Interview

From Computer Programming to Poetry

The outgoing Children’s Poet Laureate in conversation with the incoming Poet Laureate.

Kenn Nesbitt interviewed by J. Patrick Lewis
From Computer Programming to Poetry<strong> </strong>

Heartiest congratulations, Kenn! What was your reaction to the announcement of the Children’s Poet Laureateship? Tears (like me), deep breaths, euphoria, a bit o’ the bubbly (like me)?

Thanks, Pat! When the Poetry Foundation called to tell me that they had selected me to be the next Children’s Poet Laureate, I had many reactions, all simultaneously, which can be rather confusing. Of course I was ecstatic to receive this honor, but I was also a little bewildered. There are so many amazing poets that I would have put well ahead of myself on the list of potential laureates that I was astonished to be chosen.

Tell us about your life BCP (Before Children’s Poetry).

I don’t believe I had a life before children’s poetry. Some of my earliest memories are of my parents reading Mother Goose nursery rhymes and the books of Dr. Seuss. Throughout my childhood, my father would recite—from memory—poems by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service, Ernest Thayer, and many others.

There was, however, a gap. At the age of 15, I discovered computers and taught myself to program, and this consumed me for the next 17 years. I studied computer science in college and worked for many years as a software developer, including a two-year stint at Microsoft, before rediscovering my passion for children’s poetry.

Was the turn to children’s poetry an epiphany for you? Or did you decide early on that this would be your life’s calling as well as your day job?

It started purely as a hobby. While computer programming was my livelihood, I would write poems in the middle of the night just for the fun of it. After all, who in his or her right mind would think that one could have a “day job” as a poet?

Who were your iconic children’s poets of childhood? Or did the idea of writing children’s poetry come much later?

The poet who most fascinated me as a child was Lewis Carroll. I would go to the library and flip through Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass just to read, reread, and memorize the poems. I also memorized a few poems by that greatest of all children’s poets, Anonymous.

Another huge influence on me as a child was MAD magazine. Amongst the comics by Don Martin, Sergio Aragones, Dave Berg, et al were often song parodies that I would sing again and again, probably driving my parents crazy. I owe a lifelong debt of gratitude to publisher William Gaines for knowing exactly what this 10-year-old boy wanted to read.

You write primarily humorous poetry and nonsense verse. Do subjects such as science, nature, biography, or history ever inspire you?

My entire raison d’être is to get kids excited about reading. I want them to have as much fun with books as is humanly possible. I want to light up every synapse in their brains, and get them to think in new and previously impossible ways. In other words, I am not trying to educate as much as I am trying to inspire and motivate, to get kids to think and wonder. As such, at least so far, I have avoided writing about real-world subjects like science and history. Nevertheless, I have incorporated these themes into the occasional poem. If I can make kids laugh with a poem about math or nature, I certainly don’t shy away from it.

Why do you think poetry is necessary for children?

I’m no biologist, but I do believe that our brains are constantly shaped and strengthened by the thoughts we think and by the ideas and concepts we discover and explore. Reading is a fundamental and necessary part of this, but not all reading is the same. Reading a telephone directory won’t make you any smarter or wiser.

Good children’s poetry can distill an idea or an emotion into a short and memorable “package” that can broaden a child’s perspective on the world. Poetry is perhaps the most playful of all exercises for building children’s growing brains and minds.

“Kids say the darnedest things,” but are children “natural poets”?

I don’t think children are “natural poets” any more than they are “natural pianists” or “natural athletes.” Certainly some have more of an aptitude for creating poetry than others, but as with all endeavors, it still takes many years of study and practice to become truly skilled.

That said, I also believe that children should be praised for their poetry, no matter how awful it is by adult standards. If adults tell children that their poetry is no good, those children will have no reason to continue and no chance to put in the years of practice it takes to become a true poet. But with praise, encouragement, and occasional constructive suggestions, I think we can help children to become the poets they would like to be.

Can you tell us something about your writing process? Do you write in hotels, airplanes? Do you write according to a schedule?

I wish I could write according to a schedule but, alas, I don’t have the luxury of such freedom with my time. I visit so many schools each year, both in person and online, that my daily schedule is always erratic. As a result, I write whenever I can find a spare bit of time. This may be in a hotel room or on a plane, or it may be in the middle of the night when I’ve awoken from a peculiar dream.

I do, however, keep a “notebook” “in the cloud.” That is, I use an app that synchronizes my computers and my mobile phone to keep track of all of my ideas and writing. So even though I may not have time to write an entire poem, I always make time to jot down every poetical idea at the moment it pops into my head. Then when I find I have time to write, I rummage through this treasure trove of ideas for one that I would like to work on and develop.

I know you are a computer guru. Do you see the rise and expansion of e-books as a force for good or a threat to the future of traditional picture books?

Both. The rise of e-books is without a doubt a threat to the future of book printers and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but I don’t think they are a threat to the future of children’s books. As technology prices fall and tablet computers and e-readers get better and better, so electronic picture books will continue to improve.

Does this mean that children’s books may someday no longer be printed on paper? Possibly. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Children will continue to read and love books regardless of their transition to electronic form.

Let me draw an analogy, if I may. When I was a teenager, I bought music by going to the local record store and buying albums on 12-inch vinyl records. Those records came in colorful cardboard sleeves with often elaborate “album art.” They sometimes included posters, liner notes, and other goodies. This transitioned to CDs, then to MP3s, and now streaming music. Record stores no longer exist, and neither do the album art and posters. I have given up those things in exchange for the ability to listen to any song in the world at any moment.

In other words, the transition from print to electronic books will mean giving up some things that we love about books. But we and our children will also gain a lot in the process. “Books” will become many different things. Some of them will read or sing to our children. They will be interactive in ways that a paper book could never be. And they will be available at a moment’s notice. It is a trade-off, certainly, and one that is sure to cause nostalgia, but I think in the end it will be a good thing for our children.

You’ve done so many school visits that I suppose it’s a bit silly to ask why you believe they are so important for children. But I’ll ask anyway.

School author visits are important for children for a number of different reasons. Perhaps the most important is that they show kids firsthand that books are created by real people, not by book-writing machines or celebrities or magical unicorns.

The best author visits can also inspire children to want to become writers too. Authors can model the process of writing a story or creating a book in a way that makes it much less intimidating for kids, giving them the confidence and desire to do it themselves.

Myra Cohn Livingston, and others I’m sure, used to argue that a poem should always be surrounded by white space. Do you think illustrations enhance or detract from the poem itself?

I think poems should be yelled at the top of one’s lungs. I think they should be whispered sweetly to the person sitting next to you. I think they should be turned into cartoons and online videos and podcasts. I think they should drawn as comic books, and scrawled in the margins of pages, and shared on Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest.

Do illustrations enhance or detract from the poem? It depends on the poem. It depends on the poet. How does the poet want her or his work to be viewed or heard or experienced?

Poetry is art. It should be surrounded by white space or illustrations or video or music or party balloons or anything else the artist wants it to be surrounded by.

When writing a poem, what comes first, ideas or words/phrases?

For me, it’s rarely the same. Sometimes I think of an idea that I want to work into a poem. Other times a rhythmical phrase pops into my head and I will repeat it over and over until I figure out what to do with it.

Occasionally I will hear a couple of words that I think sound nice together. For example, I recently saw a news story about astronauts repairing a leak on the International Space Station. After the repair was done, the astronauts were watching for “frozen ammonia.” I don’t know if I’ll ever use “frozen ammonia” in a poem, but I liked the sound of it so much that I jotted in my ideas notebook right away. If and when I do use it in a poem, it may turn into something kids can relate to more easily, such as “frozen bologna.”

Some children’s publishers these days have established a moratorium against poetry manuscripts because they are not seen as being sufficiently “commercial.” Do you have any thoughts on that subject?

It seems that most publishers have been averse to poetry for at least as long as I have been writing it, so I don’t see this as anything new, though it does seem to be even harder today to publish children’s verse than it was 15 years ago.

For poets, I think this means that we just have to work that much harder: writing better verse, shopping our manuscripts to more publishers than ever before, and perhaps turning our talents toward other “more commercial” genres such as rhyming picture books or novels in verse.

Is self-publishing a viable alternative for the young children’s poet?

It depends on what you mean by “viable.” Certainly poets who are frustrated with traditional children’s publishers’ can self-publish their work quickly, easily, and inexpensively. Their books may even get considerably more exposure than they could have 20 years ago, thanks to the power of social media, blogging, YouTube, etc.

But, at least so far, it is a rare thing for a self-published book to make the jump into brick-and-mortar retailers. It is not likely that a self-published poetry collection will appear on the shelves of the Barnes & Noble children’s section anytime soon.

That said, I have seen a number of self-published poetry collections—most notably Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong’s The Poetry Friday Anthology—do quite well online.

Do you think the future of American children’s poetry is something to be encouraged about or concerned about?

In my lifetime, American children’s poetry has undergone something of a renaissance. Or maybe “explosion” is a better word. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of books of children’s poetry have been published in the past 40-50 years. One can spend days exploring the children’s poetry section of any public library.

Could it be that there are now so many outstanding collections of children’s poetry that there isn’t room for as many to be published in the future? Is it possible that, with so many books by Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky to choose from, readers have no need of future poets? Perhaps, but I remain eternally optimistic. I believe that good writing will continue to find readers and vice versa.

Anything else you would like to add, Kenn?

Only that I am honored, humbled, and amazed to be named the Children’s Poet Laureate. More than anything else, I am looking forward to this opportunity to spread the word about children’s poetry and its power to turn children into enthusiastic readers and writers.

Originally Published: June 11, 2013

COMMENTS (4)

On June 11, 2013 at 11:55am Steven Withrow wrote:
Congratulations to Kenn Nesbitt on this well-deserved honor, and thunderous applause to J. Patrick Lewis for his splendid work during his laureateship! I commend The Poetry Foundation for promoting children's poetry and continuing this proud tradition.

I will take this small opportunity to beseech the leadership of The Poetry Foundation to help bolster poetry for young people with even greater institutional support through directed programming and competitive grantmaking.

Also, recruiting and hiring a full-time (or at least part-time) children's poetry manager, to support and complement the work of the Children's Poet Laureate, would ensure greater continuity of effort from laureate to laureate and would allow increased engagement by The Poetry Foundation in the evolving universe of poetry for young people.

As an advocate for children's poetry, I plan to take these concerns directly to Mr. Nesbitt and to the Foundation leadership.

Steven Withrow
Founder, Poetry Advocates for Children & Young Adults
http://poetryatplay.org/

On June 11, 2013 at 2:27pm Martin Neil Silver wrote:
Congratulations Ken! As another children' poetry
writer; I gind your story interesting and inspiring.
Would like to talk with you ; Any poetry seminars
coming up ?

On June 13, 2013 at 8:17am Catherine Halley wrote:
Dear Steven,
Thank you for your note. We'll share it with the rest of the Poetry Foundation team.

On September 30, 2013 at 9:16pm Stephen Whiteside wrote:
Congratulations to Kenn Nesbitt on becoming the U.S. Children's Poetry
Laureate for 2014!

Here in Australia, we do not have a Children's Poet Laureate at all.
Perhaps one day!

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 J. Patrick Lewis

Biography

Former Children's Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis grew up in Gary, Indiana and earned a BA at Saint Joseph’s College, an MA at Indiana University, and a PhD in economics at the Ohio State University. Lewis taught in the department of Business, Accounting and Economics at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, until 1998 when he became a full-time writer.

Lewis is the author of more than fifty books of poetry for children, which . . .

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