Tuesday, November 2, 2010

PASS THE POETRY, PLEASE!: A Wild Rose Reader Interview with Lee Bennett Hopkins

Lee & Me at NCTE
Can you tell us how and when you first got hooked on children’s poetry?
I first learned the impact poetry can have on children when I began teaching sixth grade.

When did you publish your first anthology? What was the subject of that anthology?
My earliest collection was Don’t You Turn Back: Poems by Langston Hughes.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
I still marvel at my creating Been to Yesterdays: Poems of a Life (Boyds Mills Press) published over fourteen years ago…so long I almost forget writing it. The book received great national attention including being an SCBWI Golden Kite Honor Book and winning the Christopher Medal which was presented to me by James Earl Jones! But – I couldn’t attend the affair in NYC due to a prior commitment to a friend who had asked me a long time prior to speak at a dinner meeting in South Carolina! As I was eating spaghetti all I could think of was Mr. Jones. My agent, the great-late Marilyn E. Marlow accepted the award for me…and never let me forget the moment!

Is there anyone in the world of children’s poetry whom you consider to be your mentor?
Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg were my silent mentors. Their work spoke to me loudly and clearly.

You’ve included the work of many “new” poets in your anthologies. How do you learn out about the poetry of writers whose work is not well-known?
Many ‘young’ poets seek me out. It’s not hard to find one these days!

When you were a teacher, you first began using poetry as an aid in the teaching of reading. Is that the reason you’ve compiled a series of I Can Read Poetry books for young children?
No. I began the I Can Read Poetry Series because I felt there was a need for such work nationwide.

What advice would you give to educators about how to approach the teaching of poetry in the classroom?
I’ve written extensively on this subject, particularly in my professional book, Pass the Poetry, Please! (HarperCollins).

I learned so much about poetry from reading Myra Cohn Livingston’s book Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry. Unfortunately, it is now out of print. Are there other books that you’d recommend to teachers as excellent poetry-writing resources?
I highly recommend Sylvia M. Vardell’s Poetry People: A Practical Guide Children’s Poets (Libraries Unlimited).
How did you get started writing poetry?
Having used poetry as an elementary school teacher for many years and seeing what it can
do to enhance the lives of all children, everywhere, the genre became a favorite of mine. I suppose I started by accident.

The first poem I penned, “Hydrants” written in the late l960’s was a result of my city-living. The first person who heard it was May Swenson, the great American Poet, who further encouraged me. At her home in Long Island I read it to her (cautiously) before dinner. After dinner she asked me if I would read it again! After her comments all I did was want to write.

The more I read the more I wanted to write. I absorbed the best at the time: David McCord, Myra Cohn Livingston, Lilian Moore, Eve Merriam, Karla Kuskin, Aileen Fisher etc., all of whom later became personal friends of mine.

What new “Lee Bennett Hopkins” poetry books can we look forward to reading in the next year? Spring, 2011 brings an exciting collection I Am the Book (Holiday House) illustrated by the Columbian artist, Yayo, and a loving book of first prayers for children Hear My Prayer (Zonderkidz) illustrated by newcomer Gretchen “Gigi” Moore.

Some words of poetic wisdom from Lee Bennett Hopkins:
Poetry should be used every day throughout the curriculum for nothing– no thing–can ring and rage through hearts and minds as does this genre of literature.

I’ve written it, I’ve shouted it, I’ve said it, I’ll say it over and over and over again–PASS THE POETRY, PLEASE!

Questions, Anyone?
I invite readers to pose questions to Lee Bennett Hopkins all week long. I'll forward the questions to Lee and post his answers some time next week. You can leave your questions for Lee in the comments section of any of my posts about him--or you can email them to me.
Book Giveaway!
I have a very special book giveaway planned. Everyone who writes a question for Lee will have an opportunity to win a book written or compiled by him. The winner will get to choose the book! I will order any one of Lee's books that is still in print for the winner.


laurasalas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
laurasalas said...

Fabulous interview, Elaine and Lee. Thank you for sharing how you got started writing it, Lee. As many interviews with you (and books created by you) as I've read, I don't think I knew that's how you began writing children's poetry.

By the way, Sharing the Seasons is one of the most beautiful anthologies/collections I've read this year...

OK, here's my question: When you write a poem, what do you focus on first? The meaning you want to express, emotion, the word choices, rhythm, imagery, the way it sounds read aloud...something else entirely? What is the aspect you start with? Or is it all so interwoven that it comes out of a piece?


Linda said...

I really enjoyed the interview with Lee. I've used Pass the Poetry, Please with my students for many years. I actually wore my first copy out and had to buy a new one! : )

My question: Once you've gotten your first draft down, do you go back and think, "Hmmm, where can I add a metaphor or some other poetic element, or do you not just allow it to happen naturally?"

Thanks Elaine and Lee!

Anonymous said...

Laura: The SUBJECT comes first - then words. Thanks for mentioning
Diaz' artwork in this book.

Linda: After a first draft I do back and back again and again to find the right word, phrase and cutting out useless words such as 'the' and 'and'. I think of a poem as a piece of sculpture where
one has to constantly mold until it
is a finished piece. A hundred words might come down to 50 or less. In poetry, less is more, I feel.


Stella said...

So nice to hear about your love for Langston Hughes' work. His poems captivated me from the start. The first book of poetry I ever bought was a collection of his work.

Poetry is so different from fiction and general nonfiction. I know you've been advocating that the ALA offer an annual award for poetry comparable to the Caldecott or Newbery. It seems that such an award would raise poetry's status and arouse more interest in writing high quality poems for children. Has any progress been made on that front?

Jeannine Atkins said...

Lee and Elaine, I love learning this history, and love the photo, and love the generous spirit of this q and a with everyone already asking such great questions. Here's mine: do you have a favorite writing prompt for children you're willing to share?

Tricia said...

What a wonderful interview, Elaine. I'm thrilled that I'll finally get to meet both you and Lee at NCTE!

Here's my question.
What makes a good anthology and how do you put one together? (Okay, that's really two questions.) I'd love for Lee to discuss how he approaches putting one together and how he selects the pieces that make up the final product.

Sallye said...

Thank you for the references. I'm always in search of more to read about poetry and how to bring it alive in the classroom. I'm always looking for ways to help jump-start poetry writing lessons with first graders. Do you have any good ideas that I could try?

Heidi Mordhorst said...

Really enjoyable exchange! I especially like the idea of "silent mentors"--we all have them, I guess, and they play a different role to the "talking mentors" we may also have.

I have a question about the "useless words." I too believe that less is more, but I often struggle to reconcile what you might call pithifying the draft with maintaining the rhythm that the poem calls for. I wonder how you handle that, Lee, since it sounds like you still have to go back and carve those empty words out?

On the poetry award, maybe it would help if someone enormously wealthy endowed it, like George Lucas or the Gates Foundation or JK Rowling. The winning poet would get a (relatively) fat cash award to make up for all the lean years of dedication to poetry for children!

Anonymous said...

I am an old "young" poet. How exactly would I go about seeking you out?

Jules at 7-Imp said...

This is GREAT. And I've *gotta* read PASS THE POETRY PLEASE already.

Robyn Hood Black said...

Great interview! Thank you both for sharing.