Welcome to the Poetry Friday roundup!
To celebrate National Poetry Month, I brought back my popular writing prompt contest #PoetryCUBED and have been receiving lots of great poems. Keep sending them in! I’ll share more entries next week, but today I have a special guest: friend and fellow children’s writer Leslie Bulion!
Leslie is a fellow New Englander who lives in Connecticut, and has been writing nearly all her life. Like me, she began writing poetry for her own enjoyment since fourth grade and has been interested in science and nature for as long as she can remember. You can imagine, then, how surprised I was that I’d yet to invite her to visit the ol’ Triple-R!
Leslie earned graduate degrees in Oceanography and Social Work, and worked as a medical social worker and school social worker. Her first book, Fatuma’s New Cloth (Moon Mountain Publishing) won the 2003 Children’s Africana Book Award for best picture book, and since then she’s published 16 books, from poetry collections to middle grade novels.
Thanks so much for visiting, Leslie! Time certainly does fly, as we’ve known each other for nearly 11 years now. We first met online around 2010 or so, and then met in person at my first New England SCBWI conference in Mass. in 2011. (That was a momentous year for me, as I met not only you but also Jane Yolen, Lin Oliver, my former neighbor Tomie dePaola, Lee Bennett Hopkins, and myriad others!)
Since then, we’ve each had multiple books published and it’s been wonderful getting to know you, following along your writing career and conversing about children’s publishing. And now you’re celebrating your sixteenth book, with Serengeti: Plains of Grass! I know you have an affinity for both science and poetry, but this book is unique in many ways from your previous collections. Before we get to that, though, please tell me how the idea for the book came to you.
Thank you very much for inviting me to your blog, Matt! I’m thrilled to share a bit of the backstory of how I came to write Serengeti: Plains of Grass.
I have been wondering about and dreaming of revisiting the Serengeti since my daughters, my husband, and I were invited to East Africa by his sister years ago. I kept extensive journals during that month-long visit, and took countless photographs. Among many important experiences—in cities and towns, and with families and friends, and in other parks—our short time in the Serengeti left a deep impression. It took many years for me to find this path I finally chose to explore the Serengeti through poetry.
Now, the reason I say this book different is because many of your recent books have been poetry collections about specific subjects within an overarching theme: for example, Hey There, Stink Bug (Charlesbridge, 2006) included poems about different insects while Superlative Birds (Peachtree, 2019) featured poems about specific birds.
But with Serengeti, each poem on each spread reads as if it’s part of a larger whole; that is, the poems can be taken individually, but are meant to be linked together and read in a more traditional picture book style. How did you come to decide on this structure?
I’m so glad you mentioned themes, Matt. My poetry collections are organized in many layers. Each has what I refer to as a “big idea.” In Superlative Birds, for example, the big idea is a tour of the traits of “birdness,” the specific poems showcase the “world-record holder” of each trait, and readers follow the chickadee spokesbird to find out which traits belong only to birds.
In Leaf Litter Critters (Peachtree 2018), I set the stage for Serengeti by using poetry to explore a whole ecosystem. I consider that book a “hybrid” of sorts, since it takes readers through the decomposer/recycler food web employing many different poetic forms and lots of humor as I had done in previous (and subsequent) books.
Serengeti IS different. Readers join the great migration of wildebeests, zebras, and others as they follow the early winter rains into and out of the Serengeti short-grass plain. The stanzas tell another story, too: the movement of energy through the food web from grass to herbivores, insectivores, carnivores, scavengers, recyclers, and back to grass again.
Just as all life in the Serengeti is interconnected, the stanzas and spreads in the book link one to the next, and end with a refrain, a reference to “grass,” to emphasize the basis of this open plain ecosystem.
Speaking of the book’s structure, you eschew your penchant for varying poetic styles/forms and instead stick with the utendi, a Swahili poetic form with Arabic roots, throughout the book. What drew you to this form?
My experience in the Serengeti left me with a feeling of awe and wonder, Matt. I wanted to portray my impression of its story in a way that embodied my reverence for this remarkable place. In all of my books, my choices of poetic forms relate to the subjects of the poems: perfect rhyme can be quite humorous, different rhythms may relate to the movements of particular animals, and at times I choose forms that spring from the countries where particular animals are found.
For Serengeti: Plains of Grass, I read about Swahili poetry and learned about the utendi stanza. I felt its three rhyming lines with an opportunity for a fourth line refrain would help me tell this story with respect and flow, linking one spread to the next. Kiswahili words end in vowels, and though I know only a few words and phrases in the language, as I read examples of the utendi stanza I chose to use a partial rhyme—the consonant end sound—in my adaptation of the form in English. Here’s an example, and you’ll see that even in this reverential book I allow myself a bit of wordplay:
Plains are cropped where wildebeests grazed,
leaving tender herbs exposed,
low-ground growth is nimbly used,
fleet gazelles nibble gnu-mown grass.
I love it! Ingenious and musical use of wordplay is something I truly appreciate, and the internal rhyme in the third and fourth lines especially is, indeed, ingenious and musical. As someone who loves trying new poetic forms, I often wonder if I’m doing the forms justice; that is, not having written in those forms before, I hope my poems are as good as those that have come before. How do you vet your poems, particularly those written in a poetic form that is new to you?
I love trying new forms, too! When I do that, I go on a deep dive, reading many, many examples by different poets in addition to reading about the form in some of the poetry reference books and sites I admire. Then I trust my ear to hear the rhythms and notes of a particular form as I write, rewrite, read aloud, read to my critique group, and tweak some more. Since I’m the person writing the poem, the finished form has to make the music I need to hear.
When I’m writing, there are always things popping up that I don’t expect. Perhaps it’s something I didn’t know about the subject, or maybe the amount of research I needed to do. Did you encounter any surprises while writing Serengeti? Anything that caught you off-guard?
As with all of my science poetry books, there are always such difficult choices: which critters make it into the book or which “end up on the cutting room floor,” as Betsy Bird asked me in an interview about Amphibian Acrobats (Peachtree 2020). I had worked my way through the seasons and the Serengeti food web stanza by stanza to the end before realizing I hadn’t included elephants. They are not only a keystone species keeping acacia saplings in check, they’re a lifelong favorite of mine. And I was out of space. Thank goodness Becca Stadtlander included elephants in her spectacular illustrations!
They are spectacular, I’ll say that! And I know authors don’t have much say in the illustrations for their books, but was there anything surprising about Becca’s work? What was your impression upon seeing her interpretation of your subjects and words?
Since my poetry books are nonfiction I am involved in the illustrations at the sketch stage. The whole team works hard to be sure the science is accurate in every interpretation. Just ask humorously accurate illustrator Robert Meganck about amphibian fingers and toes, or spider eyes! Sometimes an illustrator’s interpretation sends me back down a research rabbit hole to find out more so I can give the most accurate feedback.
The only surprise in Becca’s work was how much more moving and gorgeous it looks on the actual, full-sized pages! I loved it on screen as she worked, but the trim size and format of the book is a much better showcase of her breathtaking artwork.
I noticed there seems to be more expository material in this book than others you’ve written. Was that your intention, or something your editor requested?
This is an interesting question, Matt. When I wrote Serengeti, the entire poem came first. Then I wrote the long expository introduction, which none of my other books have, and the poetry notes I always include. Much, much later, I decided to add spare science notes to the spreads. These are much shorter than the notes that typically accompany my poems. I think these spare notes add an important element, though I suggest a first read through of the poem stanzas and illustrations for flow, then a second read spread by spread, including the notes.
I offer my editor a list of the back matter I’d like to include when I submit the manuscript—always a glossary, often a map, a size reference chart, and further readings. The need for information about our responsibilities as humans on our planet grows more imperative and more complex each year, and that’s an important piece of the back matter.
I agree, and hopefully more and more people will realize the importance of that information. Finally, what can we expect next from Leslie Bulion?
Thanks for asking, Matt! I am working on another “ecosystems” poetry book with Becca Stadtlander entitled Galápagos: Islands of Change, that will publish in the spring of 2023, also with Peachtree Publishing, Inc. This book tells the story of the seasonal rhythms of these iconic islands and their surrounding ocean waters in this fascinating interconnected land-and-sea ecosystem.
Well, thanks again for taking the time to chat, Leslie, and congratulations on Serengeti: Plains of Grass!
Thanks to you, Matt, and best of luck with all of your upcoming projects!
~~ Giveaway! ~ ~
Would you like a free copy of Serengeti: Plains of Grass? Just let me know in the comments and I’ll select one winner at random! The winner will be announced next Poetry Friday, April 22. Speaking of giveaways, at the end of the month I’ll announce the winner of this month’s #PoetryCUBED contest; you’ve still got a couple of weeks to send me your poems, so be sure to email me at Matt (at) MattForrest (dot) com and I’ll share them here!
I do need to take a moment and thank the Boston Globe for something quite unexpected I came upon this past week. If you had asked me back in 2012, the year I left full-time appointment at the radio station, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” you can be assured that I would not have said, “in the Boston Globe.”
It truly was an honor to be asked to contribute to Lee Bennett Hopkins’ award-winning book. I’ll always remember when I emailed my poem to him and he called it “perfection” that made his week! (Coming from Lee, that’s a compliment in the highest order) Lee would have been 84 this week, but his memory and legacy will endure not only through his books but by those of us he befriended and mentored.
By the way, the Globe also gave a nod to my friend and neighbor, David Elliott, for his poetry collection, In the Woods (Candlewick, 2020). I hope you’ll check out the complete list, which includes several other New England authors.
And since this is the Poetry Friday roundup, leave your links in the comments and I’ll round them all up, old school style!
Poetry Friday links:
- This is Carol Labuzzetta’s first year contributing to the annual Progressive Poem, and she shares her line and her process behind it – at her blog, The Apples in My Orchard.
- Karin Fisher-Golton also added a new line to the Progressive Poem this week, and shares her process of how she came up with the line.
- Michelle Kogan has Gray Catbirds on her mind, and shares an original poem about one.
- Congrats to my friend, author/poet Laura Shovan, who is celebrating the first night of passover AND the 6th anniversary of her middle grade novel in verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, with a Passover-themed post that includes a recipe for Matzo candy – yum!
- Linda Mitchell is having fun captioning postcards at A Word Edgewise and also shares a brand-new “star” poem.
- Jama Rattigan is offering readers “Three Cups of Tea with Miss Emily” (Dickinson, that is) at Alphabet Soup – along with recipes for custard pie and cherry scones, from a new cookbook/poetry book!
- At Life on the Deckle Edge, the art of pen-and-ink handwriting is on Robin Hood Black’s mind today, as she shares a post about glass pens, nib earrings, and a thoughtful haiku.
- Spring and all its beauty – from cherry blossoms to busy robins – is the focus of a new original poem from Linda Kulp Trout.
- Poems about…poetry! That’s what you’ll find at The Opposite of Indifference, as Tabatha shares some of Martin Espada’s work. She’s also signing folks up for the Summer Poetry Swap, so be sure to check it out!
- Jone Rush MacCulloch eatures an interview with poet/author Sally Walker about her new book, Out of This World: Star-Studded Haiku.
- Patricia J. Franz accepted my #PoetryCUBED challenge from two weeks ago and shares the poem she wrote!
- Found treasures and unusual places to look for them: that’s what Linda writes about today at Teacher Dance.
- Over at The Poem Farm, Amy shares her newest proverb-inspired poem, based on catching flies (we know what works and what doesn’t, don’t we?).
- Smidgey’s Identity Crisis Poetry Series continues at Wee Words for Wee Ones, as Bridget shares a new poetic video about a dog with lots of questions!
- At Unexpected Intersections, Elisabeth shares a review of Diana Renn’s new middle-grade novel, Trouble at Turtle Pond, and an original poem about the endangered European Swamp Turtle.
- Marcie Atkins shares a Chinese paperbush haiku and an invitation to a webinar about collaboration, hosted by our longtime Poetry Friday friends Irene Latham and Charles Waters.
- Kangaroo Paw and Nasturtiums: Imagine the Possibilites, with Rose’s two new, original poems!
- As if plastics weren’t bad enough for the environment, now there are MICROplastics – sigh. Catherine at Reading to the Core offers up a Golden Shovel poem, for the Good of the Earth.
- What is the Insect Apocalypse? Mary Lee at A(nother) Year of Reading shares an original poem that addresses the imminent threat to our planet and the species that are not thriving as they used to.
- At Live Your Poem, Irene shares a bunny pic just in time for Easter along with a poem about parrot friendship.
- Amy Soto, the Mother Goose Librarian, reviews Stop That Poem!, an ingenious poetry picture book by our friend Eric Ode, and offers the first drafy of an original poem inspired by the book.
- Michelle H. Barnes has been busy “filling the well,” so to speak – and at Today’s Little Ditty, she fills it up with poet Lucille Clifton, sculptor Anthony Howe, and singer/pianist Akeboshi.
- With a title like “The Upper Case for Being,” you know the poem is going to be intriguing; Heidi at My Juicy Little Universe shares an original poem that takes equal indpiration from Narnia, the book Braiding Sweetgrass, and a little Taoism thrown in for good measure.
- Have you ever heard of an N+7 exercise in poetry? Neither have I! But if you head over to Small Reads for Brighter Days, you can read Laura’s new sticky note poem inspired by it!
- At Wondering and Wandering, Christie shares two new poems: one is the latest in her ‘Pathways’ series, inspired by her frequent nature walks, and the other is by a young debut poet (and by young, I mean, “in kindergarten!”)
- Marilyn Garcia has been thinking about trans rights this week and the irony that today, Good Friday, millions of people are remembering the persecution and death of an innocent man. Check out her poem, “The Announcemnet.”
- Zeena at Teaching Authors is in Cairo, of all places! She shares a poem by Egyptian poet omar ibrahim as well as a preview of her upcoming picture book, Egyptian Lullaby (Roaring Brook Press, 2023).
- House renovations and confusion go hand-in-hand, and Karen Eastlund shares their progress at her place with a brief verse about packing up and (dis)organizing.
- Anastasia Suen gives us a sneak peek at a cute new butterfly board book!
- At Chicken Spaghetti, Susan Thomsen chose a beautiful spring poem from Jessie Redmon Fauset, “Rondeau,” to share with her readers.
- “The silence of God” is something indeed worth pondering this Good Friday / Passover, and Ruth does just that with a powerful, moving poem from Andrew Peterson at There is no such thing as a God-forsaken town.
- Speaking of Good Friday, Denise Krebs offers up an original poem for the day at Dare to Care.
- Over at The Miss Rumphius Effect, Tricia features a senryu inspired by a photo taken in the early 1930s of her mother and mother’s cousin, when they were children.
- Janice Scully has a review of our friend Laura Purdie Salas’ latest book, We Belong.
- Last, but certainly not least, Carol at Beyond Literacy Link is sharing her gratitude by sharing an original springtime haiku as well as various poems, photos, and artwork that have inspired her this past week.
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