Friday, April 22, 2011

Joan Bransfield Graham, April Halprin Wayland and Janet Wong on Writing Poetry

Today I'm pleased to present Part One of a Q & A with acclaimed poets Joan Bransfield Graham, April Halprin Wayland and Janet Wong, (my fellow members in the Children's Authors Network). All three have poems out in the brand new Poetry Tag Time ebook.

Happy Poetry Month and Poetry Friday!

What is the challenge of writing poetry for children?

Janet: The hardest part of writing is knowing when to stop, which draft to choose. Most children like bouncy, silly rhymes, so it takes discipline to choose a more subtle approach. It's sort of like choosing between serving chicken nuggets and chicken soup.

April: To get quiet inside and find the real, the true.
To get past the obvious, to not write superficially.
That's the challenge of writing anything. It's all the same.
To be clear but not corny. Be accessible but don't underestimate the audience.

Joan: The challenge of writing poetry for children is to be original, capture a moment in time, create the poem you've never read before, connect with readers and make them say--"Oh, YES!" Each poem should be an act of discovery that surprises the senses, shakes you awake, and startles your imagination.

Which poets are your influences, and what about them do you admire?

Janet: Myra Cohn Livingston nurtured and "created" so many of us; she will forever be The Grandest Teacher of Children's Poets (and the most generous). She would go to great lengths to help new poets connect with editors (once you'd demonstrated some serious effort).

April: I love so many writers. I have to say that I love Janet Wong for her originality, for the often casual, conversational tone of her work. I love Joan Bransfield Graham for her use of language and for always finding a new way to look at things. My mother used to read Ogden Nash to us. In fact, I was named for his poem, "Always Marry an April Girl," which my parents would say aloud to me often. I love the way he invents words and his humor. I love e.e.cummings for his fanciful flights of poetry. I fell in love with Lawrence Ferlinghetti when I was thirteen. I loved his book, A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND.

Joan: I've always admired Valerie Worth's use of metaphor and David McCord's and Eve Merriam's wordplay. Richard Wilbur and Mary Oliver provide such stunning imagery, as does Billy Collins, whose perspective and humor are a constant surprise and delight. I was fortunate to be able to study with Myra Cohn Livingston in her Master Class at UCLA--along with Janet and April. What an amazing group--we learned so much from each other!

What is one of the most "autobiographical" poems you've written? Why does it have special meaning for you?

Janet: In GOOD LUCK GOLD (out-of-print, but I will be bringing it back to life soon in Kindle form) there is a poem called "Dad," where I say that my father is like a turtle. When he's mad, he snaps and pulls into his shell. It's becoming quite autobiographical because my own "turtle tendencies" are growing stronger each year--my son can tell you all about that!

April: EVERY one is in some way autobiographical. I've written poetry for many years and one poem a day for over a I have too many to choose from! Whine, whine, whine... : ^ )

Joan: At first I did not realize this, but my books SPLISH SPLASH and FLICKER FLASH are very autobiographical! Growing up on a barrier island along the southern coast of New Jersey, I loved the ocean, boats, the salty air, the sound and rhythm of the waves. What was my first book? Water poems. For years I've studied photography, and I'm always conscious of the interplay of light and shadow. Before digital I developed my own black and white prints in the darkroom, where I saw the effects of light take shape. My next book? Poems about light. Philosopher Immanuel Kant said, "We see things not as they are, but as we are."

Any tips for classroom teachers on how to integrate poetry into the curriculum?

Janet: Here are three tips: 1) Build your own Poetry Suitcase; read why at;

2) Have kids write poems on endangered animals and send them to me via (where you'll find more info about what we're doing to build awareness of endangered animals and how we're donating money to help protect them; a good discussion topic for Earth Day); and

3) please visit our blog where Sylvia Vardell shares amazing poetry tips on a daily basis!

April: Go to -- six children's authors who also teach writing. On most Fridays, which is "Poetry Friday" in the Kidlitosphere, one of us has posted poetry and a writing tip.

And here's another tip: be present. That's what I've learned in writing a poem a day. I've learned that for me, the way to net today's poem is to tune in: what am I feeling? What is that kid is saying? What does the smell of her peanut butter cookie remind me of?

Ask yourself what feels interesting in class today? Can I condense this into a poetry prompt? Maybe you're teaching cursive writing and you've talked about forming the curve of a letter.

Ask the class to become aware of other curves in class, then brainstorm a list of things with curves on the board (a swimming pool, the arch of a doorway, a macaroni noodle, a cat's tail...).

Then have each student make their own list of 5-10 things that curve...if there's time, let them walk around the school campus looking for ideas or eat their lunches and think about curves, then come back and write their list.

Then have them pick one thing from their list to explore in a poem.

Because rhyming can take you away from what you want to say and force you in another direction, you might ask them to avoid rhyming this time.

Why did they pick that particular item from their list? Ask them to think about why it's interesting and how they can weave details of it into the poem so that it will be interesting to readers.

Then stand on your head when you read their poems aloud.

Just kidding.

Joan: Each poem creates its own small world with vivid imagery and vigorous verbs . . . perfect to tuck into so many areas of the curriculum. Since I do lots of school visits and am a former teacher, I know that my poems in SPLISH SPLASH and FLICKER FLASH have been used to open science units on water and light, to inspire students to write their own concrete poetry, and to spotlight "word art" for art classes. You can find Teacher Idea Sheets on my Web site: I've had many teachers tell me that my shape poems--since they are so visual--work well for their ESL students . . . providing clues to help decode words. I love the "Poetry Break" idea, where someone pops into each classroom to share a poem. You should always have a Poem in Your Pocket, and every month should be Poetry Month! All the lessons poetry teaches enhance any kind of writing you choose to do.

This is Part One of the Q & A. (Joan, April and Janet will talk about their writing process in Part Two, which I'll post next Friday.)

The Poetry Friday round-up is hosted today by Book Aunt.


  1. Wow! I will have to save this so I can re-read it. Lots of good thoughts and ideas here. Thanks!

  2. This was fabulous! Thank you for hosting, Michelle, and April, Janet and Joan for participating. Can't wait for Part II!

    P.S. To April: I recently had poet David Budbill on my blog, and he said the exact same thing about A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND -- I must check this book out!

  3. This was fabulous! Thank you for hosting, Michelle, and thank you to April, Janet and Joan for sharing your thoughts. Can't wait for Part II~

    P.S. To April: I recently had poet David Budbill on my blog, and he had the same praise for A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND (and Ferlinghetti) -- I must check out this book!

  4. Thank you, Michelle, for inviting us to be part of this interview. One thing that I love is how different our answers are from each other's. And: April...named after an Ogden Nash poem...who would've known? So, poetry was in your blood from the very start!

  5. Wonderful interview. Writing poetry was one of my first passions. One thing April said really resonated with me, "To get past the obvious, to not write superficially. That's the challenge of writing anything. It's all the same."

    This is something I intend to keep in the forefront of my mind while I plod along on my WIP - a novel in prose.

  6. Thanks to these three dynamic poets for the insights - looking forward to round two! - and to Michelle for hosting. What a treat. (And, April, I loved learning that your name had a poetic source, too!)

  7. On the subject of "getting past the obvious," April . . . would you mind if I posted here part of your World Wide Wag poem? I'm guessing that getting past the obvious here was not really a matter of GETTING there, but letting yourself wander there, and then realizing what a great place you'd found. For me as a reader, I feel that you succeeded with that poem because parts of it have worked their way into my head as an earworm, lyrics that pop into my head and bounce-bounce-bounce for hours!

  8. Joan: I'm so glad that you mention how SPLISH SPLASH and FLICKER FLASH have been used with science units on water and light. So many children's books can be used in areas of the curriculum other than language arts, even if just for 5 minutes of the day (such as Michelle's own TYRANNOSAURUS MATH). And there are areas of the curriculum such as character education that can only really be taught through literature. How, for instance, to teach "making a new beginning for yourself"--certainly an important part of life? Reading April's NEW YEAR AT THE PIER! I feel like the Whole Language movement has kind of stalled (understandable given all the demands on a teacher's day)...but it would be great to revive it and get a new generation of teachers inspired!

  9. Wow, Michelle--I love reading the different answers to each question...and each question was terrific. Thanks so much!

  10. Amanda- I also was a big CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND fan back in the day. (Time to reread). Janet- I agree wholeheartedly- lit reaches kids' hearts and is a wonderful way to teach across the curriculum. Thanks again to April and Joan...and to the other commenters for stopping by!

  11. Michelle, thanks for your invitation! Yes, Janet, often people think science and poetry are poles apart, but they can do a terrific tango. They are both about observation. The same divergent thinking that can take us to the moon can help us write a poem on earth. I feel fortunate to have so many inspiring poetry friends like Janet and April!