Poetry Friday: Wrapping up #NationalPoetryMonth with Ryan G. Van Cleave’s “The Witness Trees”

Technology can be really funny. I don’t mean funny as in “ha-ha.” I don’t even mean funny as in “strange.” I mean “funny” as in “mind-boggling infuriating.You see, I published this post just a few weeks ago – but it came to my attention that not all my readers knew about it because they never received it!

Not sure what happened, but I really enjoyed this interview with my friend Ryan G. Van Cleave – poet, author, editor, and root beer connoisseur – and I wanted to make sure all of my subscribers had the opportunity to read it. If you did happen to read it when it was originally published, I apologize for sharing it with you again; but if you have not seen it, I do hope you’ll check it out!

For more poetry, head over to Salt City Verse where Janice Scully is hosting today’s complete Poetry Friday roundup with a spotlight on Laura Purdie Salas’ new book, Zap! Clap! Boom! and Charles Ghigna’s new The Father Goose Treasury of Poetry.


I’m sorry – I’m not really here. It’s all just a trick of the mind, smoke & mirrors and that sort of thing. You see, I’m actually attending the annual New England SCBWI Spring Conference in Springfield, MA this weekend. The first in-person conference since 2019, it’s going to be an exciting and fun event, to be sure!

I’ll be presenting a 2-hour intensive workshop on free verse poetry titled “No Rhyme, No Rhythm, No Problem!” as well as taking part in a poetry panel discussion Sat. afternoon with my friends and fellow authors Jane Yolen, Heidi EY Stemple, Padma Venkatraman, and Valerie Boling.

Ryan G. Van Cleave

So today, let’s just pretend I’m here because I have a special treat for you! Another friend of mine, author, poet, and editor Ryan G. Van Cleave is joining me today for a chat about poetry, the craft of writing, and his ability to teach 32 different college courses, if necessary!

Ryan runs the creative writing major at the Ringling College of Art and Design and also serves as Editor at Bushel & Peck, which publishes books for kids, tweens, and teens, and has also instituted its own poetry-only imprint, Moonshower. Ryan is also known as the Picture Book Whisperer™ – the industry’s go-to person to help celebrities and other high-profile clients write and sell children’s books.

Welcome to the ol’ Triple-R, Ryan! We initially met last year when we were part of the PB22Peekaboo picture book marketing group of about 20+ authors and illustrators. Now here we are with a new year and a new group – the PB23’s – and you have two new books coming out! The Illustrated Edgar Allan Poe: 25 Essential Poems (Moonshower, 2023) just came out April 18 and next month, The Witness Trees (Bushel & Peck, 2023) arrives May 9. These are such incredible books, I can’t wait to share them with my readers! Ryan, can you feel the excitement in the air? I mean, to me, it’s palpable.

I’m glad you’re feeling it, Matt. Here in Florida, we’ve had apocalyptically high grass pollen for a long time, so I’m mostly just feeling sneezy. But I very much appreciate the chance to talk about books and not allergies! I’ll try not to ACHOO overly much onto the screen.

Trust me, we all appreciate that. By the way, I’ve actually always wanted to use the word “palpable” in a blog post, so thank you for helping me check another off the old bucket list.

Now, before we get too far into the interview, I have to say how interesting I thought it was that we share so much in common:  we’re both authors who love poetry, we’ve both had the pleasure of working with the wonderful Jane Yolen, and we’re both ardent defenders of the Oxford comma. Of course, the question on everyone’s minds is, why is the Oxford comma even an issue??

As a poet, editor, and teacher, I believe clarity is job #1. So, yeah. I have a hard time understanding why otherwise reasonable people opt for grammatical willy-nillyness when it comes to commas. Baffling!

I saw you sneaking that Oxford comma in there. You know, I’m thinking of creating cool red baseball caps with an acronym for Make Oxford Great Again. I’m sure they’ll be a hit.

Indeed, it’s a great, wise, and humorous idea for a hat. Put me down for one.

By the way, you’ve done several Essential Poems books for Moonshower, Bushel & Peck’s poetry imprint. It must be fun, if not brain-wracking sometimes, to sort through a classic poet’s catalog to find their best, most “essential” poems.

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve worked with “adult” poetry, so the excuse to do as you’ve suggested has been a real treat—no doubt about it. Part of the fun is going through the list of potential poets and reading through their body of work to see if it’s a fit (not too long, not too gratuitous for kids, not so complex as to require oodles of glosses, etc.). There’s so much out that’s well worth reading, even if I’m not going to use it in this series. In many ways, poetry is its own reward.

So let’s talk books, poetry, and craft. (There’s that Oxford comma again) First of all, as someone who has written about everything from trees to video games to Robert Frost – and even textbooks on writing – you seem to refuse to be tied down to one genre. Was there a particular intention or direction you had intended for your career, or did you just get into it and see where it took you?

I tell my students that I made a few career choices along the way that in retrospect might’ve been considered a mistake by some people. For example, just check out two of my grad school writing buddies who went a far more focused route. Todd James Pierce has cornered the market on books about Disney with an emphasis on the early years of animation and theme park design. Stephen Graham Jones might be the #1 horror writer working right now.

I followed my interests, and it took me all over the literary map. I’ve written poetry, illustrated humor, writing how-to books, and fiction (for adults and kids). I’ve created magazine work, newspaper work, advertising and marketing copy, and lots of B2B things.

Let me put it another way. I run the Creative Writing program at Ringling College of Art and Design, and I can teach all 32 courses we offer because I’ve worked in every one of those areas.

Would I have been more financially or critically successful had I specialized in one or two areas and had the clear brand/theme-recognition of Stephen King (scary!), John Grisham (lawyery!), N.K. Jemisin (magicky!), or Nora Roberts (romancey)? Maybe. But I had a lot of fun along the way, and it almost never felt like work. That’s not nothing. So, was it a mistake? Not in my mind, but I do tell students to make a conscious choice about such things instead of just wandering about, which is perhaps the best way to describe how I managed my career for the first decade and a half.

Ha! As someone who worked in radio for 25 years before realizing that my first love, writing, could actually be a career, I totally get that. In fact, a Maori friend of mine who used to hang out with folks like Russell Crowe and Lucy Lawless back when he was living in Australia still questions his decision to stay in radio! But getting back to writing:  not everyone who enjoys reading and writing becomes a lover of poetry. What was it that drew you to that genre?

I’m convinced that everyone loved poetry as a child thanks to the magic of picture books. Maybe I got a triple helping of Shel Silverstein as a kid or maybe I was just lucky enough to have avoided middle school and high school English teachers who strip poetry of all its music, beauty, and fun with lackluster assignments that miss the point. Who knows?

I’m a fan of poetry because it’s high-octane language that packs a huge punch while allowing us to communicate, connect, and explore the vastness of the world and our place within it. And, quite often, it’s delightfully dazzling along the way.

Do you consider yourself a poet, or someone who writes poetry?

I have a Ph.D. in poetry, so I better go with the former.

>makes mental note that I should be referring to my guest as “Doctor”<  

So how do you decide if something you write is going to be prosaic or poetic? Trial and error? Or do you just have a sense about it? For me, it’s a little of each sometimes!

The longer I’m in the writing game, the quicker I’m able to recognize when something’s not working in my own writing. I can tell withing a page or two whether I’m on the right track with a new piece. If it’s not working, I toss it or try another tactic. So, trial and error is part of it, sure. But I usually know the poetry/non-poetry thing at the start. It’s usually embedded into the core idea. 

So tell us about The Witness Trees. A question I always ask fellow authors is, why did you feel this book needed to be written?

Many of us live in a fairly myopic world, whether it’s living paycheck to paycheck or ignoring the effects climate change will have on future generations. One of the ways to help people think more broadly about their lives and the world is to give voice to those with the perspective of centuries if not millennia.

Plus, let’s just be real here—trees are cool.

No argument there. Sharing a beautiful, poetic journey of world history through the eyes (limbs?) of trees that have witnessed world history is a fantastically unique premise. How did you come up with the idea, and how different – or similar – is the end result? Any surprises along the way?

In the back matter, I share this story.

When I was ten, my father took me to California to seek out a hidden 4,800-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine called Methuselah. We searched but didn’t find it, though we did see plenty of towering redwoods in Hendy Woods State Park—some of them were 2,000 years old. Ancient, but not by Methuselah’s standards!

I never forgot the sense of history embedded within their gnarled trunks. Those trees were tangible historical memory. Even at my young age, I felt their awesome power.

I don’t think that idea ever went away, so it was just a matter of time before it emerged in book form, which it did a few years back. The surprise of the yearlong writing process was twofold. (1) I didn’t realize how many witness trees there were when I began this book. (2) A lot of those amazing trees have been destroyed in recent years, as often by the hands of humans as not.

All images © 2023 Bushel & Peck, all rights reserved, reprinted with permission

Honestly, I had no idea Methuselah was so hard to find! As for your book, it’s about the size of Methuselah – 52 pages, wow! That’s a significant size for a picture book. Considering most are 32 or 40 pages long, readers are definitely getting their money’s worth. Since you’re Bushel & Peck’s editor, who made that decision? I have a hard enough time writing a manuscript without second-guessing and over-editing myself – I can’t imagine you edited yourself, did you? Or are you just that awesome?

Before I started working at Bushel & Peck, they bought a lot of picture books from me, including this one. Plus, we create some of our books in house, so I’m almost always working on one book or another for the press. When that happens, we loop in another editor or sometimes even bring one in from outside, as we did for this project.

As The Picture Book Whisperer, I’ve been coaching and ghostwriting for celebrities for years, though it’s only recently that I’ve started putting my name on these books. When I casually talked about Nancy’s story one afternoon with Bushel & Peck owner and Publisher David Miles, he just totally got it (which makes sense, because he’s brilliant). While most of my celebrity books end up with Big 5 houses, I’m deeply interested in working with brilliant people who get a story and have an exciting vision for it. Of course, David did—both for The Witness Trees and this book.

He handles most of the design work, so it was David’s call to go with the page count and trim size for The Witness Trees.

What’s your favorite part of the book, and why?

The cover. That shade of blue just grabs me even before I notice Honest Abe there doing his thing.

Before we wrap up, I do have to ask about your collaboration with our mutual friend Jane Yolen, Body Music: Poems about the Noises Your Body Makes, which is also being published through Moonshower. I know Jane has said in the past that collaborations are twice the work and half the pay (which is true!), but as someone who himself has collaborated with numerous authors and poets, I can state they are also very rewarding, with each author feeding off the other’s creativity. How did this project come to be?

Jane and I have been buddies for years, and we just got to talking one day about ideas for books of poetry, and we each had one book idea we loved. After we talked through individual poem ideas, we were both energized enough to give it a go. So, we wrote them and, like chocolate and peanut butter, brought each of our poetic contributions together to make something more delicious than the combined parts. Or so we hope!

We wrote that second book too, and that led to a third (which is done as of last month) and possibly a fourth poetry collaboration. We’ll see. It helps that we have the same agent—she’s shopping poetry book #2 in the coming weeks. Perhaps if Body Music does well enough, it’ll make our other project simply too tantalizing to pass up. It IS Jane Yolen, after all. 😊

What’s on the proverbial horizon for you? What new books can we be looking for?

I just finished writing The Interactive New Testament and am working on three more of the Essential Poems books (Whitman, Shakespeare, Rossetti). I’m also skipping summer teaching at my college this year, so I’ve picked up a few work-for-hire projects to pay the bills.

Beyond that, I’ve got two other celebrity book/series projects in various stages of completion. Here’s hoping that those find their way into the world soon enough. It’s fun helping someone tell the story they’ve always wanted to tell, but there’s a big difference between getting it onto paper and getting it into the bookstores (or, if all goes well, onto the small screen).

Well, thank you so much for joining me, Ryan! I really appreciate you taking the time to chat – and be sure to let me know if you need help with The Illustrated Matt Forrest Esenwine: 25 Essential Poems. I’ll do what I can.

Thanks for having me here, Matt! I quite appreciate it.

For all of today’s Poetry Friday links and fun, be sure to visit Ruth at There Is No Such Thing as a God-Forsaken Town for the complete roundup!


I’m still booking author visits for the 2023 Spring Semester (in-person AND virtual)!

I love chatting with elementary and middle school classes about writing: why poetry is fun to read and write, the importance of revision, and how one’s imagination and creativity can lead to a fantastic career! My presentations are tailored to fit the needs of the classes and students’ ages. One day I might be sharing details of how a picture book like Flashlight Night (Astra Young Readers, 2017) was created; the next, I’ll be discussing dinosaur breath or origami sea turtles!

Student presentations include:

  • The Making of a Picture Book
  • How a Child Saved a Book
  • “Once Upon Another Time”
  • The Most Imporant Thing about Writing Poetry
  • “I Am Today”
  • “A Beginner’s Guide to Being Human”
  • “Everybody Counts: Counting to 10 in Twelve Languages”

Adult presentations include:

  • The Making of a Picture Book
  • The Most Important Thing about Writing Poetry
  • Free Yourself with Free Verse
  • Tight Language, Loose Narratives: Crafting a Non-Traditional Picture Book

Learn more at MattForrest.com!

If you or someone you know might be interested in having me visit your school, library, or other organization, please email me
at matt(at)mattforrest(dot)com!


(The Little Fig, LLC, 2023)

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Ordering personalized signed copies online? Oh, yes, you can!

You can purchase personally-signed copies of Flashlight Night, (Astra Young Readers, 2017), Don’t Ask a Dinosaur (Pow! Kids Books, 2018)and nearly EVERY book or anthology I’ve been part of!

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Just click the cover of whichever book you want and send a comment to the good folks at MainStreet BookEnds in Warner, NH requesting my signature and to whom I should make it out. (alternatively, you can log onto my website and do the same thing) They’ll contact me, I’ll stop by and sign it, and then they’ll ship it! (Plus, you’ll be supporting your local bookseller – and won’t that make you feel good?)


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11 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: Wrapping up #NationalPoetryMonth with Ryan G. Van Cleave’s “The Witness Trees”

  1. Pingback: Poetry Friday: A powerful poem from the New England SCBWI Spring Conference – Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme

  2. So glad you reposted this, Matt. I loved learning more about Ryan–so great that one life can hold so many writing adventures! I’m really excited about WITNESS TREES. Plus Ryan edited my THE MUSEUM ON THE MOON (coming Aug. 8), and he and the whole team at Bushel & Peck have been great to work with. Yay for more poetry for children!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this interview with Ryan G. Van Cleave! The paths that individuals take in their writing lives always interests me. That some focus on one genre and others are drawn to trying many is something I think about. He’s had a very interesting and varied career. I’d love to read Ryan’s new work. Thanks, Matt!


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