Happy Poetry Friday! I’m delighted to be your host today. Mr. Linky is in charge of the links for this week’s posts, so please add your link below.
I’ve got a special treat to offer today. Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell are joining me to talk about the making of their newest poetry anthology, HOP TO IT! Thanks, Janet and Sylvia for answering my questions!
BS: Back in February, 2020 (although perhaps it seems like 2010…) you had an open call for HOP TO IT poems. Your plan was for 75 poems that encourage movement and get the wiggles out. You asked for some poems that might involve full body movements and some that could be done in a chair. What inspired you to choose this theme?
JW: We first thought about doing a movement-themed book at the end of 2015, after an energizing session on that topic for NCTE in Minneapolis. But then we decided to focus on the reading-writing connection—and spent the next couple of years creating the Poetry Friday Power Book series, followed by a book of “morning announcement poems” for principals. Four years after we first had the idea for a book of movement poems, it popped up again, and we decided that it was finally time to HOP TO IT!
SV: Right! Any time we do a presentation, we invite the audience to participate in reading a poem along with us—with a repeated line or key word or fun motion—and those poems always get a great response. So, we decided to make this a focus of the next book with as much physical movement as we could inject! Research has shown that we are becoming a very sedentary society and many children have difficulty paying attention and learning when they have to sit so much. Let’s show them how active poems can be!
BS: Having an open call is unusual and generous (thank you, from every writer who is reading this post!) Why was an open call important to you, and what difficulties did that present?
JW: To me, the best thing about anthologies is the way they elevate new voices—and having an open call is the best way to find new poets.
SV: Janet and I brainstormed a list of movements to challenge poets to consider including clapping your hands, drumming on your desk, moving while seated, dancing, bending, shrugging, flexing, stretching, reaching, toe-tapping, and so much more. We posted a graphic with this list alongside a list of poem elements to incorporate from repetition to alliteration to similes to suspense. We spread the word on social media and watched the submissions roll in!
JW: The hardest part of this project: knowing that we didn’t want the book to have more than 75 poems (which kept inching up to the final number of 100 poems) meant that we automatically had to say no to a lot of poets whose work we love. We now work with approximately 200 poets—and we wish we could showcase everyone’s poems in every book. Saying no is the hardest part of creating any anthology. One hundred poems seemed to be about the limit for this book because we envisioned teachers holding it while moving; you need to be able to hold it easily in your hands.
BS: Your original plan was to accept poems through March and publish the book in August. But then 2020 happened… how did the pandemic change your vision? Did you consider delaying or cancelling your anthology? If so, what convinced you to soldier on?
JW: We received tons of submissions, more than we needed. But many of those poems were very similar in topic or approach. While we wrestled with that—how to choose 1-2 poems from 10-12 that are very similar?—next thing we knew, we found ourselves distraught over the pandemic, and we wondered whether we should expand the theme of the book.
SV: We chose to include poems about topics such as COVID-19, mask-wearing, staycations, keeping connected with friends, and Zoom—but right after we made that decision, the social justice protests started appearing on the news and we felt compelled to expand our theme once more.
JW: The trick was to stay true to the movement theme, which I think we’ve done because the social justice-themed poems all have a movement connection of some sort. There are poems about exercising your voice, standing up for what you believe in, marching, and raising your fist in the air in solidarity (something that seems to have originated during the French Revolution).
SV: The result, we think, is a book that sums up 2020 and helps us move forward while still keeping a focus on childhood experiences, physical interaction, and emotional truths.
BS: What challenges did you expect in marketing a book when schools were online and in full-stress mode? Have you been able to reach the audience that you intended? What feedback have you received from teachers and families using this book in class or online?
SV: Every publisher is struggling to debut new books without book signings, conference presentations, book tours, and personal appearances. We’ve used social media as creatively as possible posting videos and digital “postcards” and generating lots of comments, connections, and sharing. Our absolutely favorite thing is how the poets themselves are helping to spread the word, sharing the book online and in their own communities.
JW: I’ve been sharing poems from the book with teachers, librarians, parents, and students (PreK through university) all over the world via Zoom—mainly the U.S., but also with schools in Spain and China. Buffy, this week I shared your poem “Be the Beat!” with kids in Shanghai! They loved tapping, snapping, and clapping. Kids enjoy doing the movements along with me, especially when they see their teachers and parents joining in. One favorite of teachers is “Deskercise” by Juli Mayer because, as with your poem, kids can stay seated for it. Primary kids really enjoy wiggling, flapping arms, and climbing like a cat in “Can You Wiggle Like a Worm?” by Rose Cappelli. And older students find “On a Beach” by Suzy Levinson very calming.
BS: Your partnership clearly has been a successful one. Tell us a bit about how the two of you began to work together. What role do you each take in developing an anthology? How has your partnership evolved after producing many books together?
JW: Sylvia and I have two completely different versions of this story, but she is very sure that she’s right—so I’ll let her tell it.
SV: My version of this story starts with me being Janet’s “groupie” and asking for her autograph in her new book, Good Luck Gold, at a conference a million years ago! That led to presenting at more conferences together which led to creating a tribute book of poems for Lee Bennett Hopkins in celebration of his receiving the Excellence in Poetry Award from the National Council of Teachers of English—the award that Janet herself just received last month! (Woohoo!) We worked so well together on that project that we decided to try another book— which led to another and another and another!
JW: With the first few books, I took the clear lead in curating the poems, while Sylvia focused on the curricular components. With this latest book, we shared the duties equally and it worked really well. With A WORLD FULL OF POEMS (published by DK), Sylvia showed that she can put together a terrific anthology all on her own, so it would’ve been odd for her not to be involved in the curatorial process for this book.
BS: What’s next on the agenda for Pomelo books?
JW: Too many ideas—but no clear frontrunners yet.
SV: Plus, once we finish a book, we devote a LOT of energy to spreading the word about the book out in the world. Creating a new anthology is just part of the process; book promotion is the next crucial step! So, we’ve held Zoom poetry parties, recorded and edited videos of poem readings, posted on social media with a variety of graphics, and taken as many silly photos of us as possible!
Thank you so much, Janet and Sylvia, for all you do to promote poetry for children, and for your generosity to the Poetry Friday community!
Readers, here’s your chance to win a copy of HOP TO IT! Leave a comment by Monday, December 14. Three lucky winners will receive a book courtesy of Pomelo Books.
I invite you to visit the Poetry Friday posts listed below.