Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Heidi Roemer, Children's Poet: Writing Tips and Interview

Heidi Roemer is the author of Come to My Party, (nominated for the Monarch Mockingbird, and Great Lakes' Great Books awards), Whose Nest Is This? and What Kinds of Seeds are These?

Did you enjoy poetry when you were a kid?

Yes! My favorite poem was “When Daddy Fell into the Pond,” by Alfred Noyes. It cracked me up! My dad wore a tuxedo to work, and I could imagine nothing funnier than my dad climbing out of the pond in a soggy black tux with duckweed hanging from his ears!

How did you learn to write poetry?
As an avid reader and poetry-lover, I consumed children’s poetry. I brought home armloads of children’s poetry books and magazines from the library every week. Often I read aloud, noticing rhythms, rhymes, alliteration, dramatic voice, personification, and other intriguing nuances that give sparkle to words. I learned to distinguish older poems from more contemporary works. Eventually, I began recognizing various children’s poets by their style: Douglas Florian’s wordplay, Jack Prelutsky’s fifth grade boy humor, W. Nicola Lisa’s delicious sense of sound, Rebecca Kai Dotlich’s tongue-tickling imagery, Greg Tang’s “math-terpeices,” Karla Kuskin’s whimsy, Verla Kay’s terse verse, and more!

What is the trick to developing a good ear for poetry meter?
There’s no evidence to prove I have an “innate” natural rhythm—just ask my husband; I’m a terrible dance partner! But I knew I’d have to “crack the code” if I were to be a successful poet. Being a tactical learner, I typed up pages (and pages!) of published poems and rhymed picture books. Then I took a pencil and practiced marking the stresses in each line. I tip-tappity-tapped with my pencil endlessly. You’d have thought I was learning the Morse Code instead of poetry! But this helped me develop an ear for rhythms.

Do you have any tips for aspiring poets? 
Yes. Here are a few suggestions for those who want to write children’s poetry:

* Have a clear idea of your message or story.
Don’t let rhymes of convenience sidetrack you and muddle up the meaning of your poem. In the case of stories-in-rhyme, first write it out in prose. That way you’re clear on the plot and you’ll stay on track.

* Use a dictionary
Avoid trite, overused rhymes by referring to a dictionary, thesaurus and rhyming dictionary. These tools will help you select only the best words. Replace bland, colorless words with bright nouns and strong verbs. Perk up your poem with kid-friendly language.

* Be aware of various poetry forms.
Try writing various poetry forms. When writing a poetry collection, you might focus on a single poetry form, such as Guyku by Bob Raczka, (a haiku collection) or include a wide variety of forms, as in Laura Purdie Salas’ Seed Sower, Hat Thrower.

* Check facts.
Never submit a poem that makes false statements. If you’re writing about penguins and you’re not sure whether they live in the North or South Pole, check it out!

* Learn to revise.
Rarely (never?) does a poem come out perfectly in the first draft. C. J. Cherryh says it best: "It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly." (A supportive critique group can be extremely beneficial.)

* Be succinct.
New poets often write poems that are overly long. Teach yourself to trim the flab. After writing your poem, go on a “Search and Destroy” mission to eliminate weedy words and phrases. Trim, tweak, twist, toy, cut, maneuver, manipulate, revise, and sometimes— start over. This is word-crafting at its best!

* Read your poem aloud. Check it for clarity. Listen for alliteration, assonance, and a regular meter.

* Set it aside for a while. In baker’s terms, “Let the dough rise.” Then roll up your sleeves and review the poem again—word by word. A good children’s poem contains a focused topic, kid-friendly vocabulary, fresh rhyme, sometimes meter, and—always—a dash of originality!

Since 1995 Heidi has served The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in various capacities. She has been an instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature and is a writer-in-residence for Chicago Public schools. "Heidi Bee" has visited over 100 schools and libraries. Her playful presentations inspire students to become better readers and writers!

To learn more about Heidi’s books and/or to invite Heidi to your school or library, visit her Website: HeidiBRoemer.com. Blog: http://wildaboutnaturewriters.blogspot.com/