I first became an admirer of Paul Janeckzo after reading his books The Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their Work and Poetspeak: In Their Work, About Their Work. Those two books introduced me to the work of such wonderful adult poets as Naomi Shihab Nye, William Stafford, Paul Zimmer, Ted Kooser, Marge Piercy, and many others. Paul, one of America's foremost anthologists of poetry books for young adults and a poet himself, has been inspiring teachers and turning kids onto poetry for more than two decades with his books, his poetry workshops, and as a visiting author in schools in this country and abroad.
In the summer of 1995, I met Paul at In Celebration of Children's Literature at the University of Southern Maine when we were both leading poetry workshop sessions. I sat in on Paul's session on multicultural poetry...and was inspired to begin writing a collection of poems about my maternal grandparents that very day. (You can read poems from that unpublished collection, A Home for the Seasons, here and here and here.
In 2003, when I took on the responsibilty for setting the program for the annual Speaker Series of the PAS North Shore Council of Massachusetts, Paul was the first author I contacted. In the autumn of 2004, Paul did a wonderful presentation on writing poetry with children before a rapt audience of teachers and school librarians.
There are few individuals who have the widespread knowledge of poetry and understanding of the kinds of poetry that appeals to children and young adults as does Paul. I am so pleased that he consented to this this interview for Wild Rose Reader.
Interview with Paul Janeczko
Elaine: You were not a reader of poetry when you were young. You didn’t have a positive experience with the way poetry was taught in high school. Do you remember how and when you got “hooked” on poetry?
Paul: It was in college that I got hooked on poetry. I don’t recall a professor that was responsible for introducing me to poetry that spoke to me more than it had done before. So, I’ve come to believe that it was the poets themselves who hooked me. Maybe it was Yeats, or Dickinson, or Whitman. Yes, especially the “good gray poet.”
Elaine: In Authors’ Insights: Turning Teenagers into Readers & Writers (Heinemann, 1992), you say that the poetry that is selected to read with high school students and the way in which it is presented is done with the intention of preparing students for standardized tests—that poetry is not presented in such a way as to have teenagers “experience the fire and ice of words.” Can you tell us how you approached the teaching of poetry when you were a high school English teacher?
Paul: I approached—and still do--reading poetry more as an experience than as an academic exercise, what I call the Autopsy School of Poetics, where you analyze a poem until there is nothing left to talk about, until there are no survivors left in the class. My approach was to let the kids experience good poems that spoke to them. That’s not to say that there was no discussion of the poems. Rather, the discussions were measured and limited. I tried to choose poems that elicited an emotional response in the students and then talk about those responses and how the poet worked his/her magic with language to get that reaction. It’s not by accident that we react emotionally to poetry.
Elaine: In 1990 you left teaching to devote your time to writing your own poetry and to compiling anthologies for young adults. Was the transition a difficult one?
Paul: The toughest thing to get used to was not going to the bank every two weeks. And, of course, I missed some of my colleagues when I left the classroom. Rather than seeing them whenever I wanted to, I had to plan to see them. So, that’s what I did. But any negatives were wildly outweighed by the chance to spend time with my brand new baby daughter and to write. I still got my classroom fix whenever I did author visits. And best of all, I left behind all the ugly petty politics that are part of most school systems.
Elaine: Your poetry anthologies for young adults are exceptional. How do you go about selecting poems that you think will speak to young adults? Do you have special criteria for the poems you choose?
Paul: I look for poems that touch me, first of all. I read a lot of poems, and when I find a poem that I like, I photocopy and stick it in a folder marked NEW POEMS. Once that folder gets to be an inch or two thick, I reread all the poems in that folder. As I read them again, I put them in subject/theme folders, like Nature, Love, Family, and so on.
Elaine: Do you usually have a particular theme in mind before you begin collecting poems for an anthology for young adults?
Paul: I don’t have a theme as I collect poems. Not usually. I just collect the best poems I can find. The thematic part of the anthology comes later, when I have a better sense of what poems I have in my folders. For example, when I noticed that I had a lot of poems about the trials and tribulations of the teen age years, I started working on an anthology which wound up being Preposterous: Poems of Growing Up. Or, I might decide that I wanted to see how many good short poems I had in my files. That idea led to Pocket Poems and to a new collection that I am working on for Candlewick.
Elaine: In more recent years, you’ve begun writing original poetry and editing anthologies for younger children. Your anthologies A Poke in the I, A Kick in the Head, Hey, You!, and Dirty Laundry Pile have been extremely well received. Do you have plans to edit any more books like these for younger kids?
Paul: Absolutely. In fact, in March 2009, Candlewick Press will publish my next anthology illustrated by that genius Chris Raschka, A Foot in the Mouth: Poems to Speak, Sing, and Shout. I’m very excited about this book because many teachers and librarians have asked me about reading poems aloud and memorizing poems. I hope that this collection will meet that need. Beyond that, I have a few other ideas that are still in the mulling stage. But there will be other collections for younger kids.
Elaine: You and Pat Lewis collaborated on Wing Nuts: Screwy Haiku and on Birds on a Wire: A Renga ‘Round the Town, which will be published by Wordsong this coming fall. The two of you have become good friends over the years. When did you and Pat meet—and whose idea was it to collaborate on a poetry book?
Paul: As near as I can recall, I “met” Pat sometime in the mid-80s when he sent me some poems for an anthology. I believe the first time I used one of his poems was in The Place My Words Are Looking For. Over the years we have stayed in touch and shared a cup of coffee or two at conventions. Whenever one of us gets an invitation to appear at a convention, he calls the other and asks, “You going?” He is a very funny guy and an incredible poet.
It has been a lot of fun working with Pat. We each write our own poems for the project and let the other read them and critique them until we have the poems we need for a book. We decided from the beginning of Wing Nuts that we would not indicate who wrote which parts of the books.
Elaine: You do a lot of traveling around to schools in the United States and overseas to talk to kids about writing poetry. Last month you went to Poland. Would you like to tell us about that trip?
Paul: It was an amazing trip. Because of my Polish heritage, I was really looking forward to a visit to the “old country.” I enjoyed working with the kids and teachers at the American School of Warsaw for five days. I especially liked the 2nd graders. Beyond the work in the school, I had a great time walking around Warsaw. The school arranged for me to have a grad student at the University of Warsaw lead me on a walking tour of a couple of the historic parts of the city.
Elaine: I know you did research for a book when you were in Eastern Europe. Would you like to tell us about the poetry project you’re working on now?
Paul: I flew to Prague following my week at ASW to do some research for what I hope will be my next book of poems. I spent one day at Terezin, about an hour north of Prague, which was a Nazi concentration camp. It was not an extermination camp like Treblinka or Auswitz. This was more of a holding camp where Jews did forced labor as they as waited to be “transported” to the death camps. Nonetheless, conditions were unspeakably horrible, with overcrowding and death from typhus and other such diseases. What attracted me to Terezin in the first place was an article that I came across that was about all the incredible classical music, art, and writing that came from the prisoners. I was hooked on the juxtapostion of the beastly treatement that the Jews endured and the soaring art that they were able to create.
Elaine: Are there any poets you’d like to meet, have dinner with, and discuss poetry?
Paul: I’d love to go for a walk on the beach with Walt Whitman. Maybe share a late dinner of cheese and bread, some cheap red wine. My guess is that we would talk some poetry, but, given his experience tending to wounded soldiers in the Civil War, I would love to hear what he’d have to say about the unconscionable war in Iraq. Actually, I can guess what he’d say about it. He would more than likely be heartbroken at the shameless loss of so many lives regardless of nationality. And he’d probably be filled with shock and awe (and disgust) at the degeneration of democracy that American citizens have tolerated since the war began. I’m sure he would encourage the citizens to take back our country from the grasp of the lunatic, radical fringe that has been in power for too long.
Note to Paul Janeczko: Thank you so much for this informative interview. We'll be looking forward to your new poetry books!