Poetically Speaking with Blythe Woolston

poeticallyspeaking1Blythe Woolston makes things out of words. Things made of words like MARTians, her latest novel. Her debut YA novel, THE FREAK OBSERVER, earned the William C. Morris Award. BLACK HELICOPTERS, a novel about terror and terrorism, earned a Montana Book Award honor and the High Plains Book Award for YA. She is represented by Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary. Blythe also writes back-of-the-book indexes.

Today I’m re-posting one of Blythe’s poetry posts found on her blog: http://blythewoolston.blogspot.com

Scissors: Clumsy Language for Poetry Friday

I’m a physically clumsy person. That clumsiness extends to meter in poetry.

Angus did this beautiful thing with some of my scissors.

Scissors. Scissors choose up sides.
One along the other glides.
Blades together balance sums
on the fulcrum of the thumb,
and the fingers curling, grip,
guide the shearing, clipping snip.

But if you are handed-left,
then the cutting’s not so deft.
Cloth folds droop and paper rips.
Perfect turns to crazy dips;
ragged edges so not neat,
mark you different in defeat.

This week poetry Friday is hosted by

The Poem Farm.  Visit for more poetry.
Amy’s dedication and experimentation
is inspiring to me.

Thank you again to Blythe for the chance to share this post which was originally published on her blog here: http://blythewoolston.blogspot.com/2010/12/scissors-practice-poetry-without.html

If you’d like to learn more about Blythe and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://www.blythewoolston.net

Poetically Speaking with Nova Ren Suma

poeticallyspeaking2Nova Ren Suma is the critically acclaimed author of several novels for young adults including Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone–two mysterious novels imbued with elements of magic realism. Both Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone were named Outstanding Books for the College Bound by YALSA in 2014. Her latest novel The Walls Around Us was released in March 2015 and has already received numerous starred reviews and critical acclaim.

Today Nova is talking about her love of Anne Sexton’s poetry and the role Sexton’s poetry almost played in The Walls Around Us.

On Anne Sexton

A long time ago, before I began writing novels, I wanted to be a poet. I was seventeen, eighteen, still in high school and on the edge of becoming an adult and starting my real life. Back then this felt like a dangerous thing to want to be: Not everyone survived it.

Only, I didn’t know how to survive without it.

I wrote awkward, painfully autobiographical poems in my notebooks and typed them up on my word processor, the keys pounding out every word and beat and note to make them feel more powerful. I typed up other poets’ work, too, and pasted them to the walls of my bedroom. The poet who took up the most space on my walls—and in my heart at that time—was Anne Sexton.

I was
the girl of the chain letter,
the girl full of talk of coffins and keyholes,
the one of the telephone bills,
the wrinkled photo and the lost connections,
the one who kept saying —
Listen! Listen!
We must never! We must never!
and all those things . . .

(from “Love Song” by Anne Sexton)

Her collection of poetry kept the most coveted spot on my shelf: closest to my bed. Phrases and whole stanzas were underlined, titles starred, the corners of page after page turned down. I wasn’t obsessed with her suicide—this was a thing I wouldn’t let myself think about too often, couldn’t face… I wanted so badly to escape and to live my life—it was her words that connected me. Her confessions. I would read her poems again and again, aloud to friends and whispering to myself, alone in my room. I thought I could see into them. More than that, I thought she could see into me.

How she spoke about being a girl. About growing up to be a woman. About a kind of madness I recognized coiling inside myself. It was terrifying and honest, almost too honest, and I couldn’t look away.

I am unbalanced — but I am not mad with snow.
I am mad the way young girls are mad,
with an offering, an offering . . .

I burn the way money burns.

(from “The Breast” by Anne Sexton)

When I was writing my newest novel The Walls Around Us (Algonquin, March 2015), part of which takes place in a girls’ juvenile detention center where the only thing that can save some of the girls is a book from the library, I decided to slip in some pieces of what saved me.

I wanted to include short epigraphs at the head of every new section from an author or poet that deeply influenced me as a young person and as a developing writer. Margaret Atwood is there. Edna St. Vincent Millay is there. I wanted Anne Sexton to be there.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to secure the permission, but I still see her words there, ghostly and shimmering, which if you read the book is fitting.

Maybe it’s for the best, because I had such trouble choosing which poem to quote from. There were so many that felt so imperative to me back then and felt connected to my story. Finally, I settled on one, just one, among so many. This was the one that would have ended up inside the book:

The sky breaks.
It sags and breathes upon my face.
in the presence of mine enemies, mine enemies
The world is full of enemies.
There is no safe place

(from “Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn” by Anne Sexton)

I may not have been able to secure an Anne Sexton quote for my novel, but it doesn’t matter. Even though I gave up poetry in favor of writing novels (truth is, I couldn’t shut myself up), it’s her words that led me to write the words I do today.

A woman who writes feels too much,
those trances and portents!
As if cycles and children and islands
weren’t enough; as if mourners and gossips
and vegetables were never enough.
She thinks she can warn the stars.
A writer is essentially a spy.
Dear love, I am that girl.

(from “The Black Art” by Anne Sexton)

Because of Anne Sexton, I became that girl, too.

Thank you again to Nova for this beautiful post.

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

You can also find my reviews of Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone (and my interview with Nova) here on the blog.

Poetically Speaking with Nicole the Book Bandit

poeticallyspeaking2Nicole is a librarian who blogs at The Book Bandit’s Blog where she reviews YA books as well as select middle grade and picture book titles. You might recognize Nicole as a round 2 judge for the 2014 Cybils awards in YA fiction. Nicole is also my real life BFF and constant companion for book adventures both real and online.

Nicole is stopping by the blog today to wrap up Poetically Speaking with her thoughts on Sylvia Plath.

I was introduced to Sylvia Plath in high school. If I remember correctly, I was taking a creative writing course, and we moved into the poetry portion of the class. We learned about the greats – Ginsberg, Dickinson, and Angelou. We learned who the beats were and what they stood for. We learned about the classical poets who paved the way. We learned why the caged bird sang. But me, I learned about Plath. And the more I learned – both inside and outside of the classroom – the more I found the poet that lived inside of me.

I read The Bell Jar in a few short sittings. I gobbled up poem after poem learning and understanding all I could about this fascinating woman. It was through my reading that I eventually stumbled upon “Mad Girl’s Love Song.” My reaction to this poem can be summed up in two words: blown away.

Mad Girl’s Love Song” left a lasting impression on me – as an aspiring writer, as a reader, and as a poetry-loving person. And the reason why it left such a strong impression on me was because I honestly felt that for the first time I understood what it meant to show, not to simply tell. When I read Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song” the imagery was striking. After reading this poem I knew the kind of writer I wanted to be – daring, imaginative, and descriptive. I learned through Plath’s poem to write, not just with my head, but with my heart. I learned the importance of painting an picture, figuratively speaking.

Not only did this brief poem leave a lasting impression, it quickly became a favorite. And it’s a favorite because I learned so much from it. Beyond that, I love that how the one line “I think I made you up inside my head,” really drives home that idea of being “mad.” And still, for whatever reason it’s a favorite simply because of the connection I feel when reading it.

Mad Girl’s Love Song

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Thank you to Nicole for this post and reminding me of one of my favorite poems by an exceptionally talented poet.

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

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.