Poetically Speaking with Janet S. Wong

poeticallyspeaking2Janet S. Wong is the author of numerous picture books and poetry collections for children including This Next New Year. She is also a poet, speaker and publisher.

Today Janet shares some tips to get your writing into shape with poetry.

Get in Shape with Poetry

Any athlete knows: you don’t just play the game. You train and you cross-train. You stretch, you sprint, you do sit-ups, you run, you shoot hoops, you swim, you dance. It’s the same advice I would give to any writer: train and cross-train.

Novelists: Poems are your sit-ups. Write one in the morning and read one at night.

Picture book writers: Double that.

Poets: Practice writing in meter. Learn different forms. And read, read, READ! Scarf poems down. Inhale anthologies. Myra Cohn Livingston—more on my mentor below—told me I wasn’t reading enough when I first started. “I’m reading 10 books a week,” I said. She replied, “Read fifty.” Read collections and anthologies. Read novels, graphic novels, nonfiction, song lyrics, and cereal boxes. What you remember a week later: that’s how you need to write.


Twenty-three years ago I quit my job as Director of Labor Relations at Universal Studios Hollywood. My parents were so disappointed. Co-workers thought I was crazy. After all, I had my name on a parking spot! The pressure was on—to get published quickly and show everyone I wasn’t nuts.

I read dozens of “how to get published” books, went to SCBWI events, took UCLA Extension writing classes, and submitted picture book manuscripts weekly while I revised a middle grade novel and tried to ignore the steady flow of rejection letters. Then it hit me: maybe I should study poetry. Not to become a poet, but to sharpen my prose. Maybe learning about rhyme, repetition, and rhythm was the ticket to publication.

Lucky for me, I was able to study with Myra Cohn Livingston in her legendary Master Class on poetry an invitation-only class that honed and shaped the writing of poets such as Alice Schertle, Tony Johnston, April Halprin Wayland, Joan Bransfield Graham, Ann Whitford Paul, Kristine O’Connell George, Sonya Sones, Deborah Chandra, Ruth Bornstein, Hope Anita Smith, and Monica Gunning. Myra died in 1996. April Halprin Wayland has honored her legacy with a poetry-infused UCLA Extension class on picture book writing, while several of us teach poetry at schools and conferences.

No one is mentoring poets quite the way Myra did in her Master Class, but a number of poets are now teaching via online courses and email. Here’s a sampling of the best.

  • Renée M. LaTulippe: The Lyrical Language Lab: Punching Up Prose with Poetry
    An online course consisting of 20 lessons (5 weeks; 30 minutes per day), with personal daily feedback from Renée. To get a sense of Renée’s own writing, take a look at “These Hands” or “Opening Night” in The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School (an NCTE Poetry Notable). Renée’s No Water River blog is an essential part of the children’s poetry scene, with video readings by dozens of award-winning poets.
  • Lesléa Newman
    Lesléa Newman is the author of sixty-five books for children, teens, and adults, including the groundbreaking, Heather Has Two Mommies, reissued last month with new illustrations; October Mourning; A Song for Matthew Shepard, a teen novel-in-verse which received an American Library Association Stonewall Honor; and I Carry My Mother, a book-length cycle of poems that explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death and her own grief. She offers a mentoring service with distinguished participants, alums, and mentees.
  • Heidi Bee Roemer
    Heidi Bee Roemer (hroemer@hotmail.com) is a much-anthologized poet, magazine contributor, and the author of Come to My Party and Other Shape Poems. You can read about her here, which is where I learned about her self-paced correspondence course in writing poetry, “The ABC’s of Children’s Poetry,” a 4-day class with materials available for long-distance students.
  • Laura Purdie Salas: Mentors for Rent™
    Mentors for Rent™ is a consulting/coaching/critiquing service run by poet Laura Purdie Salas and picture book writer/novelist Lisa Bullard. If you need an overview of the children’s poetry business or feedback on your poetry collection or rhyming picture book, Laura is one of the most knowledgeable poets you’ll find, with a wide range of writing credits, publishing experience, speaking gigs, blog activity, and leadership in literacy organizations.

I’m proud to say that all four of these poets are contributors to The Poetry Friday Anthology series published by Sylvia Vardell and me, a series containing over 700 poems by 150 poets. But those 150 participating poets are not limited to “just poets only”; Linda Sue Park, Gail Carson Levine, Grace Lin, and a dozen other writers known for their novels and picture books are included among our contributors. Whoever you are, whatever you write: poetry can fit into your writing life.

Are you ready?

Thank you again to Janet for this info-packed post.

If you’d like to learn more about Janet and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://www.janetwong.com