Talking Poetry with Lee Bennett Hopkins

I’ve hiked alongside a black bear, who was fishing for salmon in a stream, in Alaska.  Maybe it was because I was with a group of people, but the bear didn’t scare me.  Put me in the same room as an insect and I am no longer fearless.  In fact, if my husband is near me when an occasional stink bug or spider makes an appearance inside of our home, I make sure to give him the honors of getting rid of it.  Thanks to several wasps nests I found in our mailbox and on our house over the past two years, we now have an exterminator on retainer.  Suffice it to say, I do not like bugs.

While I may not like bugs, I fancy Nasty Bugs, a brand new collection of poems edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Will Terry!  It’s a collection of 16 poems by many beloved children’s poets.  As with every anthology Lee Bennett Hopkins produces, the poems will resonate with kids.  This book has a gross-out factor that students who love anything that creeps and crawls will savor.  Hence, it will certainly become a mentor text for students who are looking to write poems that will make other people’s skin crawl.

Lee Bennett Hopkins was gracious enough to answer a few questions I had about Nasty Bugs and about poetry in general.  Take some time to read what he has to say about his newest anthology.  I hope you’ll be able to use excerpts of his interview with your students if you decide to share this book with them.

SAS:  How did you find the poems/poets for Nasty Bugs?

LBH:  All of the poems in NASTY BUGS were especially commissioned for the book.  I am among the luckiest person in the world to know America’s finest poets and to be able to work with them.  I first made a list of 14 poets (15, including me!).  I then decided on what I thought were among the nastiest bugs.  The next step was to contact each poet and ask if they would be interested in creating a poem about a specific nasty. Writing on spec is very hard for most writers to do.  People like the wondrous X. J. Kennedy must have thought I was a wee crazy asking him to do a verse on the Colorado Potato Beetle — but he did.  And I am sure dear Alice Schertle said something like:  “He wants me to write about a termite?  A termite?”

But she did!

Click on this image to enlarge Lee's Poem, "Ode to a Dead Mosquito."

SAS:  Your “Ode to a Dead Mosquito” captures how I often felt when I see a mosquito about to bite me.  Would you talk a bit about the process you went through to create this poem?

LBH:  I start with a random list of words:  need/bleed; slain, abstain, complain, explain, restrain, brain, drain; chin, skin lump, bump; and add a few phrases:  ‘a banquet of blood sucked from me’.  The first idea was to have a conversation with a mosquito; it ended up as such but in a different –pardon the pun — vein!

SAS:   Some of the poems (e.g., Amy Ludwig Vanderwater’s “Lice” and Fran Haraway’s “Cockroach”) made me shudder.  Is that the kind of effect you hoped these poems would have on people or am I too squeamish for a book like this?

LBH:  There are nasty bugs, indeed.  They do make us shudder.  Lice and cockroaches are part of life.  No one likes ’em around. Each reader might have a different shudder.  My big shudder is the Giant Water Bug.

SAS:  The “About the Nasty Bugs” section in the back of the book is informative.  Why did you choose to include these three pages in the back of the book?

LBH:  I think this adds a different dimension to the collection. Readers who are interested in a particular bug, or a bug not included, can go on to do further research.  Besides, children can sit at the dinner table and talk to parents and siblings while supping spaghetti, and join in a conversation, asking something like, “Did you know adult cockroaches can live at least two to three months without food, a month without water?”  And then add: “Pass the meatballs, Mom!”

SAS:  How do you think teachers can use NASTY BUGS to mentor the poets in their classrooms?

LBH:  There are hundreds of various bugs.  The collection could actually turn into a series of vital science lessons.

SAS:  What are some authentic poetry writing experiences you think all children should have?

LBH:  Children should write from experience, from what they know, from what they see around them. A bug, a tree, a piece of fruit, a star, moon, sunset, seeds.  Any subject is a topic for poetry.

SAS:  You’re an expert at creating anthologies that kids will love.  While I don’t expect you to give away your secret, how do you manage to consistently create anthologies that resonate with children?

LBH:  First, I taught elementary school for six years, followed by a lifetime of being related in the field of education — college teaching, publishing, visiting schools, etc. I have been in the field for over half-a-century.  (Of course I got my first degree at the age of 10!)  I have worked with all ages of children from pre-schoolers through higher education college students. Although I do not reap ideas from children. I KNOW children.

SAS:  Tell me about what you’re working on next.

LBH:  I am excited over two forthcoming projects.  One is a picture book I wrote, MARY’S SONG, told in the Virgin Mary’s voice about her longing to be alone with her baby. It appears this fall from Eerdmans, with incredible art by the master Stephen Alcorn.

A second is ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE, a young adult collection based on Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” monologue from AS YOU LIKE IT taking readers from birth to old age.  Art is by Guy Billout, a renowned artist whose work has been featured for over 24 years in “The Atlantic Monthly”.  It will appear Spring 2013.

And — there is more to come!

Thank you for such a great series of questions.  Happy Poetry-ing — to ALL!

A review copy of Nasty Bugs was provided by Dial.  Permission to run the images contained in this post was granted by Penguin.