Friday, November 12, 2010

Q & A with Lee Bennett Hopkins

Last week, I invited blog readers to pose questions to Lee Bennett Hopkins. Here are Lee’s answers for you.

Toby Speed: I'm wondering how he knows when he has an anthology idea of rich enough potential to work. What decisions does he make when widening or narrowing the lens of focus? Does he choose the poems first and adjust the theme, or come up with the theme and then look for suitable poems?

Lee: Many ideas for my collections come from my teaching experiences coordinating poetry within all curricula areas. First and foremost I come up with THEME. Sometimes I go for a theme thinking there will be hosts of poems on a subject only to find there are few. I then turn to a group of poets I fondly call my "Take-Out Poets" giving them theme and guiding them through ideas, etc.Thus, it is theme -- then search!

I deal with many of the top poets in the country whom I am lucky to be friends with. We work back and forth until the poem is totally perfect. I also try to include poets who have not been previously published but this is becoming harder and harder due to the lack of publisher's interest in anthology.

We are seeing less and less collections. In 20l0, for example, there were only about five collections published by major houses -- three were mine, one was
by Jane Yolen and Andrew Peters, and a picture book collection by Jack Prelutsky.

Should interest continue to wane, anthology will become dinosaurs. Add that to
celebrity collections appearing by Julie Andrews and Caroline Kennedy and we'll
see less and less by respected children's authors.

It is a devastating time for poetry due to major publishers not wanting to move forward with the genre.

Laura Purdie Salas: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?

Lee: The SUBJECT comes first – then words. Thanks for mentioning SHARING THE SEASONS. I love David Diaz’ artwork in this book.

Linda: 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?"

Lee: 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: 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?

Lee: There has been no progress made regarding ALA sponsoring anaward for poetry. Interestingly enough NCTE and IRA have poetry awards.There are only four awards given for poetry in America; two have been founded by me.

Jeanine Atkins: Do you have a favorite writing prompt for children you're willing to share?

Lee: I have many writing prompts. Much depends on the age and gradeof the child. Many ideas are offered in my book, PASS THE POETRY, PLEASE! -- all of which have been child-tested by me.

Tricia: What makes a good anthology and how do you put one together?

Lee: This is a wonderful question. It is too complicated, however, for me to delve into at this time since there is so much on my calendar. Forgive me?

Sallye: 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?

Lee: Again, see PASS THE POETRY, PLEASE! I include many ideas for use with younger children, including an entire section for use with Mother Goose rhymes.

Heidi Mordhorst: 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?

Lee: The rhythm of a poem should flow regardless of words used. My quirks deal with overusing 'and's' and 'the's' in works. Examples: "The grass ..." -- WHAT grass -- few grasses are the same. "The sky..." WHAT sky --skies have personalities of their own. SHOW. Don't throw these words away without adjectives. Little words cry for adjectives; they make an enormous difference.

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

Lee: You seeked!

Lee said that one question came to him personally from:

Jasmine: How did CITY I LOVE come about and why aren't you writing more of your own work?

Lee: How did CITY I LOVE come about and why aren't you writing more of your own work? CITY... came about because there are so few books of poetry reflecting urban life. The collection contains works I wrote over four decades plus several new poems. It was my brilliant editor, Tamar Brazis at Abrams whose idea it was to set the work in urban areas throughout the world. Marcellus Hall, a jazz musician in New York City, had the task to illustrate the book focusing in on landscapes of major cities throughout the world. His touch of a dog and bird traveling the world was quite a unique idea. Thus, winter in Moscow, spring in London, summer in New York, fall in New Orleans.

I hope to concentrate on another collection in the near future. The discipline of putting this book together brought me to create two new picture books on the horizon -- FULL MOON AND STAR, also illustrated by Marcellus Hall (Abrams) due our next year in which a boy and girl write plays about the moon and stars for one another, and MARY'S SONG, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn (Eerdmans) - our sixth collaboration -- about the Virgin Mary's quest to be alone to bond with her baby.

Poetry works in mysterious ways, dear Jasmine.


And the Winner Is...
The winner of our Wild Rose Reader drawing is Jeannine Atkins. Jeannine, email me the title of the Lee Hopkins poetry book that you want and I’ll order it for you.
P.S. I’ll also need your snail mail address.

At Blue Rose Girls, I have an original poem titled Letter from the Queen of Beasts that I previously posted at Wild Rose Reader.

Terry has the Poetry Friday Roundup at Scrub-a-Dub-Tub.


Jeannine Atkins said...

Elaine, thank you again for the interview, and Lee, thank you for the thoughtful replies. I am thrilled to win a book! I'll email you, Elaine, after I -- yikes -- settle on a choice (with runner ups!)

Toby Speed said...

Elaine, thanks for your series of illuminating posts about Lee Bennett Hopkins this week.

And Lee, thank you for your generous response to my question. It's disheartening to read about publishers' disinterest in the genre, but at heart I believe there will be always be room for poetry. Let us hope.

(Oh, congrats, Jeannine, on your win!)

Linda said...

Elaine, as always I enjoy reading anything Lee has to say about poetry. I take to heart every lesson he teaches us. He has made a difference in the lives of children around the world,and he made my dream of seeing my poems published in his anthologies come true. (Sometimes, I still can't believe he choose one of my poems.)

Thank you, Lee! You are truly a blessing! : )

Mary Lee said...

How fun to hear a little bit about his process! And how sad about the direction anthologies are going...

laurasalas said...

Thank you for doing this Q&A--I learned from Lee's answers to everyone's questions, not just mine.

Thanks, Lee, for taking the time to answer individual questions...