names in the marketplace yet there should be room for more voices.
Another problem exists with many young editors who know little about poetry per se and are unwilling to chance an anthology on their list.
SV: How will new poets find an audience if not in anthologies?
Lee: New poets will always seek ways to get their voices heard. With new technology on the horizon, things might open up more. Again, little or no compensation might be forthcoming.
I hope the tide will turn among publishing houses. I don’t see it happening soon. There is always a house that will take a chance on a new poet.
SV: If publishers are less interested in anthologies, what formats for poetry books DO have a chance in the marketplace?
Lee: Picture book anthologies consisting of 14-20 poems will have a better chance than large collections. Again, the theme has to be strong.
SV: How are picture book poetry collections faring as picture books, in general, seem to be on the decline?
Lee: Publishing is a forever guessing game. If the poetry and artwork gel, books fare well. Examples are Joyce Sidman’s DARK EMPEROR AND OTHER POEMS OF THE NIGHT; published last year by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, the book received hosts of honors including a 2010 Newbery Honor Book. Another major hit was Marilyn Singer’s MIRROR MIRROR (Dutton, 2010).
So many factors enter into a book doing well in the marketplace. A strong collection with a fine artist will do as well as any picture book might.
SV: Which publishers still seem to seek out and publish poetry for young people, particularly new poets?
Lee: The only publisher in America who solely publishes a line of poetry is Boyds Mills Press/Wordsong.
Wordsong, started as a separate arm of Boyds Mills Press to emphasize poetry, has been quite successful with multi-award winning titles as CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS, a Newbery Honor Book by Marilyn Nelson, HOW GOD FIXED JONAH by Lorenz Graham, illustrated by Ashley Bryan, an ALA Notable Book, and my own BEEN TO YESTERDAYS: POEMS OF A LIFE, recipient of the Christopher Award and an ALA Notable. The house not only publishes new voices, but keeps classic works in print as in the best selling ANOTHER JAR OF TINY STARS, featuring selected poems by all fifteen recipients of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children Award. The award, first given in l977, is for an aggregate body of a poet’s work.
SV: Poetry publishing has dipped now and again in the past—what circumstances intervened then to boost poetry? What might make such a difference now?
Lee: Poetry has always been a ‘stepchild’ of the language arts. It is teachers and librarians who must promote the genre, make it part of everyday experiences for children. More inservice workshops are needed. We also need far more presentations at annual meetings/conventions. We must get contemporary poets out there reading, discussing their work. We also need to get publishers to take more chances.
Recent technology has also been a boon to promoting poetry. Popular blogs and web sites as:
Miss Rumphius Effect
Wild Rose Reader
Potato Hill Poetry
have done wonders for the genre. I am certain the future will bring even more.
SV: What changes do you see in how teachers and librarians respond to poetry for young people (if any)?
Lee: I find, have found, during decades of work in the field of poetry, once teachers and librarians are hooked they become hooked forever. Poetry must come into our children’s lives as naturally as breathing. They should hear poetry, be presented with the genre every day of their lives.
Three must reads that belong on every professional bookshelf are USING POETRY ACROSS THE CURRICULUM: SECOND EDITION by Barbara Chatton (Libraries Unlimited, 2010), and two books by Sylvia M. Vardell: POETRY ALOUD HERE! SHARING POETRY WITH CHILDREN IN THE LIBRARY (ALA, 2006); POETRY PEOPLE: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO CHILDREN’S POETS (Libraries Unlimited, 2007). These three titles are among the best to bring children and poetry together.
SV: [Thanks for the plug, Lee!] Other thoughts?
Lee: Only one: A thought I’ve been thinking, something I’ve been begging for -- for over half-a-century now, since I began teaching elementary school in l960 -- Pass the poetry, please!
Thanks again to Lee for these fascinating and thoughtful responses. It really is food for thought, isn’t it?!
Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2011. All rights reserved.