Marilyn Singer

December 21 — Cutoff for posting bone poems at midnight CST.
December 23 — Voting begins for December Hall of Fame Poets.
December 30 — Voting ends at midnight CST.
December 31 — December winners declared and January word announced.


I hope that everyone can take a few minutes to enjoy the remarks of my blog guest today, Marilyn Singer. She has much to offer and has managed to be concise and helpful at the same time by first responding to six questions and then suggesting 10 tips for writing poetry. She threw one of the questions back to me so I have a reponse in there too. This is the kind of information you’ll want to refer back to from time to time. My thanks to Marilyn. Without further ado, read on.

(David) How did you know you were a poet? Describe your decision and how you went about getting published.

(Marilyn) Hmm, well, I thought I was a poet at age 6 when I started writing poetry. I didn’t think about whether my poetry was great so much as that it just was. And it’s probably a good thing that I have held this belief for so long because it has allowed me to keep writing and writing, no matter what. I remember one teacher suggesting that I try some free verse instead of rhyme, and I wrote a short story (a very short one, but still…). It took a while to understand what free verse was, but I was still confident that I was a poet.

In college, a creative writing teaching told me that my poetry was actually pretty good—but my fiction sucked. That reinforced my belief that I was a poet. Unfortunately, it also made me feel that I couldn’t write fiction for years. I’m not sure what changed that perception, but at least it did change—so much so that my first children’s books were picture books and novels. It was a number of years before I wrote poetry for children and submitted it for publication. That book was TURTLE IN JULY—and it started out as a prose picture book! But then I realized it should be a series of poems. When it was published and well-received, I knew I could write other poetry books for kids. Have they all done well? No way. Do I still have trouble getting poetry (and other manuscripts) accepted? You bet. But at least I know it’s possible to get children’s poetry published. And I still think I’m a poet. 😉

(David) Why are some people afraid of writing poetry? How can a beginning poet get past the fear factor?

(Marilyn) I had no idea that some people ARE afraid of writing poetry—other than the stereotypical “poetry is for sissies” notion. I mean, some people don’t like to write anything, so poetry seems just part of that mix. I know that people are afraid of READING it because it seems (and sometimes is) abstruse. To be honest, I think that kids are more willing to try their hand at poetry than at prose because it appears to be easier to write—closer to their feelings and fun to rhyme, if they use rhyme. The operative word is “appears,” however. I’m going to throw this question back at you for a dialogue—why do you say some folks are afraid of writing poetry?

(David) Agreed that children are more fearless than adults about making up a poem. Many teachers face a fear factor because they lack formal training in writing poetry and feel uncomfortable standing before their students and revealing that their own poems may not be much better than the kids’. Men who might tackle a short story or even a play on the grounds that they’ve always been good at telling stories sometimes balk at putting it all on the line in a poem. I’ve even met a few poets who were influenced by a prevailing notion that circulated for years through academia that verse was simply too hard and one should stick to free verse, particularly when working with young people in elementary school.

(David) Which is easier to write, verse or free verse?

(Marilyn) Neither. They’re both difficult. In free verse, I believe you’re focusing more on the imagery and emotion; in rhyme, there is of course both of those things, too, but the main focus is wordplay that gets across your point. Conveying all of those things is always tricky, especially in poetry, where every word counts. Because many people associate poetry with rhyming, I’d say there’s a lot more bad verse out there than free verse. But I may be wrong.

(David) Why poetry? Why not stick with fiction or nonfiction? What attracts some writers to poetry?

(Marilyn) “Stick with”? There’s no question of sticking with or not sticking with. Different pieces require different types of writing. Poems to me are about capturing moments in time, answering questions I ask myself, exploring emotions I feel, or, if I’m writing narrative poems, capturing the essence of characters. They’re also about playing with language in ways that are impossible to attempt in prose. Novels are extended developments of story and character. Nonfiction is information, which may be conveyed lyrically, but again, is extended and factual and calls for prose. All of these genres are appropriate…when they’re appropriate. I like having them all in my toolbox.

As far as poetry goes, it’s true that it is my favorite thing to write. I can’t speak with other writers, but for myself, I love the succinctness, the imagery, the capturing of moments, and the play aspects of poetry. I find writing poetry generally more relaxing than writing prose—although my forthcoming book, MIRROR, MIRROR: A Book of Reversible Verse (Dutton, March 2010) was not particularly the latter. I created a new form called the “reverso.” You read one poem down and then, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, you read it back up and it’s a different poem. The reversos in this collection are all based on fairy tales. It was really hard to write this book, but it was energizing!

(David) How much does a children’s poet need to know about poetry to become a poet?

(Marilyn) Do you mean the history and scope of poetry, or the forms, or something else? I think it helps to have some knowledge of history, scope, forms, etc. I took a lot of classes in the classics, and we read a lot of poets. I learned a number of the forms and I like to fiddle with them. Writing in set forms helps sharpen my skills, I think. However, I have to confess that I don’t know all of those forms, nor can I write poems in all of them (a sestina? Uh uh) and I’m not very up-to-date with contemporary adult poets. I am pretty in touch with contemporary children’s poets, though, especially since I co-host the ALSC Poetry Blast at ALA each year and we feature lots of poets. I read all of their work, so I’m lucky if I find time to read folks who write strictly for grown-ups as well.

(David) While waiting for the big break from an editor, how should budding poets work to perfect their craft?

(Marilyn) My answer to this is really obvious: write, write, write. Reading helps, too. So do workshops and classes. It’s especially good to HEAR poets read. Poetry is an aural art. My husband says he didn’t really appreciate some of my stuff until he heard me read it. I feel that way about some poems/poets I’ve read. So, listen…and learn!

1. Pay attention to the world around you—little things, big things, people, animals, buildings, events, etc. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, feel?

2. Listen to words and sentences. What kind of music do they have? How is the music of poetry different from the music of songs?

3. Read all kinds of poetry. Which poems do you like and why?

4. Read what you write out loud. How does it sound? How could it sound better?

5. Ask yourself: does this poem have to rhyme? Would it be good or better if it didn’t? If it should rhyme, what kind of rhyme would be best? (For example, 1st and 2nd lines rhyme; 3rd and 4th lines rhyme—“Roses are red/So is your head/Violets are blue/So is your shoe”; or 1st and 3rd lines rhyme; 2nd and 4th lines rhyme—“What is your name?/Who is your mother?/This poem is quite lame/I should try another.”

6. Ask yourself: does this poem sound phoney? Don’t stick in big words or extra words just because you think a poem ought to have them.

7. A title is part of a poem. It can tell you what the poem is about. It can even be another line of the poem.

8. Before you write, think about what you want your whole poem to say.

9. If you end up saying something else, that’s okay, too. Poet X.J. Kennedy says, “You intend to write a poem about dogs, say, and poodle is the first word you’re going to find a rhyme for. You might want to talk about police dogs, Saint Bernards, and terriers, but your need for a rhyme will lead you to noodle and strudel. The darned poem will make you forget about dogs and write about food instead.”

10. Go wild. Be funny. Be serious. Be whatever you want! Use your imagination, your own way of seeing.

Have questions for Marilyn? Post them.


27 comments on “Marilyn Singer

  1. Marilyn’s voice is delightful to read in any genre. Her award-winning nonfiction is as engaging as her fiction and poetry. In my opinion, she is as worthy of the title of Laureate as anyone writing for children.

    • Hi Tanya,

      I’m so glad to bring outstanding voices like Marilyn’s to this blog. I have asked on numerous occasions for suggestions but haven’t received any. In the meantime, I’m blessed with some talented friends and will continue to feature them from time to time.


    • Hi, Mary,

      Yes, I do quite a bit of research for all of my nonfiction (and some of my fiction) books. I use books, magazines, films, and a lot of stuff on the Internet, and I also consult experts and do firsthand observation. That’s the most fun part, I think. I have provided bibliographies and webographies in my latest nonfiction and I have experts fact-check the books, too.

  2. Question: At NCTE I chatted with publishing execs who spoke of 4,000 copy first printing runs for books of children’s poetry. Why are children’s poetry books such a difficult sell? I get the impression that aside from a small handful of children’s poetry authors who are able to drive sales of a new title through name recognition, it is significantly more difficult for a children’s poetry title to catch the atttention and enthusiasm of the publisher sales reps, the retail-side children’s buyers, or the school and library buyers than it is for a children’s fiction title. If you see this as an accurate portrayal of the market, what possibilities do you see for enhancing the popularity of children’s poetry?

    • Hello, Richie,

      I’m glad you came by today. I’ll make sure that Marilyn gets your comment/question. My take on it is that poetry may be gaining audience among poets more than among buyers. There is a tendency for buyers to be conservative in the same way that small stores almost invariably feature what they consider to be “classics” and leave little room for the new and unproven.

      Some support for more poetry comes from academia. A number of researchers believe that poetry represents more than a pleasant reading experience. Academics who study the development of reading fluency, phonemic awareness, comprehension, and vocabulary often include poetry among the best tools for teaching. I hope that over time we’ll see increased numbers of college graduates take such practices into their own classrooms and school libraries. Perhaps we’re a few years from attaining enough critical mass to measure much difference, but I think it will come.

      Another factor is that those who would write poetry for the young need to meet some pretty high standards if they are to see their work in print. There are relatively few books of poetry published, and the print runs are typically not large, yet the number of poets, I think, continues to outpace the market demand. This usually results in a higher quality of poetry in print, which drives the market toward a greater appreciation of the genre. Another slow but sure process.

      Finally, I think the publishers themselves ought to take a more active role in promoting poetry. Readers read what publishers publish. Publishers are in the business of making money but they also carry the responsibility of bringing excellent literature to the market and they must balance the two goals, not an easy task given the current business climate. Years ago Boyds Mills Press made a commitment to publish a line of poetry. Other publishers also publish poetry but few accept more than the occasional title. I hope to see more houses take up the challange of creating a stronger niche for books of poetry.

      Thanks again for asking the question, Richie. If you feel like making further comments, please do!


  3. Great interview/post with Marilyn. I love “I didn’t think about whether my poetry was great so much as that it just was.” I think kids need to know that when they try writing poetry. You won’t know if it’s any good until you’re done. But at least if you write some, there’s a chance it might be good:>) When I write group poems with kids in school visits, I always let them know that some of our poems will be nifty and others will stink. And it doesn’t matter. The process is the point at that stage.

    Marilyn’s book MIRROR, MIRROR sounds fabulous! I can’t wait to read it.

    Great tips, too! This will be super post to direct beginning poets to.

    And I enjoyed your answer, David, to Richie’s question. Marketing poetry…what a challenge. Sigh.

    Thanks for the good reading, you guys!

    • Hi Laura!

      Thanks for your good comments on Marilyn’s interview. We’ve had a lot of people come by the blog today but my guess is many more will find it in the days and weeks to come. I am loving bringing so many great people together. I must thank Kathy Temean once again for introducing me to this format.

      All the best,


    • Mary, FIREFLIES AT MIDNIGHT is a poetry collection–it may be shelved in “non-fiction” (along with poetry in general), but it isn’t an informational book. EGGS is, as are VENOM and WHAT STINKS?

  4. You ask a tough question, Richie, and I don’t think I can answer it–at least not fully. Poetry has long been seen as the stepchild of fiction, especially for older kids and adults. The poetry for younger kids that tends to be popular (probably because it is more accessible and it’s what kids are most exposed to) is humorous poetry. If teachers, librarians, parents, etc. aren’t exposed to a variety of poetry when they’re younger, they’re less likely to appreciate and present it.

    A number of these significant adults DO present poetry, but with schools and libraries receiving less and less funding, publishers have put most of their eggs in the bookstore basket. That’s a problem because customers don’t generally purchase much poetry for gifts, fun reading, etc.

    I don’t know how bookstores can enhance appreciation for poetry, but I’d like to see them try with more readings and workshops. Publishers need to sponsor these events, too, at conferences, conventions, etc. People really, really need to hear poetry to love it–and to increase sales.

  5. I’ve always enjoyed Marilyn’s poetry and books — but reading her tips and comments on the process of writing only causes me to appreciate her more. Thanks.

  6. Hi David,

    I’m finally getting the chance to read the interview. I’ve used Marilyn’s books with my students (elementary and middle school) for years. I’ve gone through 3 copies of TURTLE IN JULY !

    I’m beginning to hear more teachers talk about using poetry in their classrooms. I think science and social studies opens up a lot of opportunities for kids (and their teachers) to write poems. Bu the way, that’s how I started writing poems. I needed a crayfish poem for my fifth grade science class but couldn’t find one. So, I wrote one. My students wanted to write their own crayfish poems and that’s when I discovered the power of poetry in the classroom!

    I appreciate the tips for aspiring writers. Thank you, Marilyn. I can’t wait for the reverso poems. My students and I will have a ball with those.

    David, thank you for all you’re doing to give my students another authentic reason to write poems.

    Happy Holidays!


    • Hi Linda,

      Thank you for your comments. I was pleased to post Marilyn as my guest and happy that so many of her fans are letting her know how much they like her work and appreciate her wisdom and advice.

      I hope your students come back in January ready to try their luck with the new word!


  7. Pingback: Review of the Day: Mirror Mirror by Marilyn Singer « A Fuse #8 Production

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