Poetically Speaking with Elizabeth Wein

poeticallyspeaking1Elizabeth Wein is the New York Times Bestselling author of several young adult novels including Code Name Verity which was an honor book for The Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature in 2013 and Rose Under Fire, winner of the Schneider Family Book Award in 2014. Her latest novel Black Dove, White Raven was published in March 2015.

Today Elizabeth is here to discuss the making of “Love Song and Self Portrait” in Rose Under Fire.

Fearful Symmetry – Taking Inspiration from Prisoner Poetry

For a long time I resisted doing the research for Rose Under Fire because I dreaded what I thought I’d find in the personal accounts of the women who survived the Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbrück in northern Germany. I expected horror and despair. When I finally got brave enough to open those pages, I was astonished and humbled by their hope. In retrospect it makes sense that these survivors manage to infuse their harrowing stories with hope: they are survivors. One thing I’ve learned about the camps is that hope was a necessary ingredient to survival—the others being luck and someone to watch your back. Even with all three you might not make it. But without hope, you didn’t stand a chance.

My favorite survivor account is that of Micheline Maurel, a French resistance worker who was imprisoned at Ravensbrück and Neubrandenburg, one of Ravensbrück’s satellite camps, for two years. She writes of a reader’s reaction to a postwar article Maurel wrote about her experiences in the camps, and you’ll recognize the privileged ignorance of her reader as similar to my own:

One respectable lady, commenting… said scornfully, ‘But after all, all you talk about is hunger.’ She had been expecting to learn about torture, execution and rape, and my account was only about bread and wild sorrel.

Of course Maurel is being modest here—one aspect of her account which absolutely amazed me was how she used poetry as a survival tool. Without poetry, there wouldn’t have been any bread or wild sorrel. In fact many of Ravensbrück’s inmates, along with those of other camps, wrote and shared poems to help them through their ordeal; language was one of the few creative outlets which could not be taken away from them, as it’s possible to write poetry in your head and share it in whispers. Maurel found that she was actually able to trade her poems for food, and she felt strongly that her facility for words kept her from starving to death during her imprisonment.

Being a lapsed poet myself, I knew that I wanted my character, Rose, to use poetry during her imprisonment the way Maurel did, and one of the great pleasures of writing Rose Under Fire was reading other prisoners’ poetry and writing Rose’s Ravensbrück poems. Several of them were written during the week I spent at the Eighth Annual European Summer School at Ravensbrück; Rose’s poem “Thanksgiving,” about prison mealtimes, was written while I was sitting on the steps of the original Ravensbrück kitchen block.

An excerpt from one of Maurel’s poems stuck in my mind as being particularly moving, and I couldn’t get it out of my head as I crafted Rose’s verses. Maurel’s poem was written to her fiancé, a Royal Air Force pilot, whose memory also sustained her during her imprisonment, describing her current condition.

Et si j’apparaissais tout à l’heure à ta porte,
Avec ma robe à croix et mes sabots boueux,
Avec mon front de vieille et mon regard le morte…
Que dirions-nous tous deux?

In English it’s something like,

And if all of a sudden I should appear at your door
With my cross-marked dress and my muddy wooden shoes,
With my old woman’s face and my dead gaze,
What would we talk of together?

Elsewhere in her account Maurel mentions that although she would often dream about her sweetheart, over the long months and then years of near-starvation she no longer dreamed of her reunion with him but only of food. If he appeared in her dreams, it was only to offer her bread.

I took this image, and the imagery from Maurel’s poem, and combined it with the rhythm and meter of T.S. Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” (a poem Rose may have known and consciously parodied), in creating Rose’s “Love Song and Self Portrait.” I wrote the poem in an hour, shedding many tears over it. I wish that all my writing was so inspired and absorbing. The tears are worth it when craft and artistry, inspiration and knowledge, come together so effortlessly.


At first I dreamed that you
offered warm arms of comfort and strength,
pulling me close,
your soft lips brushing and kissing my bare head,
all of you loving me,
the nightmare over and the dream come true—
Now I only dream that you
offer me bread.

My dreams still produce you
out of habit, but the sweet
longing for your touch is gone.
I long for nothing from you anymore
but something to eat.

And if I did come back,
what in return could I offer to you,
who used to make so free
with my softness and kisses and verse
as if it were your due?
Imagine me
on your doorstep—would you laugh in the old way
and greet me lovingly:
Hello, it’s been a long time,
how are you today?

I would offer you myself
in mismatched shoes and blood-soaked rags,
shaved scalp all scabs
and face gone gray,
no old woman but a walking ghost
on a skeleton’s frame—
And you would be forced to look away.

There won’t be anything to say.

All my invented characters are deeply creative, and many of them are writers or poets at heart. In my new book, Black Dove, White Raven, the teen characters often escape into a fantasy world of their own creation. As with the poetry in Rose Under Fire, the greatest pleasure I took in creating Black Dove, White Raven was in writing excerpts from my own characters’ invented stories. Black Dove, White Raven was released in the United States and Canada on 31 March 2015.

Resources for further reading:

This “Teacher’s Guide” on Ravensbrück, produced by the Kennesaw State University Museum of History and Holocaust Education in Georgia, contains a section on prisoner poetry: http://historymuseum.kennesaw.edu/educators/ravensbruck.pdf

“Message in a Bottle from the Concentration Camp” on the Tonworte website contains poems and songs from Ravensbrück; the site also contains other links to poetry, music and art in the camp, notably “The Ravensbrück Song.” Originally written in Russian, it was sung with variations throughout the camp and its satellite camps as a symbol of solidarity. The website is looking for translations from other languages: http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.tonworte.de%2Fbildungsangebote%2Fflaschenpost-aus-dem-kz%2F&sandbox=1

Ravensbrück: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp, an ethnology by Jack G. Morrison, contains a chapter on camp poetry: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2434157.Ravensbruck

Quotations are from Ravensbrück by Micheline Maurel, translated from French by Margaret S. Summers; London: Anthony Blond, 1959 (1958).

Thank you again to Elizabeth for this comprehensive and thoughtful post.

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

You can also find my reviews of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire (and my interview with Elizabeth) here on the blog.

Poetically Speaking with Liz from Consumed by Books

poeticallyspeaking2Liz is a librarian who also can be found blogging at Consumed by Books or saying smart and bookish things on twitter where she is @lizpatanders.

Today Liz is sharing her thoughts on Things I Have to Tell You.

I’ve been a writer and reader of poetry since middle school, but despite my enjoyment of it, I always find it a trickier medium to regularly engage with. I tend to only want to read one poem at a time for fear that they’ll bleed together in my mind and I won’t appreciate individual poems by themselves. Sometimes I’ll start a poetry anthology with the hope that I’ll read a poem each night before bed, but in reality, this lasts about two nights.

I was a regular library user as a teenager—I often went because I just loved picking out new books, and I’d usually peruse the new non-fiction for teens. Things I Have to Tell You stuck out to me one day because of its title and cover. I believe I was around fifteen years old when I first discovered it. Even at the time I knew I might grow bored with it and not read all of the pieces in the book. Instead I went home, opened the book, and didn’t stop until I’d read all 63 pages.

I grew up in a small town in the Midwest that was largely populated by upper middle class white people, with some exceptions. My teenage self knew she was smart, bookish, loved to run, and wanted to attend a small liberal arts college with study abroad options. I attended a young writers program one summer because I wanted to. I had a lot of friends who had academic interests and were involved with local youth groups. In terms of appearance, I wasn’t a particularly confident person—I felt like my body was the wrong shape or I couldn’t get a flattering haircut, I looked weird in pictures, my glasses didn’t look the way I wanted them too. Most guys that caught my attention didn’t seem to know I existed, something I wasn’t terribly pleased about.

Picking up a book where young women wrote honestly about the things that were happening in their lives gave me a lot of new perspectives to think about. The topics of these poems varied—they were about feeling sexy, having such a bad hair day that a guy wouldn’t talk to you, drugs, society’s expectations. Each poem or writing varied in tone or style, yet I found one commonality in all of them—these weren’t things girls at my school were talking about. All of these subjects felt taboo. How was I supposed to say how sexy I did or didn’t feel when sexy wasn’t a word that came up often in conversation? How was I supposed to know how drugs felt, as someone who never tried them and didn’t want to? Although these topics felt off limits in daily conversation, I knew that these poems were about everyday experiences. They just weren’t my experiences.

Feminism is a word I thought about in high school, but wasn’t fully ready to explore. Society taught me a lot of messed up things, some of which young girls are still learning today. It taught me to worry about how fat I am and to judge my female peers for their choices. It made me ask myself questions like how the length of a girl’s skirt affected whether or not she was assaulted.

Things I Have to Tell You showed me that I wasn’t listening. I was too busy examining the choices of my peers to see what could be affecting their lives. It was hard for me to see why some girls felt ready for sex when I wasn’t, or how the adults that surround a young person shape him or her. I thought I was just reading great poetry. I didn’t realize that this book was touching my life for the better. I like to think I am not as judgmental today, and that I am a feminist, but I know there are moments when I still slip.

Although this anthology was published in 2001, I am still awed by the talent, writing, and emotion that fills it. Teen girls today still have so much to tell us about their lives, their schools, their parents, their hopes and dreams, and how society could be screwing them up. As adults, there will be one thing we can always do: listen.

Thank you to Liz for this great post.

If you want to see more of her writing, be sure to check out her blog: http://www.consumedbybooks.com

Poetically Speaking with Kat Ellis

poeticallyspeaking1Kat Ellis is the author of Blackfin Sky–a debut fantasy with an eerie circus and lots of fun–which is on Yalsa’s 2015 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list of Mysteries: Murder, Mayhem and Other Misadventures. Kat’s next novel Breaker will be released in Spring 2016.

Today Kat is talking about how Ted Hughes’s ‘The Thought-Fox’ taught her to think like a writer.

The Thought-Fox and Me

(You can also read The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes in its entirety here.)

I remember the first time I came across The Thought-Fox, sitting in class when I was around 10 years old, listening to the teacher read it aloud. From the first line, it stopped me in my tracks (I was most likely carving my initials into the desk or doing something equally productive at the time), and suddenly I was imagining the dark forest, the ticking clock, the writer hunched over a blank page. I’d felt that way before about stories – snared, sucked in by the words – but a poem had never grabbed me like that.

Back then I never read poetry outside of class, and I didn’t know why this poem in particular captured my imagination. Looking back, I wonder if it was because the poem is about writing (even then, I liked to write), and because it so beautifully captures that sensation of a wild thought made tangible through words.

Years later, when I got to study poetry-writing in university, the tutor asked everyone in the group to talk about a poem that inspired them. Even after so long, this was the poem that sprang to my mind. I will admit there was some eye-rolling from the rest of the group – this poem is widely studied in the UK, and everyone else was naming obscure German poets, spoken-word poems about Heavy Subjects, and other things that I still can’t really muster much enthusiasm for. What can I say? I’m mainstream.

But I stood my ground, because The Thought-Fox stirred more feelings in me than any of the others, and still does. Maybe it’s just because I’m a writer. Maybe it’s because a fox jumped out of my head that one time. Or maybe it’s because it’s a bloody good poem.

Thank you again to Kat for this delightful post.

If you’d like to learn more about Kat and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://katelliswrites.blogspot.com

You can also find my review of Blackfin Sky (and my interview with Kat) here on the blog.

Poetically Speaking with Sarah Beth Durst

poeticallyspeaking2Sarah Beth Durst is the award winning novelist of numerous fantasy novels for children, teens and adults. She was awarded the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature in 2013 for her novel Vessel. Sarah’s latest novel for young adults, Chasing Power, was published in 2014. Her new middle grade novel, The Girl Who Could Not Dream will be released in Fall 2015. Sarah is one of my favorite authors to read and also to interview here on the blog as well as a generally delightful person at all of her author events.

Today Sarah is here to share her thoughts on poetry that breaks rules and her lifelong love of Emily Dickinson’s groundbreaking work

I have a photo of me, age two, looking at a book called BOW WOW! MEOW! as if I am in complete and utter shock that books are for more than just chewing on. Technically, I believe this was my first encounter with poetry.

But my first vivid memory of my experience with poetry dates to about age six. I had a babysitter who loved to play school. She’d set up my desk and her teacher’s desk using pillows and tray tables. Line up the pencils. Find a stack of scrap paper. This particular afternoon’s assignment was: write a poem.

And so I did, carefully crafting it in my best handwriting, filling an entire sheet of paper and then decorating it with roses that climbed all around the words. I’m guessing it was a poem about flowers, but for all I know it could have full of existential musings on the ephemeral nature of life… Okay, no, probably flowers. I do remember very clearly how proud I was of that poem.

I trotted over to my babysitter, my masterpiece clutched in my little hands, turned it in, and waited for the praise to flow. Instead, she took a red pen and changed the first letter of every line into a capital letter, because, she said with all the complete self-assurance that a girl a few grades older can possess, in a poem, every line always starts with a capital letter. Always.

But the thing I clearly remember thinking… and keep in mind that I was very much an obey-the-rules goody-two-shoes girl who hated conflict… was that my reaction was: NO.

I don’t think I said it out loud. But I know I felt it loudly, in every bone. No. You’re wrong. Poetry doesn’t have to follow your rules.

I think that’s why, years later, one of my most treasured books was THE COLLECTED POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON. It was one of my few hardcovers at the time, white with roses on it, and I loved it for the way her poems both shaped and broke rules.

I especially loved looking at her original poems in her scrawled handwriting, full of dashes and line breaks and seemingly arbitrary capitalization, without rhyme or any discernible pattern. Yet within this nearly-illegible scrawl were lines that sang in your heart:

Hope is the thing with feathers…

Her poems always felt to me like little gifts, delivered in secret, maybe in a basket with some homemade raspberry jam. Sometimes sad, sometimes soaring, but always heartfelt.

Later, in college, I took a few poetry classes and discovered there’s also beauty in poetry that adheres to rules, such as the villanelle, which has 19 lines and specific rules for repeating rhymes and refrains. But there’s something in the purity of an Emily Dickinson poem that continues to speak to me.

And I believe there’s a lesson in it too, for me as a writer: that writing is a constant mix of using rules and breaking them in order to deliver your heart as a secret little gift to whoever reads your words.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul…

Thank you again to Sarah for this amazing post.

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

You can also find my reviews of Enchanted Ivy, Drink, Slay, Love, Vessel, Conjured, The Lost and Chasing Power here on the blog along with several of my interviews with Sarah.

Poetically Speaking with Lisa Ann Sandell

poeticallyspeaking1Lisa Ann Sandell is the author of The Weight of the Sky and Song of the Sparrow, two lyrical verse novels, as well as the resonant coming of age story A Map of the Known World. Song of the Sparrow is one of my most favorite verse novels and one of the books that inspired me to dedicate April on my blog to National Poetry Month each year.

Lisa is here today to talk about her own discovery of verse novels including Love That Dog by Sharon Creech.

When I was in college, I found myself drawn to the poetry of religion and love and the day-to-day of the medieval and Renaissance English canon. If I had to pinpoint exactly what it was about John Donne and Thomas Mallory, Christopher Marlowe and Geoffrey Chaucer that spoke to me, I would say it was the use of language to subvert the norms of the poets’ respective days, and the way they used language so effectively to tell stories that communicated so much feeling and passion and so much wisdom about what it means to be human. And that their words traveled across the ages and still resonated? Well, all the more impressive and meaningful. The sexiness of Donne’s The Flea – yet how chaste by today’s standards! – was shocking to this eighteen-year-old, whose knowledge of sixteenth century life was minimal at best. But it opened my eyes to the fact that people who lived and wrote and thought and loved four centuries earlier weren’t really any different from people of the twentieth or twenty-first century.

Then, a few years later, when a dear friend and poet in his own right recommended I read Anne Carson’s work, I found it beautiful and challenging. It didn’t speak to me quite so well as Donne and Marlowe had. Still I deeply appreciated the ambition of The Autobiography of Red ­– a whole novel in verse! And then I came to Sharon Creech and Love That Dog and Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, both of which are intended for a much younger reader than I was at the time. But wow, did I love those books. Particularly Love That Dog. Both books are truly stunning and emotionally gripping. But something about the simplicity of Love That Dog, the starkness of so few words on the page and the power of the emotional punch they pack – the words just leaped out of the book and wrapped themselves around my heart. In Love That Dog, Ms. Creech depicts a young boy’s coming to terms with his emotions, with loss, as well with as his feelings about poetry so elegantly, so poignantly…I was deeply moved, frequently to tears. And I was amazed at how using language so economically could be so incredibly powerful.

Which led me to think about how I wanted to write a story that I had been living with for a few years. My first novel, The Weight of the Sky, was loosely based on my own experiences during a summer spent volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel. I had written some bits and pieces — sketches, really — but they were in verse, and I couldn’t imagine linking them together to form a cohesive and coherent story, much less a whole book. But after reading Love That Dog and Out of the Dust, I was inspired to try. The way I knew best to capture the colors and smells and all the sensations that I had felt and wanted to explore through a novel came out in poems. So, once I let go of my fears and inhibitions, I managed to craft a story, which I think hangs together, using the economy of language that verse affords. And then when I sat down to write my second novel, Song of the Sparrow, which is an adaptation of a corner of Arthurian legend, I felt much more comfortable following in the footsteps of my first efforts. And I also liked that some of the earliest tales of Arthur were epic poems; the notion of writing into a tradition or trope was, while perhaps arrogant on some level, truly exciting.

These days, I am busy raising two small children and working full-time, but even now, when I’m harried and exhausted, I look to poetry to ground me, to remind me of all that is real and important in life. I can’t wait to read Love That Dog with my kids.

Thank you again to Lisa for this thoughtful post.

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

You can also find my reviews of A Map of the Known World and Song of the Sparrow here on the blog.

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

Poetically Speaking with Amy from Beastbrarian

poeticallyspeaking1Amy is a YA Librarian who blogs as Beastbrarian. She can also be found on twitter @amydieg.

Amy is here today to talk about the ways in which fandoms, especially Tumblr, have embraced poets and poetry.

An Unconventional Venue

When we think about poetry, many if not most of us imagine some level of traditional sophistication. Museums, libraries, tweed-clad professors, dimly lit cafes. But it isn’t the reality, at least not the whole reality. Similarly, when we think about poetry and teens, the best-case scenario is usually some morose, greasy goth scribbling awful rhymes about their tortured souls. There is one place, at least, where no one might think to look, that you can find teenagers (and adults) engaging actively with poetry: Tumblr.

Though I can’t speak for all users, the presence of poetry, both original and referenced, on Tumblr has been impossible for me to miss. There are, of course, the common and well-loved quotes, posted and reblogged as just that – quotes that stand alone, perhaps with an author citation. More fascinating to me, though has been the way poetry is transformed and created on the social media site so commonly used by people across countries, age ranges, and interests.

There are many original poetry tumblrs in existence, and some are even well-known and loved within the tumblr world. It isn’t wholly uncommon to see a poem, carefully formatted in the frame of the rigid tumblr text post box, and signed (often with a set of initials) by someone you’ve never heard of before. Depending on the quality (perceived or otherwise) it’s tempting to believe that this is a published poet’s work that has been transcribed and poorly accredited by some teenager or other who doesn’t really understand the importance of intellectual property. This was actually how I found out about tumblr’s original poetry scene. After some failed googling and eventual backtracking to the original post, a reader may very well find that the piece was written by a tumblr user and published directly to their blog. There are even tumblrs related solely to reblogging these types of poems, or of posting anonymous ones written and sent to them.

Particularly I find this movement interesting in the realm of teenagers. It is a common joke to talk about teenagers writing bad poetry in their journals, but it does come from a place of truth. Poetry is, in terms of writing privately, an accessible way to explore writing and process feelings. For kids who do get into writing poetry it seems only reasonable that the modern convention so central to their lives – social media – would become part of that. Additionally, depending on the age and community of the user, Tumblr is often a place where one can exercise an interesting version of privacy. Because there is no requirement for providing real names or photos, many people operate with at least some level of anonymity. You can have a tumblr that none of your classmates or family members have any real knowledge of. So even though you may have tons of followers, you are insulated (to a point) from a certain kind of exposure.

What does this have to do with poetry? Poetry is often a very emotional, private medium. It is also one that is hard to judge, especially when looking at one’s own work. So, despite the likelihood of teens writing poetry, most of them will be hesitant to show it to family or peers. There is also the concern that, in general, teens are not taken seriously. But a teen who shares their poems on a tumblr can feel comforted that it may be shared or read without any knowledge of the author’s age, sexual orientation, gender, etc. The risk in seeking praise, validation, or simply a space to share is thus greatly lowered.

In terms of actually engaging with poetry, I want to use the example of a particular poet. The poetry of Richard Siken has been hugely and dynamically embraced by fandoms and the tumblr community. In addition to the simple sharing and appreciating of his work, users have engaged with Siken’s poetry much in the way they do with other content. They incorporate it into fanart, photoshopped graphics for movies and television, even create original graphics and music playlists for the work itself. There is even an annual celebration within the fandom for the show Supernatural called Siken Week (http://sikenweek.tumblr.com), in which fans create media that directly combines the content.

Siken’s poetry, it is worth noting, often has themes of love between two men. There is also an element of subversion often present in fandom, particularly on tumblr. There are lots of interesting discussions about things like the long time prevalence of ‘slash’ (homosexual relationships) and smut (sexually explicit content) in fanfiction. For the above mentioned reasons relating to anonymity, these online spaces are often used to explore ‘taboo’ ideas. Siken’s poetry, then, fits right in. The Supernatural fandom has presumably taken so strongly to it because the two romantic relationships most commonly associated with the fandom (though not necessarily within the show itself) are both male/male. A significant portion of the fanbase is also interested in what is known as ‘wincest’ – the romantic/sexualization possibilities and implications within the largely dysfunctional and codependent relationship between the show’s main character who are brothers.

It is not Supernatural alone, however. A quick search of recent posts on tumblr tagged with the word ‘siken‘ yields fan creations for everything from Orphan Black to The Hobbit.

Not only are these modern audiences aware of and enjoying poetry, but they are actively engaged with it. The same teens who may be groaning over Emerson reading assignments at school are spending hours in front of their computers interpreting, changing, layering, and dissecting other poetry.

There are a lot of questions that come up when we think through these things. For me, though, the most important thing to take is a realization: poetry shouldn’t live on a pedestal. I’m sure more than one stodgy old professor would be HORRIFIED to see a classic poem photoshopped over a scene from Teen Wolf, but me? I think it’s absolutely beautiful.

Thank you to Amy for this insightful post! I definitely have a lot of new poetry to explore now!

If you want to see more of her, be sure to check out her blog: http://amydieg.wordpress.com

Poetically Speaking with Eden from Blogging Between the Lines

poeticallyspeaking2Eden is a Teen Librarian and YA Lit reviewer. You can find her on Twitter –@edynjean– and Blogging Between the Lines. Eden also contributes to Teen Services Underground and YA Books Central.

Eden is here today to share her suggestions for leading a poetry workshop for young people.

Running a poetry workshop or writing group for teens and pre-teens can be a very fun and rewarding experience. Teens have a wealth of creativity, and you can show them ways to tame their wild imaginations.

You want to show the participants that creative writing takes work and that creative work can be fun. As the instructor, you are the fun generator. You are the one teasing out their creativity into tangible words and lines – helping these kids make something completely new and original (at least to them!). Keep that in mind if you feel frustrated or stifled during the workshop.

There are a million different ways to run a poetry workshop for kids and teens, so I’m just going to go over some of my favorite creativity-generating activities. I always start my workshops with idea-generators, weird activities to get the participants thinking in new and strange ways. It keeps them thinking, gets their brains active, and helps them create outside the lines they’ve placed around themselves.

Fun strategies for generating poem ideas:

  • Post a list of numbered words on the wall and roll dice to choose words to use.
  • Purchase Sobe drinks for the participants and write the sayings on the insides of the bottle caps on a whiteboard or easel, then use those phrases in a poem.
    • For a challenge, construct a poem just out of the Sobe cap phrases.
  • For a descriptive poem, challenge the participants to write about another person in the room, without using any anatomical terms.
  • Free write based on sound or images put together in a slide show.

Another important thing to get across when working on poetry with pre-teens and teens, whether in a classroom, library, or home setting is that writing is always a work in progress. The words will not spill out of your hand and onto the blank page fully formed into perfect prose. It takes time, effort, and many revisions before a poem is completed. In some cases, a poem may be constantly revised – never finished.

Emphasize the concept that writing is a process, it takes work and thought and effort, and that the teens should not expect to write a final piece in one sitting.

Techniques & activities for revising poetry:

  • Play vocabulary musical chairs: give everyone a word, play the music, and when you stop pair everyone up and create a compound word that you write on a whiteboard or easel.
    • This shows the teens creative use of words that wouldn’t normally belong together.
  • Rewrite the poem backwards and think about how the meaning changes. Encourage the teen to move lines around – the poem is more like a puzzle than a script.
  • Rewrite the poem onto a new sheet of paper, changing a single thing (word choice, word order, punctuation, etc) per line.
  • Read poems aloud. Hearing a poem aloud is very different from hearing it only inside your own head.
    • If the teen doesn’t like public speaking, read poems anonymously, or have the instructor read them all.

Whether the workshop is run in a school, library, home, community center, or youth group, the instructor should always keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to create and have fun. Those are both equally important goals of the workshop!

Recommended Reading:

Empowering Young Writers: The “Writers Matter” Approach by Deborah S. Yost, Robert Vogel & Kimberly E. Lewinski

Fearless Writing: Multigenre to Motivate and Inspire by Tom Romano

Don’t Forget to Write — for the Secondary Grades: 50 Enthralling and Effective Writing Lessons by Jennifer Traig

Rip the Page! Adventures in Creative Writing by Karen Benke

Thank you to Eden for this instructive post!

If you want to see more of her writing, be sure to check out her blog: http://edynjean.wordpress.com

Poetically Speaking with Molly from Wrapped Up in Books

poeticallyspeaking1Molly is a collection development librarian specializing in graphic novels and young adult literature. She also blogs about teen librarianship and books at  Wrapped Up in Books.

She’s here today to talk about poetry in translation, specifically Federico Garcia Lorca.

I remember the first time I ever read a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca. It was a cool September day my freshman year of college, and the windows to my Spanish 111 class were open to welcome a breeze. Every class had a cultural lesson to accompany whatever vocabulary and conjugations we were studying, and on that day, we were reading Lorca’s most famous poem, “Sleepwalking Ballad”:

Green I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship on the sea
and the horse upon the hill.
With her waist wrapped in shadow
she dreams on her veranda,
green flesh, green hair,
with eyes of frozen silver.
Green I want you green.
Beneath the gypsy moon,
things keep watching her,
and she cannot see them.

Before I discovered Spanish poetry, studying the language had always been a burden. But as soon as I started reading Lorca, I wanted to unravel the mysteries of his words. Studying dual language editions of poetry taught me more about the importance of accent marks and verb tenses and helped me understand the subtle effects of different word choice than any drills or worksheets ever did.

I went on to read lots of poetry in translation: Lope de Vega, Miguel de Unamuno, Jorge Manrique, Pablo Neruda, Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, San Juan de la Cruz, Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Antonio Machado, Rafael Alberti, Pedro Salinas. But Lorca remains my favorite.

federicogarcialorcaLorca was born in Granada, Spain just before the dawn of the twentieth century and came of age in Madrid, where he studied alongside men who would become some of the most influential Spanish artists of their time, such as Salvador Dali and Manuel de Falla. Though he wrote about poverty in America and traveled extensively in Latin America, he, and most of his work, embodied the south of Spain, the Mediterranean coast, and the history of his people and their connection to the land.

There’s a reason why Lorca is my favorite: most of his poetry is about sex or death, with imagery expressed with startling and private metaphors. The spine of my Collected Poems is worn because I often pause when passing my bookshelf to pull it off and read a few stanzas. His poetry is visceral, magical, haunting. It tugs at your soul and speaks of the secrets of the universe.

my lorca library

Lorca wrote in a variety of forms, from traditional sonnets and suites, to more experimental styles, like the prose-poem “In the Garden of Lunar Grapefruits” (“In the Forest of Lunar Grapefruits” is also great) or surrealist dramatic poetry like “Trip to the Moon.” In addition to writing poetry, Lorca produced several celebrated plays, from his first A Butterfly’s Evil Spell, to his most famous, Blood Wedding. He also wrote essays, especially on duende, the heightened emotional state where true, authentic art emerges.

Some of his most startling works are from his time in New York, where he witnessed the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. He became critical of capitalism and materialism. He advocated for the marginalized and his poems speak of race relations in New York.

lorca exhibit nypl

In fact, in 2013 I had the chance to view an exhibit at the New York Public Library that offered an intimate glimpse into Lorca’s life and shed light on the many ways the city influenced his work. There were photographs, artifacts, drawings, and letters. The most gut-wrenching item in the collection is a handwritten note Lorca left atop the Poet in New York manuscript at his editor’s desk. “Back tomorrow,” it said. But he never did come back. He was called to the countryside, then taken from his family’s home, and murdered by Franco’s regime more because of his sexuality than his politics.

Readers interested in learning more about Lorca’s life and work should check out two definitive biographies: Federico García Lorca: A Life by by Ian Gibson and Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stanton. You could start with Selected Verse if the huge Collected Poems is intimidating, but really, it’s nice to have it all. I’d also recommend the fictionalized movie of Federico García Lorca’s relationship with Salvador Dalí in the movie Little Ashes.

Poetry is the arrangement of language where sound is as important as meaning. Learning the sounds of words through reciting poetry was the only way I ever enjoyed the process of learning a language. Even after going six semesters of Spanish in college and going to grad school for Latin American Studies, I have only a basic listening and speaking skills, but because of my time spent reading poetry, I read pretty well. But, when pouring over Lorca’s poetry, feel a kinship with him, for he never mastered English, but still appreciated the rhythm and beauty of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”.

Thank you to Molly for this great post and reminding me how much I loved reading Lorca’s poetry in high school!

If you want to see more of her, be sure to check out her blog: http://wrappedupinbooks.org

Poetically Speaking with Justina Chen

poeticallyspeaking2Justina Chen is the award winning author of numerous novels for young adults including North of Beautiful which was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus and Barnes & Noble. Her most recent novel, A Blind Spot for Boys, was published in 2014. Justina is also an author I have followed since her debut Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) which is one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog.

Justina is here today with an interview with Janet S. Wong and Sylvia Vardell about their poetry anthologies.

As National Poetry Month rolls around, I think not just about my favorite poem—Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou—but about the women in my life who are phenomenal. Phenomenal in the way they live—fierce and full. Phenomenal in the way they love—with passion and loyalty. And phenomenal in the way they create—with honesty and courage.

One of my mentors, Janet Wong, is one such phenomenal woman and poet. She’s a former lawyer who has become one of the most acclaimed children’s poets, writing 30 books for children and teens on a wide variety of subjects. When I was first starting to write, she swooped over to me, reading, critiquing, and editing my manuscripts. Introducing me to editors. And then launching my career when I was published by spearheading my first massive book tour alongside herself and Grace Lin. Appropriately, we called that tour, Hi-YAH! Asian American authors speak out!

What better way to celebrate National Poetry Month than to shine a spotlight on not one, but two phenomenal and poetic forces of nature? Janet, in collaboration with Professor Sylvia Vardell, has created a number of much-loved poetry anthologies. I was so delighted to interview them for Miss Print’s readers.

Justina Chen: Why is poetry important today?

Sylvia Vardell: People are pressed for time, today more than ever. Kids are stressed out—parents and teachers, too. Poetry is short. Poetry is cleansing. Thirty seconds and you feel better. Whatever you need, there’s a poem.

Janet S. Wong: If not, it takes just 5 minutes to write a first draft of one (maybe not the perfect poem, but one that will help get your mind in the right place). Whether you’re a listener, a reader, or a writer, a poem offers a snapshot that sticks in your mind with words that also touch the heart.

Justina: Why do you think there’s been such an enthusiastic embracing of your poetry anthologies?

Janet: We make it easy to teach poetry—and to use poetry to teach other content areas like science and social studies. Many teachers feel like they are being buried under the Common Core and state standards. A ton to teach and not enough time.

Sylvia: Suppose you’re a middle school teacher and you’re teaching irony tomorrow. You can use a three-page essay or you can use “Texas, Out Driving” by Naomi Shihab Nye from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School (with a simple five-step “Take 5!” mini-lesson). Naomi’s poem, of course! Suppose you’re a student who needs to learn about irony. Which one would you rather read? Poetry is a win-win for both teachers and students. We provide a framework for infusing skills (like teaching alliteration, metaphor, and form) while celebrating the fun of poetry, too.

Justina: How have schools used your poetry anthologies?

Janet: One neat thing that schools are doing is taking advantage of the weekly themes in our books. In the first three books—The Poetry Friday Anthology (K-5), The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (K-5)—a whole school can read a poem on the same theme each week.

Sylvia: This is especially great if kids read poems during morning announcements; everyone can get excited about animal poems or food poems or weather poems at the same time. It helps build a sense of community while showcasing beautiful language and promoting literacy learning.

Justina: What has been the most surprising or most unexpected outcomes from creating your poetry anthologies?

Sylvia: We’ve heard from so many teachers and librarians who have said: “I’ve been avoiding poetry for 20 years because I didn’t know how to teach it—but now I do!”

Janet: We’ve had standing-room-only conference sessions where only a handful of people know the names of any poets. There are plenty of outstanding poetry books for people who love poetry.

Sylvia: Our books are for people who don’t love it—yet! We like to think we’re putting the “try” back into “poetry!”

Justina: What are you working on next?

Janet: The newest book is The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations, 156 holiday poems in English (with the same poems presented in Spanish). It just came out a few weeks ago, in a Teacher/Librarian edition and also an illustrated children’s edition.

Sylvia: Now that the book is finished, we’re building a bunch of transmedia projects to enhance the book. In the next few months, we hope to:

  1. Post videos of poets reading poems online at PoetryCelebrations.com
  2. Give kids Pocket Poems™cards to print and trade
  3. Put together Poetry Celebration kits
  4. Maybe even make temporary Poetry Tattoos!

Justina: How can we support your efforts?

Sylvia: Visit PoetryCelebrations.com and start a Poetry Party at your school or library.

Janet: Tell your favorite bookseller that the Children’s Book Council is including Pomelo Books in its program for National Children’s Book Week (May 4-10) with an event kit for The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations. Booksellers can download all kinds of neat things in this event kit at the CBC website (cbcbooks.org). So get set to celebrate!

  • Sylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University and has taught graduate courses in children’s and young adult literature at various universities since 1981. Vardell has published extensively, including five books on literature for children, as well as over 25 book chapters and 100 journal articles. Her current work focuses on poetry for children, including a regular blog, PoetryforChildren, since 2006.
  • Janet Wong is a graduate of Yale Law School and a former lawyer who switched careers and became a children’s poet. Her dramatic career change has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and other shows. She is the author of 30 books for children and teens on a wide variety of subjects.
  • Together they are the team behind Pomelo Books and The Poetry Friday Anthology series (PomeloBooks.com).

Thank you again to Justina for this amazing post.

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

You can also find my reviews of Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies), Girl Overboard and North of Beautiful here on the blog.