Edited by Flashlight Night editor Rebecca Davis, this book includes 15 poems about the grown-ups that children meet at school – including my poem, “Bus Driver.” Today, Lee Bennett Hopkins joins me for a brief interview about the book and how he goes about creating these exceptional anthologies.
First of all, Lee, I want to thank you for asking me to contribute a poem to another one of your books! I know I speak for all of the contributors when I say that is always an honor when asked to write something for a Lee Bennett Hopkins anthology. What was your first anthology, and how did it come about?
After teaching for six years in an elementary school in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and having completed my Master’s Degree at Bank Street College of Education (when Bank Street College was on Bank Street in Greenwich Village), I was offered a job working with Bank Street to develop new programs in Harlem where I wrote numerous articles, many dealing with African American studies. My work was with junior high school students and teachers to bring African American literature and poetry to weave into curricula.
On May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes died in Harlem; a few blocks away from where I was working. I wanted to share more of his work. The only book he had done for children was The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (Knopf) published in 1932. 1932! Although the words were as universal as ever, the artwork was stereotypically appalling. I could not share an Aunt Jemima-looking woman in her bandana nor a tap dancing-like dude with cap and cane with students or colleagues.
I brazenly called the Knopf office and asked to speak to their current editor. Imagine this! I was young, naïve – and truly didn’t know better! After asking why a new book of Hughes poems had not been published and angry over the artwork, the editor, Virginia Fowler, stopped me mid-ranting and asked me to meet her for lunch. She remained shocked I had the nerve to call her but told me how she loved my enthusiasm.
Voila, I was offered a contract to bring a new edition of Hughes work to life. The result Don’t You Turn Back, with exquisite woodcuts by Ann Grifalconi. The book was highly touted, won numerous awards including an ALA Notable Book. The Introduction was written by Arna Bontemps, noted author, historian, and friend of Hughes. I was truly on my way; the first of many books I published with Knopf!
These days, there are poetry collections about everything from food to bugs to historical events. How difficult is it to come up with thematic concepts that will not only be commercially successful, but of a high literary value, as well?
It isn’t so much a theme but how one executes it. There are many books of poems about school. In School People, for example, I begin with the building itself; it is “School’s Story.” I asked Rebecca Kai Dotlich to begin the book with the building… what it awaits, what it holds, what it is. “I am waiting—come on in!” Come on in to “A building full of soul and heart.”
The cast of personnel is then presented beginning with your poem “Bus Driver” showing the empathy of a smiling face that brings a child to school and home again. Various school workers are presented, each detailing their various roles. The book ends with “School’s Story Reprise” by Dotlich who brings the collection to a whole where the building tells of ‘all these parts; / hours of wonders, surprises, starts.”
The “high literary value” comes via the pens of today’s poets, established voices and well as newer ones. It is the culmination of hours, days, months, sometimes even years of back-and-forth-ing, editing, rewrites galore, the supreme delight of working with disciplined poets. How lucky I am to have them in my life.
Can you provide us with some insight as to how an anthology comes together? That is, once a subject is determined and the publishing contract is signed, what happens next?
I make a list of poets I would like to invite. Knowing their work I have the gut feeling of what they will create. Many have appeared in past collections. I know, for example, that Joan Bransfield Graham writes with emotion which gives me goose bumps. I sigh after she is finished with a poem. It is remarkable the empathy she can bring to a few lines. I also want to take chances with ‘newer’ poets to help them advance their careers.
Once all the poems are in they are sent to an editor. In this case, Rebecca M. Davis at Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press. Rebecca and I have worked on countless collections. Not only is she my dearest friend, she is among the best editors in the industry. We sort of know where to go. If I go astray she’ll lead me right back on track. She is my Poetry Mistress! (Smile, Rebecca!) I can’t wait to begin a collection under her keen guidance.
Last year, you were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame along with such highly esteemed folks as guitarist Don Felder of the Eagles and country signers Billy Dean and Jim Stafford. I know you were very surprised when it was first announced…but how did it feel to actually be there, accepting the award?
The Award Ceremony was held in Gainsville, Florida. It was a mind-boggling gala to be in a room filled with such creative people. A host of people were instrumental to my induction including the tireless, determined work of Jude Mandel and Stephanie Salkin. My greatest shock and delight was to appear on a roster of people such as Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston and my all-time idol, Tennessee Williams. I shall forever be on A Streetcar Named Desire due to this honor!
Finally, since this new book, School People, is all about the grown-ups that children meet when they go to school…who was your favorite “school person” when you were in elementary school?
There were many but one stands out – my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Ethel Kite MacLachlan, who saw something in the mixed-up child I was and turned my life around with her compassion and understanding. Like Joan Bransfield Graham’s poem, “Teacher”, she was the one to ‘stretch my world much wider” made me feel “I, too, can fly.”
Oh, and I would be remiss if I neglected to ask what is next on your publishing schedule! I know you have a couple of other anthologies coming out next year; any more books this year?
I am looking forward to the release next month of World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Abrams). World Make Way is visually stunning, highlighting masterpieces by artists as Mary Cassatt and Henri Rousseau to the contemporary Kerry James Marshall. The poetry is ekphrastic verse featuring all new works by such award-winning poets as Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Marilyn Nelson, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Carole Boston Weatherford.
In the fall, a romp of a collection, A Bunch of Punctuation (Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press) bringing punctuation marks to riotous adventures. O! what some of my wondrous poet friends have come up with including odes to a dash, a hyphen and parentheses!
French artist, Serge Bloch’s whimsical artwork is simply “!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Well, thank you again, Lee, for taking the time to chat – and thank you also for inviting me to be part of School People and some of your other upcoming books. Congratulations on this newest accomplishment!
Thank you, Matt, for all you do to promote poetry.
Speaking of poetry, folks…if you head on over to Ms. Mac’s place, Check It Out, you’ll find today’s complete Poetry Friday roundup! If you’d like to order a copy of “School People” personally signed by Yours Truly, just CLICK HERE!
AND IF YOU’D LIKE TO WIN A FREE COPY OF “SCHOOL PEOPLE,” SIMPLY LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW OR SHARE THIS POST VIA FACEBOOK, TWITTER, OR PINTEREST – AND BE SURE TO TAG ME, SO I’LL SEE IT. (EACH OF THESE ACTIONS EARNS AN ENTRY, SO YOU CAN POTENTIALLY HAVE AS MANY AS FOUR ENTRIES!)
I’LL PICK ONE NAME AT RANDOM NEXT THURSDAY NIGHT AT 8PM EST AND ANNOUNCE THE WINNER IN NEXT FRIDAY’S BLOG!
SCHOOL PEOPLE are here…and the DINOSAURS are on their way!
“Don’t Ask a Dinosaur” hits bookshelves April 17!
New dates continue to be added to the Dinosaur Tour! Don’t Ask a Dinosaur co-author Deborah Bruss and I have quite a busy schedule planned, and more dates continue to be added:
- Sat., April 14, 11am: Toadstool Bookshop, Peterborough, NH, (Children’s Author Day with illustrator Ryan O’Rourke AND Local Book Launch for Don’t Ask a Dinosaur!)
- Sat., April 14, 2pm: Toadstool Bookshop, Keene, NH, (Children’s Author Day with illustrator Ryan O’Rourke AND Local Book Launch for Don’t Ask a Dinosaur!)
- Tue., April 17, 7pm: Porter Square Books, Cambridge, MA, Don’t Ask a Dinosaur National Launch Party!!
- Thur., April 26, 10:30am: Pillsbury Free Library, Warner, NH, Dinosaur Storytime with Don’t Ask a Dinosaur!
- Sat., April 28, 10:30am: Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, MA, Don’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing
- Sat., April 28, 2pm: Barnes & Noble, Framingham, MA, Don’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing (with Sara Levine, Fossil by Fossil: Comparing Dinosaur Bones reading/signing)
- Sun., April 29, 2pm: MainStreet BookEnds, Warner, NH, Don’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing and discussion
- Sat., May 5, 10am: Barnes & Noble, Burlington, MA, Don’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing
- Sat., May 5, 1pm: Barnes & Noble, Nashua, NH, Don’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing
- Sat., May 12, 11am: Gibson’s Bookstore, Concord, NH, Don’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing
Thank you so much to all the librarians, bloggers, and parents who are still discovering “Flashlight Night!”
- NY Public Library’s “100 Best Book for Kids 2017” AND “Staff Pick!”
- KIRKUS Starred review!
- Amazon “Best Books of the Month,” Sept. 2017!
- “Best Reads of 2017,” Unleashing Readers
Purchasing personalized signed copies ONLINE? Yes, it’s true!
I’ve teamed up with the good folks MainStreet BookEnds in Warner, NH to present an option for people who would love to have a signed copy of one of my books but don’t live anywhere near me. MainStreet BookEnds has ALL but one of my books available for ordering…and the best part is, you can get them personalized!
Just log onto my website and click the cover of whichever book you want, and they will get it to me to sign and send it off to you. Try doing that with those big online booksellers! (Plus, you’ll be helping to support local book-selling – and wouldn’t that make you feel good?)