A Conversation about Poetry
with Megan Schliesman
by Tana Elias
TE: Poetry for children has always been a staple, but it seems to me that there's been an increase of poetry books published for young adults recently. I'm thinking of some of the more complex anthologies by Naomi Shihab Nye, for example. Do you find that young adult poetry is being published more often?
MS: I do think that, over the past 10 years or so, we've seen the emergence of true young adult poetry anthologies--collections that are consciously designed to resonate intellectually, and, especially, emotionally, with young adult thoughts, experiences and feelings. I'm thinking of books like the anthologies of Ruth Gordon, speaking to themes such as love and loneliness; Liz Rosenberg's marvelous collection Earth-Shattering Poems (Henry Holt, 1998), in which the gathered poems she felt "speak most powerfully to our our most intense experiences and emotions." Naomi Shihab Nye, who has dedicated herself to bringing the voices of poets in other countries to readers here in the United States, and Paul Janeczko, who has been committed to bringing the work of contemporary poets to young adult readers, collaborated on editing a challenging, spirited anthology titled I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You: A Book of Her Poems and His Poems Collected in Pairs (Simon & Schuster, 1996). These are all books that are special in part because they reflect the universality of human experience while at the same time managing to frame that universality in a way that is very specific to young adult experience--validating the intensity of feeling that is simply and hugely a large part of those years of growing up. That's not to say that everything about being a young adult is heavy and dark, nor that everything found in young adult poetry anthologies today is all emotional intensity; being able to see--and showing--the light and the humor is as important as acknowledging the confusion and pain of adolescence.
TE: I’m glad you mentioned “heavy and dark.” With all the uproar about "bleak" books for young adults, do you think this bleakness is reflected in the subject matter of contemporary poetry for young adults? When I was in high school we skipped from the Shel Silverstein sort of poetry to adult poetry in English Literature class. Now there are great selections of poetry aimed at young adults such as Naomi Shihab Nye's newest anthology with the compelling title What Have You Lost? (Greenwillow, 1999). To me this seems to represent a change in the type and amount of poetry being published for young adults, similar to the changes that have already been documented in recent young adult fiction.
MS: When I think of a book like Arnold Adoff's wonderful Slow Dance Heart Break Blues (Lothrop, 1995), original poems about adolescence that focus on experiences ranging from a first kiss to infatuation to drugs to the intense pain of self-doubt, I do see it very much as a product of its times. Not necessarily the poems themselves-they are hard edged and innocent all at once--isn't that just like adolescence?--and I think had Arnold Adoff had the idea of this book 15 or 20 years ago, it would have been just as truthful, even if some of the specific treatments or subjects might have differed. But would the publishing industry and the adults who make book-buying decisions have been ready, 15 or 20 years ago, for a book with such honesty and rawness in a collection of poetry for--and about--teens? I think we can always look back and find books that were ahead of their time, but Slow Dance Heart Break Blues is surely of its time in publishing for young adults in the second half of the 1990s. So, too, are Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States (Henry Holt, 1994), which was compiled by Lori M. Carlson, and the international anthologies edited by Naomi Shihab Nye. Would we have seen, prior to the 1990s and the widely growing awareness of the importance of books that represented nonwhite and nonwestern realities, books such as these being published that let individuals speak for themselves? And one of the wonderful things about poetry is that it is always honest on a level that goes deeper than fact--what a wonderful way for young readers to be encouraged to think about experiences--their own, and those of others both like and not like them. I think now, more than ever, publishers are aware of this and using that awareness to inform their decisions about poetry publishing.
In a related vein, I think of Nikki Giovanni's Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate: Looking at the Harlem Renaissance Through Poems (Henry Holt, 1996), and in this case it's not necessarily the intensity of the subject that is of its time, it's the treatment of it. Giovannni introduces the poets and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance in the book and provides an energetic, conversational commentary that is at once personal and transcendant of the personal. Her voice is natural and real and speaks directly to the young adult audience for the book, using language that is charged and resonant for young people today. I don't think that the presentation would have been the same 20 years ago--from a publisher's perspective I'm not sure it would have flown. This is nothing against publishers--it is simply that I see what is being published at any given time as a reflection of what larger society finds valuable and acceptable, and over the years the brave exceptions become part of the process of change.
TE: How did you become interested in poetry for children and young adults?
MS: I've had an interest in poetry as a means of expression since I was a young teenager, but must admit that I don't remember any school experiences from childhood and young adulthood that really fueled my enthusiasm for reading poetry. What I remember, in fact, is having to analyze Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" in 10th grade and feeling frustrated at the sense of being "wrong"--offering an idea about meaning that was clearly not what the teacher was looking for. I can see now that was counterintuitive to me--a poem's meaning, for a reader, must start with her or his own ideas and feelings. How can these be wrong? This sense of having to get back to what the poet meant--or might have meant--as the primary goal of poetry frustrated me.
When I started working at the CCBC years later and began reading poetry published for children and young adults, both original poetry and anthologies of collected poems, what I started to feel was a sense joy in the experience of the poem--of my interaction with it. I think this was true for two reasons. First, there was no pressure. No one was asking me what a poem meant, and that gave me the confidence to construct my own meaning or, in the case of the simplest poetry for very young children, to simply relish the sound and the rhythm, the choice of language, and to marvel at what those choices could do. Second, when it is written or chosen well, good poetry for children has a wonderful clarity. This doesn't mean there might not be layers of complexity, and wonderful language, sound and rhythm, but you don't feel as if you're trying to navigate the mysteries of someone else's mind or point of view with no clue where to begin or no clear grounding point. I think as children grow, and especially as their experience with poetry grows, the complexity of the poetry they can truly enjoy increases. One of the things I love about the best poetry being published for young adults today, whether original poems by a single poet or anthologies that collect the work of many poets from many times and places, is that they do offer poems that are challenging, but not so challenging as to be obscure, beyond the boundaries of most adolescent experience (and yet those boundaries of experiences, as reflected in the wonderful poetry being published, are broad!) The intelligence of young readers is being respected.
My own experience with poetry for children and young adults has led me back to poetry written and published for adults. I've gained confidence to go back and look at new poems, or look again at poems that once intimidated me, and developed a deeper appreciation for poetry as a whole. The unpretentiousness of poetry for children and young adults has enabled me to see that I have a point to ground me with any poem I approach, and that is my own point of view and my own opinion--they are the strongest tools I can bring to my first interactions with any poem. They are the starting point, and it's a starting point that children and young adults need to have validated, beginning with the fact that they have a right to their opinion. I think that is a key step to helping them delve deeper into the meaning of poems as they grow, and a key step to fostering appreciation of poetry.
TE: What are some of your favorite poems or poets?
MS: In terms of publishing for children and young adults, I greatly admire Arnold Adoff as both an anthologist and original poet. I think the anthologies that Naomi Shihab Nye has compiled are amazing (I also love her original poetry for adults). I love Franciso Alarcón's two books for children--they've made me want to seek out his poetry for adults as well. Last year I delved into the poetry of Karla Kuskin and was just amazed by what she does with sound, language and rhythm in her poems for children. In the past few years I've come to appreciate the original poetry for older children and young adults by Ralph Fletcher. The late Myra Cohn Livingston has done wonderful books, both original poems and anthologies. It is hard, all in all, to pick favorites. It's one of the reason I appreciate that there are so many anthologies published for children and young adults--they are rich with discoveries to be made of individual poets and poems. I remember when In Daddy's Arms I am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers (Lee & Low, 1997) came out two years ago I was struck not only by the power of the poetry but also by the writers to whom I felt I was being introduced, in a way.
TE: What are some of the newest poetry books you're recommending?
MS: You've already mentioned one, What Have You Lost? (Greenwillow, 1999), compiled by Naomi Shihab Nye. I think she cuts to the heart with the question in the title of that collection, and then explores it in so many ways. I haven't had a chance to look at many other poetry books published in 1999--it's something I'm looking forward to doing! From last year, for young adults, I love talking about Naomi Shihab Nye's The Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East (Simon & Schuster) and Liz Rosenberg's Earth-Shattering Poems. And I find with both of those anthologies, I'm just as eager to read from the introduction that each compiler wrote as I am to share the poems themselves. I also admire Angela Johnson's collection of original poems The Other Side: Shorter Poems (Orchard). Of books published for children last year, I think my two favorites are Francisco Alarcón's From the Bellybutton of the Moon and Other Summer Poems/Del Ombligo de la Luna y otros poemas de verano (Children's Book Press), and Cool Melons-Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa by Matthew Gollub (Lee & Low).
Megan Schliesman’s Articles and Publications about Poetry
“Naomi Shihab Nye: People! People! My Heart Cried Out.” Book Links (July 1998), p. 40-43.
Poetry for All Seasons and Many Reasons: Selected Books for Children and Young Adults. CCBC, 1996.
Poetry for Children and Young Adults: Selected Resources. CCBC, 1996.
“Poetry for Every Child.” Book Links (July 1998), p. 35-39.
“YA Talk.” Booklist (November 1, 1998), p. 482+.
Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 1999, Number 2 with permission of Tana Elias and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©1999 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.