Friday, May 22, 2015

Poet to Poet: Holly Thompson interviews Margarita Engle

I'm pleased to post another installment in my ongoing "Poet to Poet" series in which one poet interviews another poet about her/his new book. This time it's Holly Thompson and Margarita Engle who have very generously volunteered to participate. Both of these women write verse novels (and other works) that explore the intersection of the cultural and the personal. 

Holly Thompson is a poet and author who originally hails from Massachusetts, but lived in Japan for 20 years and writes about this cross-cultural, inter-cultural experience in sensitive and thoughtful novels in verse like Orchards, The Language Inside, and the forthcoming Falling into the Dragon's Mouth

Margarita Engle is the award-winning author of many novels and biographical works in verse such as The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree, Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, The Firefly Letters; A Suffragette's Journey to CubaHurricane Dancers; The First Caribbean Pirate ShipwreckThe Wild BookMountain DogThe Lightning Dreamer, and Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal. Her new book is Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir-- perhaps her most personal book yet! 

Here, Holly asks Margarita about writing, memoir, childhood and culture in a series of very compelling and thoughtful questions and responses. Enjoy!

Holly: Enchanted Air! This memoir covers your early years to your teens and encompasses some huge political intrusions on your young life as well as influences of artistic parents from different cultures. The book is large in scope yet focused on little moments. How did you balance the specific with the global as you set about writing this memoir? How did you keep from getting bogged down by background information about the major historical and political events and circumstances?

Margarita: Thank you so much for your interest in these details of the writing process, Holly.  I didn’t consciously set out to aim for balance.  This profoundly personal verse memoir was not planned in any structured way, but was simply scribbled from a time-ripened blend of raw emotions and natural instincts. I closed my eyes and remembered the aspects of my childhood that were important to me. Then I wrote about them.  Instead of trying to work facts and figures into the poems, I moved most of the political and historical surrealism of U.S.-Cuba relations to a timeline at the end of the book. The actual events of the Cold War are so hard to believe that I wanted to write them myself, before they are romanticized by writers of the future.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir
by Margarita Engle
New York: Atheneum, 2015.
Holly: The Cuba of your childhood is vividly portrayed. Here is an excerpt that I love:

Tropical Windows

In this centuries-old house,
each floor-to-ceiling window
is truly an opening—no glass,
just twisted wrought iron bars
that let the sea breeze flow in
like a friendly spirit.

At night fireflies blink inside rooms,
and big, pale green luna moths float
like graceful wisps of moonlight.

In the morning, all those night creatures
vanish, replaced by cousins and neighbors
who peer in through the barred windows
to greet me and chat.

Holly: Throughout the poems, whether located in Cuba, the U.S. or Europe, the natural world is a touchstone, the discovery of flora and fauna in the wild a source of constant comfort for your young self. Family is also a thread in many of the poems. Can you discuss these two elements which are so central and often intricately woven together?

Margarita: I’m the daughter of artists, but ever since I was very little, I’ve been part poet, and part scientist. Tropical nature and the extended family were my two big personal discoveries during those childhood summers in Cuba, the two aspects of life that constantly astonished me. It would be fair to say that I fell in love with both the nature and culture of Cuba “at first sight,” just as my parents fell in love with each other at first sight. Childhood summers in Cuba determined my future. I studied botany, and became an agronomist.  I remembered family, and became a poet.

Holly: With a mother from Cuba, your childhood was deeply affected by the cold war and the extreme chill in U.S.-Cuba relations. The loss of your other home in Cuba is palpable in Enchanted Air. How might you speak to your young self about the recent, at last, warming/softening of relations between the two countries?

Margarita: The advanced review copy of Enchanted Air landed on my doorstep just as President Obama was making his December 17, 2014 announcement about a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. For me, it felt like a prayer answered. I cried with joy. In the last paragraph of the historical note at the end of the manuscript, I had written:  “My hope is that by the time Enchanted Air goes to press, normal travel and trade might begin to be restored.” Amazingly, that is exactly what happened! I know God must have plenty of other written prayers to read, but in this case it felt like He might have glanced down at my scribbling, smiled, and said, “Oh, yeah, it’s about time those two stubborn countries stopped holding a grudge.” Of course, now I have to revise the historical note, something I’m doing with incredible gratitude. I just returned from a family visit to Cuba.  Diplomatic relations, travel, and trade aren’t completely normal yet. Most aspects have not yet actually changed, but just knowing that the process has started inspires hope. For the first time, during all my many return visits to Cuba since 1991, I was able to relax and go birdwatching, instead of just worrying about how to understand history, and how to help relatives.

Holly: As a teen, you traveled one summer with your family in Europe and spent a month in Spain. There, you seemed to discover that home can be in more than just two places, the U.S. and Cuba, and you seemed to gain an appreciation for your two languages. Can you speak about the comfort that travel brought you? How did your early experiences traveling between Cuba and the U.S. impact that later discovery of solace in new places?

Margarita: We visited several European countries that summer, but I only felt “at home” in Spain, partly because of the familiar language, and partly because we stayed in one town long enough to get to know people. During subsequent years I started traveling earnestly, first hitchhiking all over the U.S. during my late teens, and then, beginning in my early twenties, traveling all over Latin America on buses, trains, donkeys, and dugout canoes. It took decades for me to realize that wherever I went, a part of me was always searching for Cuba. Returning to the island in 1991 began a long, slow process of becoming whole again.  I am finally myself now, half American and half Cuban, just as I was during childhood.  Traveling helped me heal.

Sylvia: As a fellow traveler, I love that idea: of healing through travel. Thank you, Holly and Margarita for sharing so generously and for all your works that consider the intersection of the cultural, the personal, and the political. I am a big fan of you BOTH! And I think Enchanted Air is an amazing book, a beautiful blend of personal memories and a slice of history, as well as a coming-of-age story. I'm lucky enough to be able to dig deeply into this book to create a reader's guide for Enchanted Air-- more info on that later. 

Meanwhile, head on over to Radio, Rhythm, and Rhyme where Matt Forrest is hosting Poetry Friday and has some good news of his own to share.

Image credits:;;;;;

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Symbiosis of Science and Poetry

Janet and I were so thrilled to get an article published in the latest issue of ALSC's Children and Libraries. The focus is on science and poetry and begins like this:

Sometimes unlikely partners can benefit each other in surprising ways. For example, dogs offer protection and companionship to humans, who in turn provide food and shelter for dogs. This “give-and-take” relationship is called symbiosis, referring to relationships that have mutual benefit. 

That’s true for the disciplines of science and poetry, too. Science is rich in content and poetry offers powerful language; together they can both inform and inspire. 

For some of us, however, science is a little intimidating because of the unfamiliar vocabulary, abstract concepts, and the text-heavy format of many science books. But people who feel uncomfortable with science often feel very comfortable with language arts, so a poem might be the perfect way to introduce a science topic.

Then we go on to highlight some recent works of science-themed poetry, including The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science:

Finding Science Poetry
There are many wonderful science-themed works of poetry to choose about animals, weather, seasons, and space. In addition to short, visually-appealing poetry collections such as Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems by Kate Coombs, Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors by Joyce Sidman, and A Strange Place to Call Home: The World’s Most Dangerous Habitats and the Animals That Call Them Home by Marilyn Singer, you can also find comprehensive anthologies such as The Tree That Time Built: A Celebration of Nature, Science, and Imagination compiled by Mary Ann Hoberman and Linda Wilson, The National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry compiled by J. Patrick Lewis, and our own The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science, a recent “NSTA Recommends” title endorsed by the National Science Teachers Association. It features 218 poems about solar power and hybrid cars, gears and robots, hurricanes and the human body, video games and glaciers, famous scientists and everyday inventions, and more (along with learning activities for every poem). Using these science poetry resources and many others, it’s possible to find a short “poem match” for almost any elementary science topic to provide a moment of learning that is also a fun break in the routine. 

One helpful selection resource is the annual list of Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12, co-sponsored by the Children’s Book Council and the National Science Teachers Association. This annotated bibliography typically includes a few new books of science-themed poetry every year, sometimes in the form of rhyming picturebooks and verse novels. 

In addition, many children’s science-themed magazines and serials, such as Ranger Rick, Owl, Chirp, Chickadee, National Geographic Kids, and Kids Discover, regularly feature poems, In fact, magazines are often the first medium in which many new poets get their work published.

We address the science curriculum standards and how to address them through poetry.  And we also talk about how to address research skills, as well as different approaches to publishing science-themed poetry-- including pairing prose and poetry. Finally, we offer a few examples of how to maximize science-poem moments:

 *A “Galactic Glossary” in Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings by Douglas Florian defines everything from “the minor planets” to “the great beyond,” with a sprinkling of especially kid-friendly facts.

*Face Bug by J. Patrick Lewis not only provides exceptional close-up photos of insect faces, but also ends with a section in which each of the insects featured in a poem has a first-person statement about “Where I Live,” “How I Grow,” “What I Eat,” and “What Eats Me.” (The Pearl Crescent Butterfly says, “I count robber flies . . . and, of course . . . BIRDS on my Most Scary List” while the venomous Saddleback Caterpillar says, “Go away, if you know what’s good for you!”)

*Nature Notes in the back of Avis Harley’s poetry collection African Acrostics feature informative paragraphs alongside thumbnail photos of each of the animals highlighted in the book; Susan Blackaby provides similar information about each of the animal habitats she showcases in the poems of Nest, Nook & Cranny. In addition, both Harley and Blackaby provide a section about the poetic forms they employ in the poems, too.

You can find more info about this excellent journal HERE

Now head on over to Random Noodling where Diane has the Poetry Friday party going strong! 

Friday, May 08, 2015

Celebrating World Red Cross Day

Today, May 8, is World Red Cross Day and of course we have featured it in our new book, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations. Our featured poem, "Look for the Helpers," is by Michelle Heidenrich Barnes and it's a lovely, sensitive poem that helps children focus on the helping nature of this important organization-- and how they can help right where they are. In addition to writing this beautiful poem, Michelle created a video too! And even got the Red Cross organization involved! She has posted it on her blog today too, so check out her poem video HERE. It's a wonderful way to share a poem in a one-minute movie complete with visuals and audio, too. 

Take 5!
As you surely know, we also provide mini-lessons or "Take 5" activities for every poem in all our books, so here are the Take 5 activities for THIS poem, "Look for the Helpers" by Michelle Heidenrich Barnes in The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations.

Now head on over to Michelle's blog, Today's Little Ditty, for the rest of the Poetry Friday party! 

Friday, May 01, 2015

May 4-8, 2015 Celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week

Yes, April 2015 is over now, but that doesn’t mean we’re “done” with poetry! Not in my corner of the cybersphere!  First, I have one more video created by my hard-working graduate students. This one is by Jennifer M. and she has taped two young boys reading “A Teacher Knows” by Eric Ode (pronounced O-Dee) in celebration of National Teacher Appreciation Week. They are absolutely adorable and they taught me something I’ve never noticed before—that understanding poetry is in the EYES, not just the VOICE. When you watch these boys, you can really tell they GET it! And it’s not just their expressive reading—which is great—but it’s in their faces. Watch and see:

What a lovely way to celebrate teachers during National Teacher Appreciation Week (May 4-8, 2015)! If you’d like to know more about this special week, click HERE.

And for an extra treat, here's the poet Eric Ode SINGING his poem in this video here:

Or if you prefer accessing a Vimeo copy of this video, click HERE.

For the full text of this poem and 150+ more (all in English AND Spanish), order your own copy of The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations HERE and for more Poetry Celebrations fun, click HERE

Thanks for joining me in celebrating National Poetry Month (and beyond) with homemade videos of young people reading and reciting poetry. It reminds me of Robert Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project” and I think it will be wonderful in years to come for these young people to see themselves when they were children, hear their young voices, and revisit the poems they enjoyed while growing up before our eyes!

Now head on over to Ellen’s place at SpaceCityScribes for more Poetry Friday sharing.

Next, I’ll be sharing more “Poet to Poet” interviews, clips from the 11th annual Poetry Round Up at the recent Texas Library Association conference, excerpts from my BOOK LINKS article on verse memoirs, and much more! Stay tuned...