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.

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