Poet finds success in children’s voices

Poet finds success in children’s voices

By Ramon Antonio Vargas – Staff writer
The New Orleans Times Picayune
Thursday, January 07, 2010

Brod Bagert found his calling 29 years ago when his daughter Colette asked him for a poem. It didn’t matter which one. She just needed to recite one for an elocution contest, and she preferred it be written in a child’s voice.

Former New Orleans City Councilman Bagert — who was running for re-election to the state Public Service Commission at the time — leafed through classic children’s poetry books but turned up nothing. He felt Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” was packed with adult-voiced reflections about childhood. So were some of Shel Silverstein’s best-known works.

He realized if he was to grant Colette’s request, he needed to produce a poem himself, which he had occasionally done for his mother and girlfriends since third grade. Bagert cut his last television spot for the PSC election. Soon after returning to his home office, he grabbed a pen, hunched over a legal pad and wrote: “Last night I heard a funny noise / While I was in my bed, / And wondered, “Should I take a peek, / Or go back to sleep instead?”

A child tackled a burglar stealing her toys but then woke up to realize it was all a dream in the remaining verses of Colette’s poem, which Bagert titled “The Night I Caught the Burglar.” Bagert lost his election, and Colette won the blue ribbon in her elocution contest. Bagert retired from politics, self-published a book of verses in 1985, closed down a 21-year-old law practice in 1992 and ultimately changed the world of literature by penning and performing original verses narrated by schoolchildren.

“I wanted to get kids to love not only reading poetry but performing it also,” Bagert, 61, said, sitting in his Bayou St. John-area writing studio recently. “I felt it was something that didn’t exist anywhere in the poetry world.”

Bagert’s decision brought him personal success. The local poet has since authored 10 books of children’s verses and five adult-themed books, all of which sold well. Three new works — “Big, Mean, Tween Machine,” “Dear Mr. Witherspoon,” and “Ms. Caliri’s Stars of the Flying Horse” — are set for release this year. He travels six months a year reading his books during visits with a total of 60,000 children and teachers, earning appearance fees starting at $2,000. However, the father of four also ended up producing a body of work school instructors often turn to when they want to teach their students the rare skill of reciting text effectively, according to child’s literacy experts.

Bagert’s verses often feature the private emotions — raw, complex, humorous — of youthful characters he created. In “Hormone Jungle,” winner of a coveted Young Adults’ Choices Award, distressed middle-school suitor Benjamin Talkington Sprock III writes of his valentine: “My pounding heart is warm with love, / my brain is cold with fear, / So I’ll just keep this valentine / And try again next year.” In the upcoming “Big, Mean, Tween Machine,”

slam poet Shaneka Byrd receives a poem from her brother suggesting that she makes boys ill when she kisses them. In retaliation, Bagert had Shaneka write, “Clever, clever little brother, / he writes poetic charm. / Next time I’ll steal his teddy bear and tear off both its arms.”
“He weaves narrative into short poems, with rich vocabulary,” said Kent State University literacy instructor Timothy Rasinski, who authored classroom teaching materials for Bagert’s newest books. “It is sophisticated … (and) has the authentic dialogue of young people,” which is why teachers use it to instruct reading and recitation.

Bagert’s verses thus became an uncommon, two-edged learning opportunity for school children: They can “study art” fairly comfortably when they analyze his verses and “create art” when they deliver their interpretations of his work in a performance, Rasinski said.
“Since he is one of the few poets to (truly) write in the voice of a child, it’s easy for (students) to use his material for expressiveness,” Rasinski added.

Lesley Mandel Morrow, professor of early childhood and literacy education at Rutgers University in New Jersey, credits Bagert’s verses with helping breed the beginnings of a new generation of young poetry lovers in classrooms across the country.
She served up her grandson James’ love for Bagert’s poem “Booger Love” as proof. James, 7, recites the verses from memory at random moments in school and at home, as if he were singing a popular song from the radio. “I love this little booger / All shiny green and black. / You can hold it for a minute, / But I want my booger back,” begins the poem, found in Bagert’s book “Giant Children.”

“He’s wonderful for our school districts,” Morrow said. “We’re lucky to have him.” Bagert, meanwhile, attributes his place in the pantheon of children’s poets directly to his daughter’s decades-old request — some verses in the voice of a child, to read out loud. In his two-decade career as a lawyer, he advocated for his clients’ interests. When he finished “The Night I Caught the Burglar” for Colette, Bagert realized, “I became an advocate for children.”

Ramon Antonio Vargas can be reached at rvargas@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3371.