Poetry Month 2013: “GongGong and Susie” by Janet Wong
“When you rush to park…
and end up hopeless, crooked–
just start over.”
Story of my life. And such simple, sound advice. Just start over. As one who has found herself hopeless and crooked in all sorts of corners over the years, and is still listing a bit to the right, I am a true believer in starting over. Pick up, brush off, start over. It’s never too late. You’re never too old.
Those few words in that quote set me off on a whole philosophical, introspective retrospective on my life and all the times I’ve started over — quitting college, changing goals, quitting jobs, getting new jobs, quitting them again, going back to college, changing goals, changing careers, changing cities, changing countries. But the funny thing is that those words aren’t from some What Color Is My Parachute? type of book or a feel-good motivational tape. Nope, they’re from a poem. About driving.
And that’s what’s so great about poems. They take you places. They take you places they probably weren’t intended to take you or that you didn’t intend to go. No matter. You just go. Maybe they leave you crooked in a corner. Maybe they straighten you out.
This bit of sound advice about driving, about life, comes from our very own
I know Janet only virtually, but I have a strong suspicion that she is a very practical person, like me. I’m guessing she’s a plain talker, too. Got something to say? Just say it. At least, that’s what comes through in her poetry. She’s just so darn sensible and her writing is so plain-spoken and accessible that you don’t even know that she’s taking you on a joyride until she drops you off back home, slightly out of sorts but feeling good.
And she is a fabulous storyteller. I don’t know why that surprised me, but it did. I think we should all go to Janet’s house in our jammies, curl up on the rug with some chocolate (and potato chips for Janet), and ask her to tell us stories. She must have a million of them, judging by the amazing array of subjects her books cover. Like… (click the pics to zoom and read the poems)
MOTHERS AND CHILDREN
And that’s just a smattering of the over thirty books Janet has to her credit, which include poetry, picture books, and young adult novels. The variety of subject matter astounds me!
As does this wonderful story and poem, “GongGong and Susie” from Janet’s second book, A Suitcase of Seaweed and other poems. Get your jammies on!
GONGGONG AND SUSIE
Susie sure is good
Got to be.
I treat her right.
kill a skunk.
Did I tell you?
I did eat
Take out them
with garlic, onion.
Skunk, snake, night owl,
I eat them
It was Depression time.
No work, nothing
We hunt, we fish, we camp.
Hey Susie, Susie,
want to eat
*GongGong is one Cantonese word for grandfather.
INTERVIEW with JANET WONG
What’s up with Janet
Janet: who are you, where are you, and how long have you been a rhyming/free versing fool?
Who am I? Where am I? I’m three people (each of them a size 4). I’m a hermit who lives in Princeton and loves carnivorous plants and witch hazels. I’m a daughter who takes Mom to her doctors in Seattle once a month. And I’m a poet who travels town to town sharing a suitcase of poetry. How long have I been a poetry fool? My Poet-Self is 21 years old. She helps to keep my Regular-Self young!
Can you share the first poem you ever wrote?
I don’t have any memory of a first poem written as a child; I didn’t like poetry, starting around fourth grade. In fairness, I think it was poetry homework that I didn’t like, not poetry itself.
The first poem that my poetry teacher Myra Cohn Livingston liked (when I took her class as an adult) was “Waiting at the Railroad Cafe” in Good Luck Gold. It was the first serious poem that I wrote and it was based on a painful memory from my childhood. I tell kids: “I hope you don’t have many painful memories, but we will all have at least one—and a poem is a good place to put it.”
“GongGong and Susie” is from your collection A Suitcase of Seaweed and other poems, a collection of poems about your Chinese and Korean heritage and your “American you.”
You have also written poetry and picture books on, among other things, the following topics: driving, elections, dreams, superstitions, endangered animals, cultural differences, chess, yoga, and buzzing noises. I think it’s useless to ask where you find your ideas, because you obviously find them everywhere! But what is it about a particular subject that makes you think, “This would be a good subject for a collection.” And what kind of preparation goes into the writing of your collections/books?
When you’re hungry, how do you decide what to eat? You could eat anything from cherries to chocolate to chips. Or all three! My body of work looks like my refrigerator—a hodgepodge of things I felt like munching on at that moment.
To get back to your question: some of my books do have very specific sources of inspiration. I wrote Twist: Yoga Poems because my friend Julie Paschkis, illustrator of Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams and Knock on Wood: Poems about Superstitions, is crazy about yoga. I wanted to do a third book with Julie, and I thought a collection of yoga poems would make a great gift to her. I wrote Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club because I was spending a lot of Saturdays at chess tournaments with my son.
What kind of prep do I do for my books? Mainly a lot of brainstorming and bouncing ideas around, reading, and asking people for their opinions on this or that. With my latest projects, the books in The Poetry Friday Anthology series, I think about what teachers would find useful in poetry. My friend and collaborator Sylvia Vardell is the queen of practical poetry books, and we might go back and forth on email dozens of times a day, discussing poems and curriculum tips, refining our approach to make it more useful to teachers. (A hint about our next book: STEM!)
For those of you who don’t know, Janet was a lawyer before she was a children’s literature goddess. Here she is speaking about the transformation.
So, Janet, there you were, lawyering around town, when you decided to write children’s books. You’ve said elsewhere that at the time, you didn’t know how to begin…so how did you begin? Can you tell us a story about some of the PB skeletons from your “should never see the light of day” closet?
I started by going to the library and checking out books on how to get published. I raided the 808 and 070 sections of the library. Then I joined SCBWI and started sending out the picture book manuscripts that I wrote each week. After I had received about 26 rejection letters, I figured it was time to learn how to write for children. I signed up for a class in poetry with Myra Cohn Livingston—but not to learn poetry. I wanted to study rhyme, repetition, and rhythm to help me write the next Goodnight Moon. I had heard Myra speak at a one-day workshop on “everything you need to know to write a book and get it published” and I knew I could learn something from her. I shudder with embarrassment when I remember the first day of poetry class; when we went around the room introducing ourselves, I was so oblivious that I said, “I’m here just to sharpen my prose.” Myra was a brilliant teacher with a generous soul. I was so lucky to be able to study with her.
Since then, you’ve published about a million books. What was the journey to publication like for you? Where do you hope to go from here?
Myra sold my first book for me. One day she called me and said, “Guess what I did yesterday?” A few months earlier I had complained about my rejection letters and Myra had said, “You’re not ready to be published.” I asked her when I would be ready. I was a graduate of Yale Law School and had practiced law for four years—but I couldn’t write a book for two-year-olds? Myra told me that I could give her a manuscript now and then; she would read it and she would tell me when I was ready. As it turned out, she did much more than that!
Where do I hope to go from here? I have worked with stellar editors at some of the best publishers: Simon & Schuster, HMHarcourt, Frances Foster/FSG, Candlewick, Charlesbridge, and Richard C. Owen Books. But last year, Sylvia Vardell and I formed our own company, Pomelo Books, and this is where my focus is now. This is a very exciting time for writers. We have so many options! You can have a publisher publish your book in the traditional way; you can start a small company of your own and print paperbacks on demand; or you can upload an e-book to the Kindle store and send an Amazon link to all your friends a day later (at no cost to you).
So do you think self-pubbing is a good option for a previously unpublished writer? Any pearls of wisdom to impart?
It’s hard to give advice on this. It’s like someone asking, “Should I shave my head bald?” I could tell you, Renée, that you would look fabulous with a shiny bald head—you have such a pretty face, I’m sure you would—but this is something you really have to think long and hard about yourself. If you shave your head bald and, as a result of your stunning bald appearance, you end up landing a huge part in an award-winning movie, you’ll tell me that my advice was useful. If, however, you shave your head bald and you look ugly and the hair grows back in odd clumps, you’ll never trust me again.
Self-publishing is kind of the same way; whether it’s good advice depends a lot on the result. One great thing about e-books and Createspace print-on-demand books is that you can easily revise the files and update what is sold on Amazon—so you needn’t despair if your self-published book isn’t an instant bestseller. (You can just keep revising until it is!)
And for what it’s worth: I was on a conference panel last year when a respected editor said that she would not hold it against a manuscript if she were told, in the cover letter, that it had been self-published already as an e-book. She said: if the book has sold well as an e-book, its sales history might even help get it published. I think a growing number of editors feel the same way.
(This just in: email from Janet - breaking news: Gwyneth Paltrow once had a shaved head! I guess it was before she was famous–or at least that’s what a quick glance at the HuffPost article told me. So, you see, the answer is: YES, you can shave your head (or self-publish) and still become a famous star.)
You have often cited Myra Cohn Livingston as your poetry teacher and mentor. What is the most important lesson you learned in your time studying with Ms. Livingston? How did the experience shape your own writing?
I learned many things from Myra, but the most important thing was to put some music in a poem through rhyme, repetition, or rhythm.
Do you think mentoring is important for new children’s poets? What advice would you give to budding poets in this regard?
Finding a mentor is important for anyone in any field. And being a mentor helps remind a person of what is important.
How can a budding poet find a mentor? Be a good citizen of whatever community you share with your mentor; be respectful; be a good listener. Find a way to give of yourself, to inspire your mentor to give back.
What are your criteria for a good children’s poem?
There are many, many great children’s poems; what I’m trying to write nowadays—or to include in our anthologies—are poems that aren’t simply good but that also fill a gap, that are about underrepresented or new subjects. In the two editions of The Poetry Friday Anthology, I have poems about Skyping with a military dad, being in charge after Mom goes to work, and celebrating a blended family. Sonya Sones has a poem about babysitting; Eileen Spinelli and Guadalupe Garcia McCall have poems about bullying; Linda Kulp has a poem about texting. These are topics that you won’t find many poems about!
You visit dozens of schools each year to work with students and teachers. What advice do you have for teachers who may be reluctant or insecure about sharing poetry with their students? And for the students themselves who may think poetry is something icky?
Advice for teachers: ask your district to buy either the K-5 edition or the middle school edition of The Poetry Friday Anthology and dive right in!
Advice for students: poetry is the easiest genre to write. Write a poem a day and you’re on your way to becoming a strong writer. Become a strong writer, and maybe you’ll land a job as a sports reporter who goes to the Olympics for free, or a video game developer who spends all day inventing stories for games, or a car reviewer who gets to drive a Ferrari this week and a Lamborghini next week, or the VP of marketing for your favorite company. Become a strong writer, and the world will open itself up to you.
If you could go on a trip around the world with any children’s poet (living or otherwise), who would it be and why, and what place would you most like to show that person?
Myra Cohn Livingston passed away more than 15 years ago, before she could see how many of her students had become successful poets. I’d like to take her to a bookstore and show her all of our books—and then we could visit Tokyo for our sushi lunch!
Quick: a rhyming couplet using the word “fringe.” (You can use it in your new collection on decorative trimmings!)
When Grandy was a girl, she had an awful chore:
Comb the fringe of the carpet—oh, what a bore!
Grandy, my mother-in-law, grew up during the Depression. One day she told us a story about how everyone took extremely good care of their belongings during the Depression because they had so little. As an example, she described this awful chore—and the image has stayed with me.
At our old house (which Grandy used to visit when she was alive), we had carpets with messy fringe that went every which way and was kind of dusty (because I never combed or vacuumed it). I wonder: was she trying to tell me that I needed to do better housekeeping?
Can we come visit you and peruse your wares?
Yes, please visit me at one of my sites or the sites/blogs for our Pomelo Books projects!
Thanks for stopping by, Janet, and for adding “GongGong and Susie” to No Water River’s video poetry library!
More Stuff about Janet
I didn’t have space to include all the questions I wanted to ask — such as how many awards Janet has won and how she ended up having lunch at the White House and why she’s eavesdropping on Caroline Kennedy here:
…so here’s all the places you can find lots more information!
- Janet’s bio
- See a list of all of Janet’s books. Click on the book covers to learn more about the history of the book, excerpts, and more of Janet’s stories!
- Listen to Janet read more poems and stories.
- Invite Janet to your school! Find information about planning school and Skype visits.
- Many interviews of Janet are accessible online. Here are a few I liked:
Extension Activities for “GongGong and Susie”
- Janet offers a wonderful writing exercise in her video: Ask a relative or older person to tell a story, and write it down exactly as it is said. Retell that story in a free verse poem in which you try to capture the true voice of the person.
- Try Janet’s simile writing lesson.
- Make a poetry suitcase. Janet provides lots of ideas here for creating, renewing, and sharing a poetry suitcase in your classroom.
- Janet’s poems are full of strong and distinct voices. Have each student choose a favorite poem and create a character for that poem. Students can look for clues about the narrator in the poem — such as age, gender, place, circumstance, personality traits — or invent their own characters. They can use props or costume pieces to bring the character to life. Students can then memorize or read their poems in character. For younger kids, do the exercise as a whole class.
- Make a healthy bowl of chow mein!
UP NEXT: JOYCE SIDMAN!
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Video Location: Janet’s spotless slice of heaven. Intro filmed at Buca delle Fate (Fairies’ Cove) in Tuscany, Italy.See more poems in my poetry video library.
All poems © Janet Wong. Illustrations for Knock On Wood, Night Garden, Declaration of Interdependence, and Twist © Julie Paschkis. Illustrations for The Rainbow Hand © Jennifer Hewitson.