National Poetry Month: Interview with Margarita Engle

National-Poetry-Month-Logo (2015)

I’m very excited to share another interview today – not just because it’s National Poetry Month, but because it’s with a woman whose writing I truly admire: Margarita Engle.

MargaritaA Cuban-American living in central California, Margarita was the winner of the very first Newbery Honor awarded to a Latino. Her award-winning young adult novels in verse include The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba, and The Lightning Dreamer, winner of the prestigious PEN USA Award.

I first came to learn of Margarita’s work about 5 years ago, when I stumbled upon her historical novel-in-verse, Hurricane Dancers, about the first Caribbean pirate shipwreck. It was the first novel-in-verse I ever read, and I was captivated by the way she used poems from the perspective of each character to move the story.

I’m honored to have Margarita join me today:

First of all, thank you for taking the time for this interview, Margarita – you’re so busy, I can’t imagine how you find any time to write! Three books published in just the past 2 months with more on the way is rather prolific! Seriously, how do you find the time??

Thank you for the invitation to explain that when three picture books are released within a few weeks of each other, it doesn’t mean they were written at the same time. Actually, they were started years apart, but some took longer to be accepted, edited, and illustrated. Release dates for Orangutanka, Drum Dream Girl, and The Sky Painter just happened to coincide, after following widely divergent publishing pathways! As far as finding the time to write, I try to stick to a calm, quiet routine of scribbling a few pages each day.

Well, certainly, publishing is an up-and-down, stop-and-go kind of industry – a book you write today might get picked up and released next year, while one you wrote 5 years ago may still in production! But finding the time to write is only part of the battle…how do you find your topics? Where does your inspiration come from, and how do you know if a potential story idea has what it takes to be publishable?

My historical verse novel topics generally emerge from a combination of reading, travel and daydreaming. Picture books are a bit different. They usually don’t require years of research. Orangutanka, for instance, was already writing itself in my mind even while I was standing in the rain forest, watching wild orangutans at a refuge in Borneo. Drum Dream Girl just danced right into my head after I read about Millo (Castro Zaldarriaga, see below) in a book by her sister.

The Sky Painter was more like a verse novel. I’m a botanist, agronomist, and birdwatcher, so I love writing about great Latino naturalists who have been forgotten by history. However, this one required a lot of research, and was difficult to find a publisher willing to accept a book about someone who was not already “famous enough.”

The problem with the industry’s general prejudice against biographies of people who aren’t famous is that women and minorities were left out of history books. If their accomplishments are ever going to be recognized, we have to start telling their stories now.

OrangutankaDD GirlSky Painter

The follow-up question then has to be, how do you decide what form the story should take – picture book, verse novel, picture book-in-verse, etc.?

Thankfully, that is rarely a struggle. It’s actually one of the truly satisfying stages in the process. I love to experiment, try it this way, try it that way, and ultimately allow the characters to decide. Their voices and the events in their lives offer a certain rhythm. When it feels natural, I proceed.

I need to ask a question that I think only fellow writers will truly understand: do you feel that winning the Newbery helped you gain more confidence in your writing…or did it have the opposite effect, by making you feel the pressure to maintain that level of writing? (If it was me, I think I’d be so nervous about writing my next book I’d never get it done!)

It’s a mixture.  I alternate between days of confidence and months of timidity. The truth is I write best when I’m convinced that my work is unpublishable, and no one will ever read or judge it.  That gives me complete freedom to experiment!

Good point. Nothing is more freeing than knowing you have nothing to lose.

We write well when we don’t worry about being judged. My creative writing professor, Tomás Rivera, told me to write in the moment, for myself, rather than thinking ahead toward publication, something that comes much later, if at all.

Speaking of publication, you’ve become well-known for your verse novels – Hurricane Dancers was the first of that genre I’d ever read, and I was blow away! – but you also apply that format to some of your picture books. Hurricane dancersHow do you go about finding those nuggets of gold you need to craft the individual poems, in order to tell the larger story?

Thank you! Hurricane Dancers is my most complex verse novel. For a simple picture book made of linked poems, I’m generally writing a biographical story. Each poem is a different stage in the character’s life. I don’t know any other way to carry him/her gracefully through time, without adding a lot of clunky facts and figures that I’d rather omit.

Orangutanka is a bit more lighthearted than some of your other books. What was your process for deciding its tone and structure?

I actually love lighthearted picture books, but most of them never find publishers. I have drawers filled with collections of poems on cheerful themes, but in the U.S., there seems to be an expectation that all my work has to be serious. (Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish is doing very well in Japan – maybe I should move!)

Orangutanka came out in the form of tanka because it’s the form I often use as a travel diary. Visiting a wildlife refuge in Borneo was so profoundly moving, I needed a sensitive form, but also playful, like young orangutans.

Your other new book that just came out is Drum Dream Girl, a biographical picture book about a real-life Chinese-African-Cuban girl, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, who wanted to be a drummer at a time when that sot of thing was frowned upon. How is writing this type of book different from writing a verse novel? (Some people would say shorter means it’s easier – but anyone who writes for a living will tell you shorter is often much harder!)

Drum Dream Girl is more of an “inspired by” story than a true biography. I didn’t want to load it with facts and figures. I just wanted to evoke the spirit of Millo’s courage, as a ten-year-old girl defying Cuba’s taboo against female drummers. I wanted to avoid discussing the taboo itself in any detail, because it’s part of an extremely complex West African religious tradition that would be confusing for young children.

Many of my picture book manuscripts are extremely short, but sometimes an editor asks me to add detail, and then they have to grow. Fortunately, this one stayed in its original form, leaving plenty of room for Rafael López’ spectacular artwork!

Surrender TreeSilver peopleLightning DreamerPoet Slave

What would you say is the most important consideration a writer needs to make when crafting a verse novel, as opposed to another genre?

The heart is the most important consideration. The heart of the story, the heart of each poem, the heart of each character. I love the verse novel format because like a haiku, it has room for universal emotions, without all the clutter of too many facts and figures. However, I do need to research my subject thoroughly. I need to know those facts and figures, and then I need to choose which ones are truly important to me. The rest can be left out completely, or distilled into a brief prose historical note at the end.

Please tell us about your upcoming new book, The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist. What drew you to this particular person?

I love writing about great Latinos who have been forgotten by history, and I love writing about people who are independent thinkers, willing to try something new. Fuertes pioneered the painting of living birds in flight, instead of killing them like Audubon. I think that’s a creative approach that will inspire children! Just because someone is taught to do something destructive, that doesn’t mean he/she can’t figure out a better way to accomplish the same goal.

Ornithologists consider Fuertes to be the best bird artist who ever lived, and he was also a great conservationist at a time when women still wore whole birds on their heads – hats were not just ornamented with feathers, entire specimens of rare and endangered species could be spotted on hats in fashion shows! He talked to women’s clubs, asking them to use ribbons or other decorations, instead of dead birds. It sounds absurd now, but that was the reality of the time. It makes me ask myself: what are we doing now that will seem horrifying in a few decades? How can we change?

Finally, I’d love to know more about your upcoming childhood memoir in verse, Enchanted Air. How different was writing an autobiography from writing the biography of someone else, and how does a writer find the objectivity needed to determine what works and what doesn’t?

Enchanted AirEnchanted Air is subtitled Two Cultures, Two Wings. It’s the story of my childhood summers in Cuba, where I bonded with my mother’s extended family, and fell in love with tropical nature.

It’s also the story of the Cold War, and the loss of travel rights. I know the Missile Crisis affected every child of my generation, but it affected Cuban-Americans in a unique way. Writing this book was excruciatingly painful. I won’t be able to read certain parts out loud without crying. I don’t claim to be objective about something so personal and emotional.

By the way, are there any subjects or even genres you haven’t tackled yet, that you would like to?

That’s a long list! My one great unfulfilled wish is a bilingual picture book. I keep writing them, but none are ever accepted. I also wrote a magic realistic middle grade book that has not found a publisher, but I enjoyed experimenting with fantasy. I’m also enjoying experimenting with a historical verse novel set in my home state of California. I would love to try a collection of natural history poems. I haven’t yet tackled the subject of contemporary Cuba.

Well, thank you so much, Margarita! I appreciate you taking the time to chat.

For more info on any of Margarita’s books, check out her website HERE or simply click any of the book covers above!


Poetry Cubed logoBy the way, you have one week left to send me your “Poetry…Cubed!” entries for a chance to win one of two books! Last week I shared a new poetry challenge…and I’m looking forward to seeing what you can come up with! It’s my take on the Food Network show, “Chopped!” – but instead of using surprise ingredients from a basket to create a meal, you need to use three photo prompts to create ONE fantastic poem!

(Don’t worry, you won’t be graded…winners will be chosen at random. Get all the details HERE!)


By the way, Irene Latham’s annual Progressive Poem is…well, progressing – very nicely! A different writer adds a line each day, and today Tara at A Teaching Life adds her touch to the adventure. On April 30, we’ll see where it ends when Yours Truly caps it off with the final line.

You can follow the 2015 Progressive Poem at the following blog spots:

2015ProgressivePoem1 Jone at Check it Out
2 Joy at Poetry for Kids Joy
3 Heidi at My Juicy Little Universe
4 Laura at Writing the World for Kids
5 Charles at Poetry Time Blog
6 Ramona at Pleasures from the Page
7 Catherine at Catherine Johnson
8 Irene at Live Your Poem
9 Mary Lee at Poetrepository
10 Michelle at Today’s Little Ditty
11 Kim at Flukeprints
12 Margaret at Reflections on the Teche
13 Doraine at DoriReads
14 Renee at No Water River
15 Robyn at Life on the Deckle Edge
16 Ruth at There is No Such Thing as a Godforsaken Town
17 Buffy at Buffy’s Blog
18 Sheila at Sheila Renfro
19 Linda at Teacher Dance
20 Penny at A Penny and her Jots
21 Tara at A Teaching Life
22 Pat at Writer on a Horse
23 Tamera at The Writer’s Whimsy
24 Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect
25 Tabatha at The Opposite of indifference
26 Brian at Walk the Walk
27 Jan at Bookseedstudio
28 Amy at The Poem Farm
29 Donna at Mainely Write
30 Matt at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme

Did you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it with your friends and followers!
PoetsGarage-badgeTo keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)  Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter FacebookPinterest, and SoundCloud!

4 thoughts on “National Poetry Month: Interview with Margarita Engle

  1. Great interview! I love what Margarita’s writing teacher said- to write in the moment, for oneself, without thinking of publication. And I really look forward to reading Enchanted Air- in fact I’ve pre-ordered it! Thanks!


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