Thursday, April 28, 2022

Chasing Words with Joy Harjo and Eric Ode: National Poetry Month


What is writing but chasing words, after all? And poets may do this more than other writers, for as Mark Twain said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." Choosing the right word matters for meaning, understanding, and relating to readers.

Who are these word-chasers? Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, has written two memoirs in which she expresses the importance of words in her life. In Crazy Brave, she talks about enjoying words, rolling them around in her mouth to feel the shape of them, and reading to escape and to learn. The book begins with her birth and goes through her early adulthood, a difficult and confusing time. She could have gone in many different directions, some of them destructive, but she ends the book with, "I followed poetry."

Poet Warrior is more non-linear and mystical, remembering her ancestors' stories and dreaming those stories to grow with her in poetry from Girl Warrior to Poet Warrior. About the first poem she learned ("The Lamb" by William Blake), she says, "It was more than the words. It was how the words locked into a pleasing rhythm and we would move to them, and how like a lamb frolicking in spring, the words danced across the tongue" (p. 26). Her love of words stayed with her, and in her school years she "kept a dictionary to look up words. One summer, I spent learning words in the dictionary and practicing them" (p. 39). As in her first memoir, she claims the path of poetry: "I would never have become a poet if I hadn't listened to that small, inner voice that told me that poetry was the path, even when I had different plans" (p. 44). 

Eric Ode is another word-chaser--a poet, author, song writer, and performer for children. His latest picture book, Stop That Poem!, is literally about chasing words! And in an unusual twist, the idea came from an image in his mind, not from words. He told me, "It started with that first scene of someone stacking words, one on top of the other, and someone else coming along wondering what in the world they are doing." The words take flight and hike and float, with a diverse group of children chasing them, until the poem is finally set free to find a home with readers. He quickly sketched it out and then worked on the words. Here's what he started with: 

As you can tell from the cover at the top of this blog, the book looks very little like this. Even though Eric is an artist, the publisher, Kane Miller, hired artist Jieting Chen to illustrate. 

Watch her tell about how meaningful this book is to her and see what the book looks like inside:
"There are beautiful things happening in the world," Chen says. Here's to the illustrators and word-chasers among us who help us see it.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

If This Bird Had Pockets, and Other National Poetry Month Fun


It's National Poetry Month! And Earth Day! AND--April 28 is Poem in Your Pocket Day!

So--here to help you enjoy all three is a brand new book by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, illustrated by Emma J. Virjan, which I was fortunate to win in an online drawing! (Thank you, Amy.)

In this cheery book, poet Amy Ludwig VanDerwater teams up with illustrator Emma J. Virjan to imagine the poems that a variety of animals would write. The book begins with a poem by "me," a child who wonders about nature "If this bird had pockets...," which sets in motion a series of mask poems written in several forms "by" an ant, dolphin, alligator, butterfly, and other animals. It closes with a final poem by "me," in which the child acknowledges her animal self and ponders "Each creature/lives a poem/without ever/writing a line." This book is fresh as spring, full of relatable animal facts, fun, and wonder.

Listen to poet Amy's musical voice, as she introduces her book and reads the opening poem:

I encourage you to wear clothes with pockets on April 28 and stuff the pockets with poems to give away to all you meet. Sounds weird? I have been surprised at the smiles and excitement I've received when I have given someone a poem. Try it! If you need help finding the right poem, go to the Poem in Your Pocket Day page:  or look around the Academy of American Poets site: I haven't decided what poem(s) I will be gifting people this year. Maybe "Tail of Red, Tip of White" by "Red Fox" from If This Bird Had Pockets.