ANNOUNCEMENT: My thanks to librarian Doris Gary and her second graders at School #26 in Paterson, New Jersey for a delightful Skype session yesterday morning. We covered a lot of ground and I was impressed that the students were so quick to “get it” and respond. I hope you enjoyed the hour as much as I did! I look forward to meeting the students from School #29 today at 9:00 a.m.
While I prepare for my Skype session this morning, you can be enjoying my Featured Guest for today, Joy Acey. As I told you yesterday, Joy was a valued member of our poetry workshop group last month in Honesdale. I want to bring you each member of the group because each person is talented and has a story to tell about his or her journey as a writer. Without further ado, here’s Joy!
I want to thank you for this opportunity to share with your poetry folks. I had a grand time at your recent Highlights Founder’s Workshop—Somebody Ought to Write a Poem. It is one of the best poetry workshops I have ever attended. Your knowledge and charm are greatly appreciated. So let’s get started, here are the answers to the questions you posed.
• How and when did you know you were a poet? Describe your journey as a writer.
If poetry is what you breathe and live, you don’t think much about it. Or maybe I’m so ego-centric that I thought everyone was just like me. I grew up memorizing verses, nursery rhymes, and learning the lyrics to songs for our church choir. I loved Dr. Seuss. And I especially enjoyed the silly rhymes my mother taught me like:
I’ll tell you a story about Jack and Norry. Or John Jacob Jingle Heimmer Smith, Or My name is John Johnson, I come from Wisconsin.
My mother also taught me a crazy family song –One night when I was snug in bed as snug as I could be I drempt that I was Grand-papa and Grand-papa was me.
So in a sense I was always doing poetry. I’d make up songs for jump rope or hopscotch. I walked to and from school by myself and made up silly nonsense verses to skip to along the way. Silly me, I thought all kids did this.
When I was in middle school my English teacher encouraged me to enter some of my poems in a poetry competition. Oh, I had visions of me being famous with poems like:
BUTTONS ON A FLEA
Have you ever seen
buttons on a flea?
Buttons on a flea.
The silliest thing
I’ve ever seen.
On a field of blue
50 white stars stand
each like a brave soldier
with a gun in his hand….
I didn’t win but kept writing. I helped older sister Clo Ann write a Christmas poem for her sophomore English class. We had lots of giggles writing the poem.
Who goes riding through the night?
Santa Claus, Santa Claus.
Who is dressed in red and white?
Santa Claus, Santa Claus….
Clo Ann got an A+ on her poem and she said it was my help that gave her the highest grade in the class.
When I decided I wanted to write for children. I quickly learned that editors did not want to see children’s poetry or rhymed stories. So all the poems or little stories I wrote in rhymed verse got shoved into a drawer. I’d kick myself for wasting time and then rewrite the piece in prose. I went to the Highlights Summer Writers Workshop at Chautauqua to learn more about writing for children.
Standing at a bus stop by the front gate at Chautauqua three other women were chatting up Bernice Cullinan, Wordsong Editor for Boyds Mill Press. I stood, listening as I waited for the bus. In a moment of insight Bee turned to me and said, “So tell me, about your poetry.”
I stood there stuttering, trying to think of an intelligent response.
“I know you write poetry.” Bee said.
“Well, yes.” I finally admitted. “But it isn’t any good.”
“Now how do you know that?”
I told Bee that I did write in rhyme but I just threw it in a drawer because I knew that didn’t sell. I think it was at that moment I accepted that fact that I could be a poet.
For me, Bee’s treating me like a real poet gave me permission to be one. Since that day I have been honoring what little talent I have, but more important, I love what I do. I have a blast sharing poetry with children and hearing their verses.
How can an emerging poet gain experience and confidence when it’s so hard to find publishers of poetry?
The best advice I have for emerging children’s poets is to join your State Poetry Society. Most state chapters have an annual contest that includes a category for poems written for children. It is a way to gain experience and publishing credits. Also you can build your own audience for your poetry through a web site or blog where you can post your poems. This is something I have done after seeing the blog of my poetry buddy Bridget Magee. She posts a poem a day. Her blog is at : www.weewordsforweeones.blogspot.com When I saw what she was doing, I said, “I can do that.” and I have been posting a poem and short writing exercises at my site: www.poetryforkidsjoy.blogspot.com David, your blog offers support for poets too. Your WOW (Word Of the Month) monthly competition is a great way to gain exposure. Thank you .
Which do you think is easier to write, verse or free verse?
Whether a poem is written in rhyme or free verse depends on the subject matter of the poem and the audience. When I’m writing funny poems, riddles or joke poems I need to write in rhyme. I also like to use the predictability of rhyme and rhythm when I write for young children. It is when I get to poetry for older children that I can use other forms like free verse, acrostics, sestinas, or even haiku or tanka that don’t require rhyme. Either way I love it.
Why poetry? Why not stick with fiction or nonfiction? What attracts some writers to poetry?
I don’t know why other poets write poetry, or fiction, or nonfiction. All I know is poetry comes out of my pen and that is what I must honor. I’m happiest when I get to play with words and feel really great when I can come up with an elegant rhyme.
How much does a children’s poet need to learn about the ground rules of poetry?
Since I have a strong academic background, I think a children’s poet owes it to the craft to learn all one can about the subject. The more one learns, the more tools you have in your tool box. There is a vocabulary for poetry, just like any other profession that is known and understood by those in the profession. It is fun to learn about the various kinds of poetry, the forms, the cultural differences, and the history. It is just too cool to learn tanka was one of the earliest forms of poetry published by women in pillow books, or that acrostics are older than the Bible written 1,000 BC, and there are still examples extant written on papyrus. Or even that Donald Hall’s Caldecott winning picture book OXCART MAN was first published in the New Yorker as an adult poem. I love learning the stories about the poets and why they wrote the poem. And the more poetry rules you know, the more you can use the rules and learn how best to break the rules. This is a real kick, and it is so much fun to continually learn new things. For instance, from my studies I learned Theodore Roethke shares my birthday, so he is my birthday poet.
Once you know about lots of forms of poetry, you can then make up your own form. Just like many poets have made up their own sonnet form, you can make up your own syllabraic form. I have lots of fun with a form I invented which I call Poetry Obscura, this form depends greatly on reversals or opposites.
What resource do you use most when writing poetry?
My most favorite resource book is a copy of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetic Terms. This phone book thick book has tons of information on poetry—forms, history-examples, etc. I even have a condensed version I take when I travel. Just yesterday I was working on chants in poetry and I wanted to reference Urdu poetry, and I pulled my trusty book from the shelf to learn about the work chant in Africa and its similarity to ghazals.
Why do you believe children’s poetry is important?
I love poetry. I love writing poetry for children. My life would be dull without it. When I’m happy, I write poetry. When I’m sad or overwhelmed, I write poetry. When something exciting happens in my life, I write a poem about it. I’m sure when I die, I’ll still have a pen in my hand writing a poem. Poetry is who I am and I hope every child has the opportunity to experience the joy and happiness I get from poetry. Poetry fills a need and I’m sure children have experienced that need too. Poetry can help make sense of this crazy world.
Thank you, Joy! I’m happy that you are my Featured Guest today and hope others will add their own comments.