Children's Poetry and the Writing Life

An interview with
Bruce Lansky
Bruce Lansky is an author and editor of poetry books that have sold more than one million copies. He's edited I've Been Burping in the Classroom, Kids Pick the Funniest Poems, A Bad Case of the Giggles, Miles of Smiles, No More Homework! No More Tests, If Kids Ruled the School, Mary Had a Little Jam, Rolling in the Aisles, Dinner with Dracula, Oh My Darling, Porcupine , and My Teacher's In Detention. He's also written poetry collections of his own, including My Dog Ate My Homework, If Pigs Could Fly, and Funny Little Poems for Funny Little People. A fourth-grade class in North Miami, Florida, welcomed him to their school with a sign that read: "Welcome Bruce Lansky, The King of Giggle Poetry." Not to be outdone, a fourth-grade class in Waterbury, Connecticut, wrote a poem in which they referred to him as "His Royal Giggleness."

Q: How old are you?

BL: Emotionally, I'm probably about nine or ten years old. Physically, I'm older than dirt.

Q: How many books have you written?

BL: I lost count a long time ago. I recently visited a Borders bookstore, and its computer listed sixty-four titles I'd written or edited. But that list didn't include scores of books that are now out of print. Probably the real number is between seventy-five and one hundred.

Q: What got you interested in poetry in the first place?

BL: My mother, a school librarian, loved poetry. Every night before bedtime, she read me poems by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Carroll. I got the impression that she enjoyed these sessions as much-or more-than I did.

I didn't much like poetry in college because the poems I studied were so hard to understand. I learned a lot about poetry trying to decipher those poems, but I didn't actually enjoy the process. It was too much like work. (Interestingly, many adults seem to have lost their interest in poetry while studying it in college.)

I reconnected with poetry when I had children. I tried to read Mother Goose to my kids, but I found those rhymes too violent, scary, and mean-spirited. But I loved reading Dr. Seuss and, subsequently, Shel Silverstein. Those read-aloud sessions were among our favorite times together. When I saw how much my children enjoyed hearing and reading Seuss and Silverstein's poems, I wanted to find more poetry that they'd enjoy. But I never did find many poems beyond "S & S" that they liked a lot.

Q: When did you start writing poetry?

BL: I started writing poetry in 1991 when I began work on Kids Pick the Funniest Poems. But I didn't seem to have the knack. I began to improve in 1992 while writing nursery rhymes that were eventually published in The New Adventures of Mother Goose (now titled Mary Had a Little Jam). That's why I often begin with nursery rhymes when teaching elementary school kids about writing poetry.

Q: Where do you get your ideas for poems?

BL: I get most of my ideas from noticing things that happen to others or me. For example, I wrote a poem about a bald spot after discovering (and being depressed about) one on top of my head. I wrote a poem about road signs after reading some signs aloud on a trip. A lot of my poems are based on recollections of my childhood or when my kids were young.

When I write poems with students in classroom workshops, I get lots of ideas that go into my own poems. I once asked a class, "What do you hate?" About half of the class answered, "My brother." The other half answered, "My sister." So I wrote both words on the board and asked the students what in particular they hated about each. I soon had long lists for brother and sister. Using those ideas, I wrote some poems with the class. Later, I reworked the poems. The results: "What My Parents Should Know about My Brother" and "What My Parents Should Know about My Sister" were published in My Dog Ate My Homework.

I also get ideas from other poems. For example, my newfangled nursery rhymes are fractured versions of Mother Goose's nursery rhymes. I've written a fractured version of "Greasy, Grimy Gopher Guts" and a fractured version of a folk rhyme that begins, "One fine October morning / in April, last July." After reading Linda Knaus's "Rules to Live By," I was so taken by it that I have since written three poems offering humorous "rules." When I read a poem, I can't help thinking, "What could I do with a similar theme or a similar rhythm and rhyme pattern?"

Another source of poetry ideas is music. Many of my poems have been written to a particular melody. I think I've written five or ten poems to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." One is "My Dumb Cat," which starts with these lines: "My cat never comes when I call her. / She cannot remember her name."

Q: Of all the poems you've written, what's your favorite?

BL: My "favorite poem" keeps changing-depending on which poem has received the best response from a live audience. (Like an actor or a stand-up comic, I am both rewarded and nourished by laughter and applause from a live audience.)

Nevertheless, I particularly like "Turn off the TV!" because it's about something that happens nightly in almost every home with children. I also like "My Violin" because it is the very first non-nursery rhyme that I have ever written. (Actually, it's about my brother, Ted, who may well have been the world's worst violinist.)

I am especially fond of poems that make kids laugh more than once. (In the entire universe, there are just a few poems that contain more than one laugh line.) One poem that delivers more than one laugh is "Birthday Advice," which will be published in If Pigs Could Fly.

Q: Who are your favorite poets?

BL: I like Dr. Seuss because my kids loved his books so much. Revisiting them, I particularly like the books that are about imagination: And to Think I Saw It on Mulbery Street and McElligot's Pool.

Shel Silverstein showed me that poetry doesn't have to be silly to be entertaining to kids. I especially like the Silverstein poems that deal with "real life issues." "Sick" (Kids Pick the Funniest Poems) lists Peggy Anne McKay's excuses for avoiding school. "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out" (Kids Pick the Funniest Poems) tells what happens when that young lady didn't do one of her household chores. Silverstein proves that kids can enjoy poems that are funny and perceptive rather than silly or nonsensical.

I love Jack Prelutsky's rhythmic sense. Having seen Prelutsky perform, I know how musical he is. He seems to be able to create poetry almost effortlessly. Still, I tend to like the Prelutsky poems that reveal something about human nature. Perhaps my favorite is "Mother's Chocolate Valentine" (Miles of Smiles). It describes what happens when a kid eats the chocolates that he'd bought for his mother.

Jeff Moss, who wrote the unforgettable song "Rubber Ducky," is also a great poet. My favorite Moss poem is probably "Millicent's Mother" (A Bad Case of the Giggles). Millicent's mother, I tell audiences, is a lot like your mother. She loves her daughter so much that she wants to shield her from the weather, hunger, boredom-in short, from whatever could possibly go wrong. In the process, she gets a little carried away.

Judith Viorst, it seems to me, has been equally successful writing witty, perceptive poems for both adults and children. Her poem, "Short Love Poem" (Miles of Smiles) is about a short boy falling in love with a tall girl, which is what happened when I started dating in high school.

Kenn Nesbitt is one of the brightest new poets I've encountered. His work is extremely rhythmic as well as imaginative, clever, and witty. I like his work so much, I published his book, The Aliens Have Landed at Our School!, which is also the name of one of his funniest poems. His poem, "Swimming Ool," is probably the funniest poem in Miles of Smiles.

Bill Dodds has written many poems published in my anthologies. When you read "Could Have Been Worse" in Kids Pick the Funniest Poems, I predict you'll laugh three times. Substitute teachers love "Mrs. Stein," which is also in Kids Pick the Funniest Poems.

Joyce Armor also has many poems in my anthologies. I think "I Love Him Anyway" (Kids Pick the Funniest Poems) is brilliant.

Linda Knaus is another favorite of mine. Her poems consistently put smiles on kids' faces. I particularly like "Rules to Live By" (Kids Pick the Funniest Poems). The world would be a better place if we all took her sage advice.

Q: What's your funniest poerty book?

BL: Many books could vie for that title, but it may be Miles of Smiles. Like Kids Pick the Funniest Poems and A Bad Case of the Giggles, it's an anthology of poems written by a variety of poets. If you ask me, it's the funniest of the three books because of the inclusion of poems like "Swimming Ool" by Kenn Nesbitt, "The Curse of the Foul-Smelling Armpit" by Trevor Harvey, and "Humpty Dumpty's Funeral" by Blaine and Hardy VanRy.

Q: What are you working on now?

BL: I just edited If Kids Ruled the School, our second anthology of funny school poems. It already seems as popular as No More Homework! No More Tests!, the first anthology of school poems. I also reissued The New Adventures of Mother Goose as Mary Had a Little Jam. It's a fresh, funny, new take on nursery rhymes. Coming out next is Rolling in the Aisles, a collection of laugh-out-loud poems much like Kids Pick the Funniest Poems, Miles of Smiles, and A Bad Case of the Giggles.

Q: How did you find out what you wanted to do with your life?

BL: Some people know very early in their life what they want to do. Most people don't. When I was young, I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I thought I might do something like what my father did. Unfortunately, I didn't know exactly what he did.

At every phase of my life, I had to make choices: what college to go to, what courses to study, what graduate school to go to, what job to take. Even though I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, I made each choice as best I could based on what I knew at the time. (Read my "Partially True Autobiography" for more information about these life choices.)

The effect of those choices moved me into a direction, slowly but surely, of working with words. I have been an advertising copywriter, an editor, a publisher, and an author (of poetry, fiction, humor, and reference books). Every time I have another choice, I choose what appeals to me at that point in time. So I continue to redefine who I am and who I want to be.

A famous author and professor named Joseph Campbell wrote this piece of advice: "Follow your bliss." If you know what makes you happy, then you know exactly what to do. But if you're like most people (and like me), you'll simply have to figure it out one choice at a time.

I now know this about myself: I'm happiest learning and mastering new things. When I get pretty good at something, I often lose interest and then want to learn something else. So I suppose "following my bliss" will lead me in lots of exciting new directions.

Readers' Questions

Q: How can you get kids more excited about poetry?

BL: The single most important thing a teacher can do is teach his or her attitude. That is, if a teacher loves poetry or is excited about poetry, it is very likely that kids will pick this up. The main thing is to make the entire process of reading and writing poetry with students fun.

A teacher who loves poetry will:

1. Select poems that kids will enjoy--either to read and discuss or use as a model for writing.

2. Include poetry in the classroom every day or every week--with a daily or weekly poetry break.

3. Recite poetry to celebrate birthdays, holidays, and special occasions (Happy Birthday to Me contains lots of humorous poems that can be used to celebrate birthdays).

4. Have a wide range of poetry books in the classroom for kids to access.

5. Promote poetry projects such as:
-compiling a book of your students' favorite poems
-compiling a book of poems students have written
-inviting parents in for a poetry recital
-requiring students to recite poems for show and tell (e.g., if they didn't go anywhere fascinating for summer vacation, they can recite a poem about a trip or activity they wished they had taken).

6. Invite kids to perform poetry as duets or trios. (They can use the poems on in the Poetry Theater section.)

7. Invite any mothers, fathers, principals, or superintendents who visit your classroom to recite a poem.

If a teacher starts with a love for poetry and makes the process of reading and writing poetry fun, the ideas above are just a few ways to encourage students to love poetry, too.

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