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.


  1. Jane, thank you so much for this post and for all you do!

    1. You're welcome. It's truly my pleasure to bring good books to the attention of others.