Writers at Work: What Else is Out There, Part 1

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the kickoff of a new series of Writers at Work. Sandy Asher and I hope you enjoy the conversation and make it richer by adding your thoughts and experiences.

Topic 14: What Else is Out There?
Part 1: David
September 9, 2014

Sandy, I think there’s more to surviving as a writer than reacting to perceived changes in our niche markets. Maybe it has to do with our need to communicate about something that feels important. In previous WAW sessions I described how I began as a short story writer and segued to writing for children, beginning with picture books and, over the years, adding nonfiction, poetry, and educational books.

In this first part of WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE, I want to talk about my journey into educational books that began in 1997. At the time many teachers were expressing concern that they were expected to teach poetry but had little or no personal or professional experience in writing poems. After several such conversations I wondered if I might write a how-to-write-poetry book for classroom teachers. This, I think, is an example of two principles: write about what you know, and write about what interests you.

But guess what? I had no more idea how to write an educational book for teachers than many of them had about writing publishable poems for trade books. We loved the same kids but spoke to them in different languages. I had never been a classroom teacher. Had never taken a course in education. Never read a book written for teachers. The only teachers’ conferences I’d attended were to speak, not to listen and learn. Did I have a lot of nerve or what!
Many years earlier I’d gone to England to research a book I meant to write about English history. I came home discouraged but wiser. I didn’t know enough about my subject to ever write well about it. I scrapped the project. In this case I knew my subject but wasn’t sure how to translate from “writerly” to “teacherly.”

I needed to partner with a teacher, someone with national name recognition. Then I thought of Bee. Bernice Cullinan. Dr. Bernice E. Cullinan, professor at NYU, former president of International Reading Association, Poetry Editor-in-Chief for Boyds Mills Press, the publisher of my books of poetry. Bee loved my work and I loved her. I spoke with her about partnering on a book to help teachers teach poetry. She agreed.

Then I thought of Wendy Murray, my editor at Instructor, a publication of Scholastic. In 1994, Wendy had published a poem of mine with a brief article on writing poems. Since then Wendy had left the magazine side to join the educational book group. Next time I was in New York I pitched the idea and Wendy liked it. Back to Bee to outline a table of contents and agree on what I would write and what she would do.

We each wrote an introduction. For the sections that followed I introduced and explained various elements of poetry. Bee provided commentary and activities for use in the classroom. So far so good.

Then we came to the part of my outline that dealt with verse. Bee struck it out, explaining that elementary children were not ready for verse and only free verse would work in the classroom. I put it back in. Children, I insisted, are perfectly capable of playing with rhyme and rhythm and most of their favorite poems are structured language rather than free verse.

She said absolutely not. I said absolutely yes. She said she would not have her name on a book that had verse in it. I said I would not have mine on a book that didn’t. We called for a meeting with our editor. Poor Wendy!

Back in New York we met in a conference room at Scholastic. Wendy sat midway along one side of a long table. Bee and a doctoral student of hers sat at one end. I sat at the other end. The meeting was stressful but it eventually ended with an agreement that verse would be included in the book if teachers (to be consulted) thought it was a good idea. They were, they did, and it was.

When I sent my next poetry manuscript to Boyds Mills Press, Bee was still too upset with me to edit me. Instead, my friend Jan Cheripko was thrown into the breach and edited my book, WILD COUNTRY. He did a fine job.

My “Bee” book came out in 1999 as EASY POETRY LESSONS THAT DAZZLE AND DELIGHT. Our long suffering editor felt compelled to write a note to go on the credit page, something you seldom see. Here it is in full.

“Four years ago David Harrison and Bee Cullinan decided to write a book together, going on the hunch that their different perspectives – that of a poet and of a teacher – would complement each other nicely. But they quickly discovered in this arranged marriage of authorship that their views on teaching poetry were remarkably different – and that they sometimes clashed. Bee favors free verse and questioned introducing too many details of structured verse to children, while David doggedly defended his belief that teaching iambic pentameter and the like wouldn’t turn children into staunch poetry phobes. Faxes, Fed-Exes, and phone calls flew back and forth between the three of us, revision upon revision towered like stacks of Saltines in our offices. Teachers were called upon to read drafts and give their views. Poems and lessons were added, deleted, tweaked, and debated until days before the production deadline. In the process, we reexamined our beliefs about teaching poetry and wound up with richer, broader perspectives. And in the end, Bee and David wrote a book that offers an eclectic mix of their sensibilities. This is its beauty and its strength. Too often in educational publishing we deliver one school of thought on a topic, and tune out others. Working with Bee and David taught me a lot about the wisdom of editing with an open mind and about the power of sticking to one’s convictions. Their passion as educators and poetry lovers is remarkable, and it produced a fine book. (And a whopping strain on my fax machine.) – Wendy Murray, editor”

Our book has done well. Bee and I kissed and made up long ago. She told me she had learned that verse is not a bad thing for children to write. I told her I had learned that teachers want less philosophy (from me) and more information with direct application in the classroom. Bee and I remain friends. She invited me to write the poetry chapter for the 3rd edition of Children’s Literature in the Reading Program, co-edited with Deborah Wooten (University of Tennessee), and published by International Reading Association. I’m currently working on the poetry chapter for the 4th edition of the book. These days I belong to the major educational organizations and read their journals. I often present on educational issues at state and national conferences.

So, Sandy, my story has a happy ending. But there is a lesson in it. Be careful what you wish for. Or at least be prepared to take a few lumps along the way when you choose to investigate WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE!


3 comments on “Writers at Work: What Else is Out There, Part 1

  1. Well, I was on Bee’s first list for Boyds Mills and we had some of the same conversations. I sit directly in-between David and Bee. I think children love poems that speak to them, that broaden their universe at the same time it bores into their souls. And I believe it doesn’t matter whether it it’s free verse or rhymed. It’s the POEM that matters.

    That said, I want to add: contrary to new writers who think rhyming is easier–it ain’t! BAD rhyming is easier. Badly scanned rhyme is easier. Wrenching your syntax to meet the rhyme is easier. Good rhyming is hard. Harder than steel. More dangerous than kryptonite. Be warned.

    Yours in verse,


    • Thanks, Jane, for making the case for how hard it is to get rhyming right. I agree. And that may have been Bee’s point. My rebuttal was that free verse, too, is hard to get right and may be harder for teachers to evaluate. Kids and teachers are accustomed to rules and free verse has fewer measureable rules than verse. When a third grade teacher friend of mine told her kids they could write their poem assignment in rhyme if they wanted to, some did and some didn’t. Of those who did, most were not very good but a few weren’t bad. Of those, perhaps a handful might, with enough opportunity to practice, improve.

      More dangerous than kryptonite. Wow! No wonder Superman never wrote verse!

  2. Love the post and Jane’s reply and your reply to Jane, David. A conversation worth having and a nice extension to our conversational Writers At Work efforts. Thanks to you both!

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