Sidman’s poetry books are worthy of high praise indeed. She is a master poet like J. Patrick Lewis and Janet Wong, two other children's poets I interviewed for Wild Rose Reader earlier this month. In addition to being a writer, Sidman is also a lover of nature…a poet who believes in connecting much of what she writes about to the “physical world.”
Elaine: You have said that you began writing when you were young—that you felt “compelled” to write. When did you decide that you wanted to have a career as a children’s poet?
Joyce: I began writing for children after my own children were born, but experimented with lots of genres at first. I’d been a poet for adults, and a friend suggested I try poetry for children. It immediately felt “right.” It only grew into a career when I began to experience some success!
Elaine: Do you keep a notebook in which you jot down ideas for poems?
Joyce: I only keep notebooks when I’m traveling. Usually what I have littering my desk are pieces of paper with notes scribbled on them. Or, when I have a coherent thought, theme, or idea, I’ll type it right into the computer. Writing on the computer really helps me organize my thoughts. My handwriting is atrocious and I can type faster (even though my typing is really atrocious, too!). I do a lot of planning, thinking, and organizing in my head, though, because once an idea hits paper, it changes somehow, takes on a life of its own, loses a little of its promise. The words can sometimes take over and head the idea in the wrong direction . . . this doesn’t really make sense, I know, but to me, ideas are the future—what COULD happen—and words are solid, immutable, alive. Once you “birth” them, you never know where they’ll take you. It’s not always the direction you want to go.
Elaine: Did you receive many rejections letters before your first poetry collection, Just Us Two: Poems about Animal Dads, was accepted by a publisher?
Joyce: Oh, yes, of course—many, many rejections. Most of them came before I had begun to write children’s poetry. I spent ten years, really, floundering about. I had short pieces published—stories, poems, newspaper columns, but the first book took forever.
Elaine: Two of your highly acclaimed poetry collections, Song of the Water Boatman and Butterfly Eyes, focus on nature—the pond and meadow and the plants and animals that live in those habitats. There’s a lot of information conveyed through your poetry and prose in those books. Did you have to do much research?
Joyce: Yes, those two books and many others I’ve written took a lot of research, but I loved it. One problem writers have is how to be productive when we’re not writing well—because of course you can’t make magic every day. Research is so fun and enriching and gives you something to do in those horrible blank spaces. Plus, it’s like a treasure hunt—tracking down what you need. These days, with the Internet, the chase is thrilling because you have the whole world at your fingertips.
Elaine: You say that nature inspires you. You seem to have a real passion for learning about the “physical world.” Have you had this interest in plants, animals, and the natural environment since you were a little girl?
Joyce: My sisters and I spent much of our free time outdoors and went to a summer camp that had unheated, unelectrified wooden cabins. Although my younger sister was the real animal nut (lizards & snakes in the bedroom), I felt a deep affinity for the natural world and its beauty; it filled me with peace, even as a child. Cities make me nervous, and I always gravitate toward green space. My interest in natural science, though, has grown steadily in the last decade or so. Now my favorite part of the New York Times is not the Book Review, but the Science section!
Elaine: You told me before that your most recent book, This Is Just to Say, came out of your work as a writer-in-residence—that it came pouring out of you in a way that other books haven’t. How long does it usually take for you to write a collection of poems? What is the process like?
Joyce: Well, it’s different for every book, but generally I start with an idea, or an image, or an emotion. I have a book coming out next year called Red Sings from Treetops—it’s about color in nature. This book started with the deep thrill that color gives me: a flaming red maple or the soft green of new buds. But an emotion or image is not enough—I have to figure out a “voice” for the book: a way to write it so that it captures that original emotion. I played around with all sorts of color poems, touching on this idea or that, and then retreating when it didn’t feel right. This happened over the course of a year. Finally one spring I looked down at some tracks in the mud, and a line came into my head: “Look down—brown. Deer were here, and a dainty raccoon.” That line isn’t even in the book anymore, but I knew that I’d found a way in, a way of talking about color as though it were alive. After that, the book took about three months to write and another few months of tinkering. I have to go slowly. If I force it, it’s just bad poetry. And I have to give it time to rest so I can look at it with fresh eyes and see if it still works.
Elaine: You’ve done a number of author residencies in schools and worked with children on writing poetry. In Touching the World: The Importance of Teaching Poetry, an article you wrote for The Riverbank Review in 2002, you state the following: “To fully engage myself and my students with the physical world, I turn to poetry.” Would you care to tell us how you feel poetry can connect you and your students to the physical world?
Joyce: It’s a matter of looking and feeling. Looking with all one’s senses: being an observer, a “noticer”. Letting those senses be fluid, and run into one another as they do in nature—letting sunlight have a smell, and thunder have a color. And also to be willing to let all these sensory elements touch your emotions, open up your sense of wonder and joy. The natural world is incredibly complex and astounding. Poetry allows us to plunge into that complexity, without the need to understand, but only the need to appreciate, to behold, to celebrate.
So, I try to get kids outside, to establish a bond between them and the world they pass by every day. Make it personal. Have them speak to the shell they’re peering inside of, or the pine tree they’re touching.
Elaine: I’d like to ask you a question that a second grade student asked me more than a dozen years ago: How come you know so much about poetry?
Joyce: What a great question! How did YOU answer it? And who says we know so much, anyway? Poetry is ultimately mysterious. The thing I love most about it is that I don’t understand it—can’t say for sure what makes one poem more powerful than another, or even WHY a poem is powerful. Ten year olds can write poems that are as breath taking as fifty year olds. The playing field is completely level. That’s why I love to go into classrooms: I feel as if I’m walking into a room of potential colleagues.
None of us knows everything about poetry. You can analyze it to death and still not know. And then a child—who has never written a poem—can come up with a line like “Fear feels like a spider web in my heart.”
Elaine: Do you think that you’ll ever attempt writing a picture book or a nonfiction book for children?
Joyce: Oh, I’ve written many picture books. They’re not very good. I have trouble with plot! I’ve also written novels and one nonfiction book. I would love to get one of them in good enough shape to publish. Some day!
Elaine: Would you like to tell us about any new poetry projects that you’re working on?
Joyce: I mentioned the color book. Also in production are a book called Ubiquitous about survivor organisms, and a book in the Water Boatman/Butterfly Eyes vein about the woods at night. And I’m playing around with some other poetry projects, nothing that has entirely coalesced. I hate the in-between periods, when I’m not settled on anything; they make me extremely nervous. What if I never have a good idea again?? Every writer would like to move smoothly from one project to the next, but that doesn’t always happen. And my husband will tell you that I get very whiney during those fallow periods!
Invitation to Write a Poem
Joyce and I would like to invite readers of this interview to write their own poems of apology as Joyce did for her book This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness. Do you think you need some inspiration? You can read my review of This Is Just to Say here. It includes excerpts from some of the poems in the book. I also recommend reading the funny and touching poems of apology Jone’s students wrote. You’ll find the poems in this post at her blog, Check It Out.
And here, with Joyce’s permission, is a poem from This Is Just to Say:
By Joyce Sidman
I smelled them from my room:
a wafting wave of chocolate-ness.
I listened for movement,
ears pricked like a bat’s.
I crept down, stepped
over the sleeping dog.
I felt the cold linoleum
on my bare toes.
I saw the warm, thick
brick of brownies.
I slashed a huge chunk
right out of the middle.
The gooey hunks of chocolate
winked at me as I gobbled them.
Afterward, the pan gaped
like an accusing eye.
My head said, Oops!
but my stomach said, Heavenly.
Last year, I was inspired to write a poem of apology and a response poem after reading Joyce’s book. Here are my two poems:
This Is Just to Say: A Poem to My Daughter
I have eaten
the chocolate bunny
I bought you
a big-eared, brown hunk
you probably saw
in the closet
and were expecting
to unwrap and savor
on a flower-filled Sunday
it was bittersweet
and melted in my mouth
on the first warm day
A Daughter’s Response to Her Chockaholic Mother
Mom! How could you???
I love chocolate, too!
You’re an adult
and should have better control
of your candy cravings.
Set an example
for your only child
who also has
a significant sweet tooth.
open your wallet a little wider
and buy two bittersweet bunnies
so we can rhapsodize
in a duet
of ooohhhs and uuummmms
in our chocolate Easter dreams
NOTE: If you write a poem of apology and post it at your own blog, please send me the link. If you’d like me to post your poem at Wild Rose Reader, type it in the comment section or send it to me via email.
ANOTHER NOTE: I would like to express my appreciation to Joyce Sidman for this in-depth interview about her "writing life," for writing wonderful books that connect poetry to the "physical world," and for granting me permission to post a poem from her book This Is Just to Say.
At Blue Rose Girls, I have the poem Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish.
The Poetry Friday Roundup is at The Well-Read Child.