An Interview with Brod Bagert
Poetry Makers: An Interview with Brod Bagert
The Miss Rumphius Effect
April 27, 2010
How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
I wrote my first poem in third grade. My mother was very sick, and I wanted to tell her I loved her for what could have been the last time. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Toups, had told us that poets write words that last forever, so I decided to put what might have been my last I-love-you to my mom in a poem. My mother recovered and saved the poem, which I had framed and hanging on the wall of my writing studio when Hurricane Katrina filled the room with seven feet of water for three weeks. The water dissolved the paper. All that was left was an empty frame. (I do, however, have a scanned image of the poem that I use in my school assemblies.)
By the time I graduated from high school I had written only a few poems of my own. That all changed in college. I wrote a lot during my undergraduate years: some self expression, some to entertain friends, some to “woo women.”
I was published in a number of journals and had begun to form strong aesthetic opinions about poetry, but never considered myself “a poet.” I was headed for law school, and poetry was something I simply could not take seriously.
Over the next fifteen years – law school, law practice, and politics – I wrote only a dozen or so poems, but the poetic impulse inside me shook itself out of hibernation when my children needed poems to recite in school elocution competitions. In 1980 there were almost no poems in English written in the voice of children and therefore suitable for recitation by a child. So I wrote them, in the voices of my own children, for them to recite in competition, to help them perform successfully and grow in confidence. They succeeded; I was hooked. Twelve years later I closed my law office and became full time poet.
What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
When I make a poem, I try to simultaneously entertain and empower the reader. I know no greater joy than when I make a poem that succeeds at doing those two things.
Who/ what made you want to write?
Writing makes the loneliness go away. Social interaction is difficult for me. I am told that I seem confident and socially at ease, but it’s like I have a little robot I bring out to interact with people, while the inner-me remains hidden and protected. That inner-me is an intense, intellectually aggressive, overly sensitive, insecure combination of philosophical black and whites and paradoxical emotional extremes. I have only a few very close friends who are comfortable with the inner-me, yet I truly love to communicate with my fellow human beings, and poetry is the medium that permits it.
Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
In high school I was immersed in poetry. By the time I graduated I had read several of the Greek poets (mostly Homer) in the original Greek, almost all of the Latin poets in the original Latin, and at least a sampling of all the traditional English poets. In college I did the usual English literature course work, took some advance classes on Shakespeare and the Romantics, and had one extraordinary semester with the now moderately famous poet Miller Williams. Formal education had taught me enough about poetry to conclude that, with some rare but notable exceptions, the poetry of the English language had not yet gotten it together, that the world of contemporary poetry was dysfunctional, and that if I wanted to write poetry that found an audience I’d have to figure it out on my own, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 45 years.
Along the way I’ve had a lot of help. Toward the end of my political career I developed a friendship with Gary Esolen: newspaper editor, fellow poet, and community activist. It was about the time I had written and self-published a book of poems for children which I titled “If Only I Could Fly – Pomes for Kids to Read Out Loud.” Gary, a devotee of the notion of poetry as an oral art form, was intrigued by the title’s emphasis on oral performance. After a brief conversation during which I sprayed him with a barrage of unfocused ideas about poetry, Gary told me that I didn’t yet “know enough about poetry to have a productive conversation” with him on the subject and that he was willing to teach me if I were willing to learn. We formed what we joking called the “Caffin Ave Poetry Society,” a group of poetry lovers who for ten years met once a week to read and talk about poetry. It was an eclectic group of brilliant, non-academic professionals, each with a penchant for thinking “out of the box.” We taught each other a lot.
It was against that backdrop that I taught myself to write my poetry. I did it by writing, rewriting, reading the result to an audience, honestly assessing what succeeded and what failed, then writing and rewriting again. I scoured the compendium of poetry in English for poems that I personally loved, poems that touched me, poems that “worked.” I then figured out how they worked, committed them to memory, and performed them, thus storing both the technique and the voice in the part of my brain that produces language. It’s an ongoing process that continues to this day, as a result of which my writing continues to improve, and I get to live with dozens and dozens of the great poems of our language, and some other languages, alive in my active memory and always on the tip of my tongue.
Can describe your poetry writing process?
My writing process would be more aptly called a “rewriting” process. I see ideas for poems everywhere. When an idea is strong enough to move me to write, I jump right in and start writing, and I start by permitting myself to WRITE MY WORST. That’s right. I never try to write my best. I never even try to write well. I simply start by writing badly, celebrate successfully writing my worst, and then start rewriting. In each rewrite I search for ways to make my poem better. Not good. BETTER! With each rewrite I focus on a different aspect of the language – sound, rhythm, surface meaning, unconscious connotation, even the facial expressions produced by the pronunciation of the words (which I call “visual onomatopoeia,”) and I keep rewriting until I can’t make it any better, which is how I know I’ve written my best. Then I read it out loud to the intended audience to see both how they react to the poem and how it feels to me when I perform it. Then I start rewriting again.
How many rewrites does one of my poems go though? It’s rare for me to finish a poem with fewer than thirty rewrites and not uncommon to require a hundred or more.
Then, when I put a book together, I compile all the poems I’ve written that are appropriate for the book, two hundred or so for a book that will eventually include twenty poem, and start rewriting all over again. In the end, about one in ten will make it into a manuscript which I send to my editor, which is when the rewriting process starts all over again.
The weeding process employs both a negative and a positive criterion. For the negative part of the process, I simply identify the weaker poems and eliminate them; while on the positive side, I’m looking for poems with connection, an connective emotional thread that functions largely at the unconscious level, the net effect of which is to empower the young reader. It’s the source of a little personal frustration that no one has ever noticed this feature of my work. I don’t blame anybody, if it were easy to spot it wouldn’t work, but it tends to drive me crazy when people say that I write “silly” poems. I never write silly poems.
There’s always, in every poem, a serious core.
Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
My books are like my children, it’s hard to have favorites. Giant Children was illustrated by Tedd Arnold which is pretty special. Hormone Jungle has won several awards. I’m also deeply gratified that my work improves a little every year, driven, I think, by obsessive passion. I read, write, think about, and perform poetry upwards of a thousand hours a year. (For a sense of what that means, please see Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (November 18, 2008.)
Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) or other books that you’re working on?
I’ve got three books coming out this year with Teacher Created Materials, and I’m pretty excited about it. It’s called the Poet and the Professor series; I’m the poet and Tim Rasinski is the professor. Each book combines a collection of grade level specific, read-aloud poems (by the poet), with materials and suggestions for reading teachers (by the professor).
I’m pretty pumped about working with a super-star like Tim Rasinski, and the editorial and graphics staff at Teacher Created Materials is over-the-top.
But as a poet I’m most excited about a new technique that I first used in Hormone Jungle (2008 International Reading Association’s Young Adults’ Choices Award), and have continued in the Poet and the Professor Series.
In the past my books have been collections of poems written in the voices of children united, not by subject, but by the flow of emotional development. These books have done well, but no one ever noticed emotional flow as the organizing principle, a frustration that eventually drove me to the reinvent for children’s poetry the simple but powerful device of presenting poems in what I call fictional context. It’s a technique first used in English as a storytelling device in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales in which Chaucer tells stories through the voices of fictional characters in the context of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Jump ahead to the early 20th century and we find Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems written in the voices of
the residents of a town.
So in the three books of the Poet and the Professor Series (for 4th, 5th, and 6th-8th grades), the poems occur in the context of a fictional framework in which the poems are written by various characters in each story. From the fictional framework the reader knows the poetâ€™s personality, point of view, and motivation for writing the poem. If you’re the reader, it’s like reading poems written by one of your friends. I’ve now done four books this way and feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the poetic potential. I’m absolutely thrilled about it, not only about what I might write next, but about what other poets might do with this as a launching pad; what you might do. It’s very exciting.
Your favorite dead poet?
In English: Robert Burns.
In Spanish: Jose Marti.
In Latin: Horace.
In Greek: Homer.
Your favorite place to write?
On a computer, connected to a projector, with a head-mike, in front of a live audience for whom the poem is intended, to whom I provide a running stream out loud of whatâ€™s going on in my head as I write. For the last ten years, this is how I’ve written the rough draft and the first dozen or so rewrites of virtually all of my poems.
I then do the final twenty or thirty rewrites at home in my writing studio, sitting on a recliner with my computer in my lap, where the hours and the world and time itself disappear, night turns into day, and being alive is a very good thing.
Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
In his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra Friedrich Nietzsche characterizes some poets as “shallow seas” who “muddle their water that it may seem deep.” In 1891, when Nietzsche wrote those words, he could not have known how prophetic his statement would seem in light of the poetic output of the 20th Century, a veritable cornucopia of bad poetry, bad not because it’s difficult to understand, but because it makes itself difficult to understand as a mask to hid it’s lack of artistic power.
I feel a little guilty because I’ve chosen a negative quote, but it’s important. The golden age of poetry in English lies not in our past but in our future. It may be written by the young poets who read this paragraph, maybe by you, and it’s important that you not be misled by the insidious apocryphal doctrine of contrived ambiguity that has poisoned a century of poetry in English and alienated three generations of human beings from the poetry we desperately need.
Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Poets shouldn’t nominate poet laureates.