Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Guest post: BORN BEHIND BARS by Padma Venkatraman

I'm so happy to share my blog space with award-winning author, poet (and scientist) Padma Venkatraman. You may be familiar with her novels, Climbing the Stairs, Island's End, A Time to Dance, and The Bridge Home. And she has a brand new just-released novel, Born Behind Bars. Here she writes about her journey to poetry and her struggle with how to format and categorize Born Behind Bars.


by Padma Venkatraman

After I completed my first draft of A TIME TO DANCE (years ago) I had a panic attack. I was trained as an oceanographer – what right did I have to write poetry?

I’ve always loved poetry and read and listened to poetry, so I had a lot of poet friends and colleagues whom I could reach out to. Thanks to the encouragement I received from Richard Blanco, Gregory Pardlo, Scott Hightower, Rigoberto Gonzalez, and Kristin Prevallet, who visited the University of Rhode Island, and colleagues at the university, including Mary Capello, Peter Covino, Jody Lisberger and Talvikki Ansel, I persevered.

Peter Johnson, a poet who is also the acclaimed author of novels for young people (such as WHAT HAPPENED, and, most recently, SHOT), went the extra mile – literally. He drove over two bridges to meet me (and this is a huge deal in our little state of Rhode Island where the joke is that we pack a lunch or two if we have to drive across even one bridge). He gave me a pep talk and also a few copies of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, which he’d edited. 


A TIME TO DANCE wasn’t prose poetry. I could hear dance rhythms in my head that I wanted to see on paper. I sensed that line breaks were vital to the telling of that story (about a dancer who meets with an accident where she sustains a below-knee injury, and who, as she recovers, discovers the spiritual depth of her art), and I agonized over line-breaks as I worked. 


Yet, I was fascinated by the prose poem, too, as a form – and wondered if, some day, I might experiment with it. 


As I created the first drafts of BORN BEHIND BARS, I realized that in my mind, I was seeing the text the way that prose poems are most often formatted: justified on both sides, and with an entire blank line in between paragraphs. In some way, this form, to me embodied and resonated the iron bars on the window through which my protagonist peers in the first scene of the novel. I love how the form of BORN BEHIND BARS augments the content, something I strive for in every poem I write. 

Is it silly to be so much in love with the look of text on a page? Perhaps. But in my defense, I remember David Almond once talking about how he – if I remember right – went in and put spaces here and there in his text – because it looked better that way on the page. 


Of course, story mattered to me equally as I revised, with attention to plot, and character and dialogue.


When BORN BEHIND BARS opens, the protagonist, Kabir, has lived in jail all his life. His only escape is through his imagination: he dreams of freedom, of exploring the world outside with his unjustly incarcerated mother. When he is suddenly released, he clings desperately to the hope that he can set her free, although society is prejudiced against him because of his poverty and low caste. His longing to see justice done drives his actions – and as I wrote, I kept thinking of these beautiful Langston Hughes lines – Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die / Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly. 

The lines I was placing on the page resembled the tangible hurdles Kabir faced, but his songs slipped past them the way a songbird’s voice cannot be contained by the bars of its cage, and Kabir’s dreams filled the white spaces among the lines. Poetry and prose began to blur, and Kabir’s story took shape on the common ground between them. I’ve always thought of white space in a poem as a place that is sacred – the space where the poet meets the reader – the spiritual plane, in a sense, that they share together. I’ve always thought of stories as half-bridges – a similar metaphor – because each story is only half-written, even when it is completely written, in that the reader must finish it in his/her/their own way. My readers are my co-creators, working with me to re-create each story, each poem. Although my name may be associated with a piece, each time it’s read, the reader makes something new out of it – and in each reader’s mind and heart, is a creation that not even I, who wrote the novel or poem, can ever fully comprehend. This, to me, is the magic of story. And in poem, those spaces are a vital invitation to the reader to enter into a deep, vast, emotional and imaginative landscape.

As I revised BORN BEHIND BARS, I paid attention to the poetic quality of each chapter, each paragraph, each line – the way that a prose poet should. Poetic techniques such as compression, fragmentation, repetition and rhythm were at the forefront of my mind, although I also wanted, equally, to ensure that every bit of dialogue felt natural and that the narrative voice was true to that of my child protagonist, Kabir. 

When I was done, I asked Newbery Honor winner and Young People’s Poet Laureate emerita Margarita Engle whether she thought BORN BEHIND BARS was a poem or prose, or a prose poem. A prose poem is a hybrid form, she said, suggesting to me that people were likely to classify it one or the other. She seemed to agree with me that it was. My beloved editor Nancy Paulsen said she felt the voice had a fable-like quality to it, but that it wasn’t a prose poem.

An educator recently observed – to my delight – THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN also has the same look and is formatted the same way. So, one thing is certain. If indeed BORN BEHIND BARS is a prose poem, it’s by far not the first prose poem written for young people. THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET could be considered a prose poem. So could GOD LOVES HAIR. 

Peter Johnson defines the prose poem as a form that can straddle the fine line between comedy and tragedy: “the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.” But perhaps the academic definition of a prose poem isn’t as important as the fact that I absolutely love everything about the way that BORN BEHIND BARS turned out, down to the last detail of formatting the text! 

Friday, September 03, 2021

Remembering Eloise Greenfield

Last month we lost a giant in the world of poetry for children: Eloise Greenfield. I wanted to take a moment to pay tribute to her work and her life. I've been a fan for a long time and included her in my reference book, Poetry People. Here's an excerpt from that book.

Eloise Greenfield was born on May 17, 1929, in Parmele, North Carolina. She attended Miner Teachers College (now University of the District of Columbia), was married, and had two children. She worked in Washington, D.C. in the U.S. Patent Office and with  the District of Columbia Black Writers' Workshop for several years. Her hobbies include listening to music and playing the piano. She has won a multitude of awards including American Library Association Notable Book citations, the Carter G. Woodson Book Award, Jane Addams Children's Book Award, Council on Interracial Books for Children award for her body of work, Coretta Scott King Award, the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, and many lifetime achievement awards. You can find out more in the obituaries from Publishers Weekly here or in The New York Times here and in The Washington Post here. You can also find an interview with her at the The Brown Bookshelf here and a terrific profile by Rudine Sims Bishop for Language Arts here.

Eloise Greenfield is an acclaimed writer of prose and poetry for younger readers whose work is recognized for presenting strong portraits of loving African American families. Greenfield has authored books of poetry, picture books, biography, memoir, board books and more, many of which have been illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. She teamed with her mother to create Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, an autobiographical work that describes the childhood memories of Greenfield, her mother, and her maternal grandmother.

Greenfield’s first collection of poetry for children, Honey, I Love, and Other Love Poems (HarperCollins 1978), describes the experiences of a young black girl and deals with relationships involving family, friends, and schoolmates. This popular Reading Rainbow book is an amazing masterpiece from a poet who captures the unique dimensions of the African American experience (such as in her homage “Harriet Tubman”), while also tapping into the universal experiences of childhood (expressed in the wondering poem “By Myself”). From its small trim size to the Dillons’ inviting black, white, and gold illustrations, these sixteen short poems capture feelings of love, grief, pride, and pleasure—all from the point of view of a child. It was republished as a stand-alone picture book with the same title by HarperCollins in 2003.

The poem, “Harriet Tubman” is strong and rhythmic narrative poem that invites children to join in on the repeated refrain which begins “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff.” Pair Greenfield’s poem with “The Conductor was a Woman” by Carole Boston Weatherford in Remember The Bridge: Poems of a People (Philomel 2002). This volume even includes a sepia-tone photograph of Tubman. Follow up with a picture book version of Harriet Tubman’s life, Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman (Dial 1996) by Alan Schroeder, beautifully illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Older children may also enjoy the nonfiction book, Sojourner Truth: "Ain't I a Woman? by Patricia McKissack and Fredrick McKissack (1992). Read aloud the chapter "Free Belle" or "Ain't I a Woman?" to lure readers in the middle grades to read the rest of her story on their own. Each of these chapters function as a story in itself about this fascinating woman and the times she lived in, first as a slave, then as a free woman.

Harriet Tubman (in Honey I Love)

by Eloise Greenfield

Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff

Wasn't scared of nothing neither

Didn't come in this world to be no slave

And wasn't going to stay one either


"Farewell!" she sang to her friends one night

She was mighty sad to leave 'em

But she ran away that dark, hot night

Ran looking for her freedom


She ran to the woods and she ran through the woods

With the slave catcher right behind her

And she kept on going till she got to the North

Where those mean men couldn't find her


Nineteen times she went back South

To get three hundred others

She ran for her freedom nineteen times

To save black sisters and brothers


Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff

Wasn't scared of nothing neither

Didn't come in this world to be no slave

And didn't stay one either

And didn't stay one either

In her poetry, Greenfield tries to involve children in their own worlds. In Night on Neighborhood Street (Dial 1991), Greenfield brings her young readers into the happenings around them examining the life of an urban community. The volume's seventeen poems show children in typical situations, including attending church and playing games with their families. Link this book with Carole Boston Weatherford’s collection, Sidewalk Chalk; Poems of the City (Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press 2001) with poems about the laundromat, local diner, city market, barbershop or Lilian Moore’s Mural on Second Avenue and Other City Poems (Candlewick 2005) which features poems about the city park, shop windows, skylines and bridges, and construction sites. Invite the children to list places they enjoy in their communities. What poems might they write to celebrate their favorite spots? 

Eloise Greenfield created a memorable character in her poetry book, Nathaniel Talking (Writers & Readers Publishing 1993) in which a nine year old boy shares his thoughts, dreams, and hopes in a series of first person poems. Match this collection with the Danitra Brown poetry books by Nikki Grimes for the girl’s point of view. And look for Janet Wong’s Good Luck Gold and Other Poems (Simon & Schuster 1994) and A Suitcase of Seaweed, and Other Poems (Simon & Schuster, 1996) for more child perspectives on growing up in America. 


by Eloise Greenfield

one day I was dumb enough

to let somebody bet me

into a fight

and then I was mad with two

stupid boys

the one who was hitting me

and the one who was hitting


For another view on culture, share Greenfield’s Under the Sunday Tree (HarperCollins 1988), a celebration of life in the Bahamas. Complement these poems with anthologies assembled by Caribbean poets John Agard and Grace Nichols or consider Under The Breadfruit Tree: Island Poems (Boyds Mills Press 1998) by Monica Gunning. 

For one more poem gem by Eloise Greenfield, don't miss "Things" from

often performed with gusto by Ashley Bryan, a legend himself!

Things  (in Honey I Love)

by Eloise Greenfield

Went to the corner

Walked in the store

Bought me some candy

Ain't got it no more

Ain't got it no more


Went to the beach

Played on the shore

Built me a sandhouse

Ain't got it no more

Ain't got it no more 

Went to the kitchen

Lay down on the floor

Made me a poem

Still got it

Still got it

Eloise Greenfield published nearly 50 books for young people and influenced a generation of poets. Her poetry is strong in sound, rhyme and rhythm-- so fun to read aloud. Plus she represents the experience of African American children, families, and history, from ordinary daily life to historic heroes. She once said, I want to give children a true knowledge of black heritage, including both the African and the American experiences. The distortions of black history have been manifold and ceaseless. A true history must be the concern of every black writer. It is necessary for black children to have a true knowledge of their past and present, in order that they may develop an informed sense of direction for their future. I would say she definitely achieved this goal! Look for her books and share her poetry now! Here are a few of my favorites: 

Greenfield, Eloise. 1977. Africa Dream. New York: John Day Co. Reprinted, New York: HarperTrophy, 1992.

Greenfield, Eloise. 1978. Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems. New York: HarperCollins. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 1988. Nathaniel Talking. New York: Black Butterfly Children's Books. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 1988. Under the Sunday Tree. New York: Harper & Row. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 1993. Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.

Greenfield, Eloise. 1996. Night on Neighborhood Street. New York: Puffin Pied Piper. Reprinted, Jacksonville, IL: Bound to Stay Bound, 1999.

Greenfield, Eloise. 2004. In the Land of Words. New York: HarperCollins. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 2006. The Friendly Four. Ill. by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. New York: HarperCollins. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 2008. Brothers and Sisters: Family Poems. New York: Amistad/HarperCollins.

Greenfield, Eloise. 2011. The Great Migration: Journey to the North. Ill. by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. New York: Amistad/HarperCollins. 

Greenfield, Eloise. 2019. Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me. Ill. by Ehsan Abdollahi. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky.

Now head on over to My Juicy Little Universe where poet and teacher Heidi Mordhorst is hosting our Poetry Friday gathering!