Believe it or not—I first heard about Janet Wong when I was traveling with a Children’s Literature and Language Arts Delegation in the People’s Republic of China in the autumn of 1994. One of the other delegates, with whom I became friends, was a professor at a college in Southern California. She was all excited when she told me about this “talented new Chinese American author” who had just published her first collection of children’s poems entitled Good Luck Gold. Of course, I had to have the book! I’m always looking for bright new voices in children’s poetry. I ordered Good Luck Gold soon after I returned home.
In Good Luck Gold and in her second book, A Suitcase of Seaweed, Janet reflected on her years growing up as an Asian-American child. Both books received the prestigious Claremont Stone Center Recognition of Merit Award. Here is the first poem from Good Luck Gold:
Good Luck Gold
By Janet Wong
(Poem copyright 1994 by Janet Wong. Good Luck Gold published by M. K. McElderry, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division. All rights reserved.)
When I was a baby
one month old,
my grandparents gave me
good luck gold:
a golden ring
so soft it bends,
a golden necklace
hooked at the ends,
a golden bracelet
with coins that say
I will be rich
and happy someday.
I wish that gold
I need my luck
Janet had me hooked with her first collection. I’ve bought every poetry book that she has published since then. Janet writes not only poetry that speaks to her ethnic heritage (Chinese and Korean), she also writes of one’s unconscious imagination in Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams. She writes about relationships in her book The Rainbow Hand: Poems About Mothers and Children, which was the recipient of a Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor. Janet’s most recent collection, Twist: Yoga Poems, was written for her friend Julie Paschkis, the award-winning children’s picture book illustrator. Julie loves doing yoga—so Janet wrote a book of poems about different yoga poses, which Julie illustrated. (Click here to read my review of Twist: Yoga Poems and my interview with Janet and Julie.)
I had the great pleasure of meeting Janet at a Children’s Literature Institute at Simmons College in Boston several summers ago. Since that time, Janet and I have become friendly. I have gotten to know this woman who is a tiny, determined dynamo and force of nature. She’s a talented writer and a great speaker—straightforward, ebullient, and funny. She has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and, in 2003, was invited to read her picture book Apple Pie Fourth of July as part of the Easter festivities at the White House. I have no doubt in my mind that Janet Wong could accomplish anything she sets her mind to.
About the Interview
Janet and I decided to focus my interview with her on her experience as a student in a master class on poetry taught by the late Myra Cohn Livingston, one of America’s foremost children’s poets and anthologists. In addition to Janet, other students in the class included April Halprin Wayland, Tony Johnston, Ann Whitford Paul, Joan Bransfield Graham, Alice Schertle, and Kristine O’Connell George.
INTERVIEW WITH JANET WONG
Elaine: You were a student in the master class in poetry that the late Myra Cohn Livingston taught at UCLA. How did you come to know Myra and when did you become interested in writing poetry for children?
Janet: I heard Myra speak at a one-day UCLA Extension seminar, an “everything you need to know about writing a children’s book” class. I didn’t want to write poetry; I was there to hear an editor speak about the acquisition process.
When I heard Myra, I knew I could learn something from her. She was so confident and smart, and clearly a demanding teacher. Myra taught a Beginning Poetry class through UCLA Extension and also a Master Class (which was invitation-only). I signed up for her class in Beginning Poetry after receiving a pile of rejection letters. I had decided that it was time to learn to write for children—to learn about rhyme, repetition, and rhythm, poetic devices that would help me write a picture book. Picture books were my passion, and I simply wanted to use poetry to “sharpen my prose.” I only became interested in writing poetry for publication several months later, once I’d started raiding the 811 shelf at the library (fifty books at a time, at Myra ’s urging) and had fallen in love with poetry.
The next term I was invited to take the Master Class—because of luck, the bad luck of Ruth Bornstein (author/illustrator of the simple but brilliant book Little Gorilla), who had to skip the term because of a family emergency. It was truly incredibly good luck for me: many people had waited for years to get into the Master Class, yet I was invited to take Ruth’s spot very soon, probably because I happened to talk to Myra shortly after Ruth called her. Tony Johnston, Alice Schertle, Monica Gunning, April Halprin Wayland, Ann Whitford Paul, Kristine O’Connell George, Deborah Chandra, Joan Bransfield Graham, and more: this was quite an accomplished and talented group!
Elaine: Can you tell us anything about your experience in Myra’s class?
Janet: During class, we would go around the room and we would read a homework poem aloud, in rapid succession, without explanation. If someone started to apologize or give background info, they would be interrupted and reminded of the rule. Then we’d return to hear some poems again, and discuss briefly which parts we remembered. This was an excellent way to teach form and rhythm; after hearing a dozen poems that used anapest or a dozen sonnets, you’d have a great feel for what that rhythm or form was all about.
For the rhythm exercises, Myra would allow us to break a rhythm only if we could explain why. For instance, I might break a bunch of happy anapests with an iamb to draw attention to a couple of words that were more poignant. I rarely write in set forms and strict rhythms now, but these exercises gave me a great education, and many of my free verse poems do have a loose rhythmic structure that holds the poem together.
One exercise that Myra used to do every few months was a “grading” exercise—which helped spur a discussion of what makes a poem good. She would read a stack of poems in rapid succession, not identifying the poet, and we’d make a list of grades. When you don’t know that a poem is written by a “brand name” poet, you sometimes give his poems lower grades than you would if you knew. After our grades were marked, we’d go back over the poems, hear them and discuss them. I felt, early on, that I had such “McDonald’s taste” in poems, while Alice Schertle’s taste was clearly “gourmet.” After studying with Myra for about two years, I was finally able to give grades that matched Alice’s. My taste had “developed”—either that, or I had become really good at guessing which poems I was supposed to like!
Elaine: What kinds of writing assignments did Myra give her students to work on at home?
Janet: Myra’s weekly homework assignments usually required us to write a half-dozen poems: a poem using a certain metrical structure (iamb, trochee, dactyl, or anapest), another poem in a certain form (villanelle, triolet, limerick, tanka, etc.), a haiku (always a haiku), a poem on a certain subject theme, poems exploring voice or another technique (assonance, consonance, alliteration, personification, metaphor, simile).
One of my favorite homework assignments was the “voice change” exercise. If we had written a poem in a third-person narrative voice, we’d have to do a second poem in the first-person lyrical voice. After that, we’d write versions in the voice of the mask, and apostrophe, and conversation. The change of voice often resulted in fresh new language and insights. For instance: a narrative poem about the wind might simply describe a scene where the wind blows the hat off a girl’s head. In the lyrical version, the girl might talk about losing her hat to the wind. In the voice of the mask, though, the poet would become the wind, and all of a sudden new ideas might arise: perhaps the wind is no longer just “blowing” but actually “stealing” the coveted hat. Using apostrophe, the girl would talk to the wind, and might plead with it to return her hat, or might threaten or cajole. In a conversation version, the girl and wind (or girl and hat) might scream at each other, or tease. The voice change exercise reliably creates elements and introduces words that will not arise in the course of revising a poem over and over in one voice only.
Another favorite homework assignment is explained in Myra’s book I Am Writing a Poem About…, sadly out-of-print but available at many libraries. Young poets raised on the Magnetic Poetry craze enjoy this exercise, but I rarely use it when I visit schools for just a day or two; instead, I usually use our limited workshop time to do a metaphor/simile poem instead. Recently, though, I did the “Ring/Blanket/Drum” exercise with a group of teachers during a lunchtime workshop at Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia, and the results were fantastic. First I told them that they’d be writing a poem using the words ring, blanket, and drum. Then I read a few examples from the book, which contains the homework assignments of Myra’s Master Class students. Here is my ring/blanket/drum poem:
By Janet Wong
The little squirt,
begging for boiled eggs and toast,
circles me like a wrestler in the ring,
bouncing on my bed,
and when I try to hide my head,
he dives under the blanket,
to drum my stomach
until it surrenders
I spoke for three minutes about rhyme, off-rhyme, repetition, and rhythm—and they wrote for five minutes. Here are three examples of what they accomplished:
By Stephanie Franz
She sees his ring
Her wedding day, the children, the trips, the
first time they conquered a mountain,
the last time they struck a golf ball...
Soon she will remove the ring
while wrapping him in a blanket of love
His soul will soar to meet his maker
while the drum of her heart carries on their tune
She will wear his ring.
By Fletcher Collins
A blanket of silent fog
The glasslike ring of an invisible mast
No need for a drum
by Nathan Goodwyn (7th/ 8th grade English)
A drum ring:
a place where
hands cackle together
throwing aside the day's more mundane obligations
as if they were the morning's blanket
I told Janet that I would also try writing a Ring/Drum/Blanket Poem. Here’s my contribution:
The Early Sixties: A Summer Day
By Elaine Magliaro
On an old army blanket,
a rough, khaki-colored island
floating on a sea of sand
at Devereaux Beach,
we sit in a circle…
a ring of friends
playing kitty whist,
talking about boys, and
listening to rock and roll music…
to the sexy sound of the sax
wafting over us
moaning about love,
to a drum beating
like a young heart in overdrive.
Invitation to Write a Poem
Janet and I would like to invite all of you reading this interview to try writing your own poem using the three words—ring, drum, and blanket. You can post your poem at your own blog, if you have one, and send me the link—or email me your poem and I will post it at Wild Rose Reader.
NOTE: I would like to thank Janet Wong for this informative interview in which she discussed her experiences as a student in the master class on poetry taught by Myra Cohn Livingston. I would also like to extend my appreciation to Janet, Stephanie Franz, Fletcher Collins, and Nathan Goodwyn for granting me permission to post their original poems at Wild Rose Reader.
At Blue Rose Girls, I have a poem by Billy Collins entitled Workshop.
Cloudscome has the Poetry Friday Roundup at A Wrung Sponge.