Poetry Month 2013: “The Ants” by Joyce Sidman
“As we are now, so we shall be
(if air is clear and water free)…“
I have been dancing this week, but not on my feet. It’s been more of a mental minuet, a pleasant TAH-ta-ta-TAH (glide), TAH-ta-ta-TAH (dip) that has accompanied me on my daily rounds of work, kids, life and given my mundane tasks a little pick-me-up — or a tirami su in Italian (it’s more than just a dessert!). Sometimes the tune expands to a waltz, occasionally a cha-cha, and once I even boogied, but mostly it’s an elegant float across the floor without a lot of showy grand jetés.
The cause of the dancing, of course, has been the poetry of today’s guest, the recipient of the 2013 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children,
Although I am currently obsessed with Joyce’s Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night — which is both a Newbery Honor Book and a Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book — because of poems like this (click pics to enlarge):
…I have found so much to love in each collection I see. Besides the musicality and elegance of her work, I have been struck by how Joyce plays with form within and between collections. From the owl-shaped poem above and the concrete poetry in Meow Ruff: A Story in Concrete Poetry (how sweet is that!)…
to the apology poems in This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness, modeled on the poem by William Carlos Williams, there’s always some new tune to hear.
Like this one. It’s a riddle and a song!
So there I was, dancing in my head…until I got to this gem from Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems. Go ahead, click on it. Sing it. I’ll wait.
See what I mean? Clearly I could not read “Listen for Me” and not break out my feather-trimmed gown and long gloves. The lyricism, the repetition, the build of each stanza, the rhythm created by the form itself — GAH! I’m not sure if he’s singing a foxtrot or a rumba, but that frog had me at ribbit. It’s not hard to see why this book is not only a Caldecott Honor Book, but also the winner of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award.
This same musicality permeates the book Joyce is reading from in today’s video, Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors. In fact, here is the poem I boogied to, “The Lichen We.”
“As we are now, so we shall be…” I’m pretty sure Joyce’s poetry will be as enduring as the creatures in this book and that she’ll be making kids dance for a long, long time.
Especially if they have “The Ants” in their pants!
The ants, the ants
on tips of plants
on sticks, on stones,
on ice cream cones;
beneath the ground
they ebb and flow,
who’s friend, who’s foe.
They dig, they climb,
they drag, they haul
(they never seem
to play at all).
thrown in their path
they laugh! (Well, really,
ants don’t laugh:
they just speed up
their ant-like flow
and find a different
way to go.)
But when a gang
attacks their nest?
They beat their legs
against their chests,
they snap their
and drive them out
with great success.
And then, after
the fight has quit,
they go back home
[heading style=”1″]INTERVIEW with JOYCE SIDMAN[/heading]
What’s up with Joyce
Joyce: who are you, where are you, and how long have you been a rhyming fool?
I’m a homebody with an overactive dog living in Minnesota (where it is currently snowing, on April 21). Been writing all my life, and I used to draw a lot, too. I began to gravitate toward poetry in high school, and towards children’s lit after having kids and reading them all those rich, delightful books.
Can you share the first poem you ever wrote?
Uhhhhh . . . the first one I remember writing (in fourth grade) was embarrassingly bad. It was about snow–and I didn’t even live in Minnesota at that time. I had noticed that fallen snow sparkled in the sun, which seemed magical to me, so I had to write about it. That’s pretty much been my pattern ever since.
“The Ants” is part of your collection Ubiquitous, which is all about why and how certain life forms survive. Most of your other books of verse also deal with the natural world or other non-fiction topics. What draws you to these themes? Do you have a background in science?
We write about what we find beautiful or inspiring or mysterious. The natural world is all those things to me, so that is often what I focus on. I don’t have a science background per se (beyond college courses), but I love to ask questions: What makes a species survive? How do creatures make their way at night? Why do spirals appear so often in nature? I start with something that intrigues me. Then I explore it–find the most interesting parts–and create poems around them. A book takes me anywhere from a few months to several years to complete, depending how focused I am on the topic. If I’m not sure of my way, I put the poems aside and come back to them, hoping for clarity.
What kind of preparation goes into the writing of your collections?
I read a lot. I walk a lot, and think a lot. In order to go forward with a poem, or a collection of poems, I have to discover its voice–a glimmering of the tone, the structure, or the mood. Once I envision that, I can proceed, but I do it cautiously. I am not prolific–I don’t write reams and toss most of it. I do a lot of sorting and evaluating in my head, and only put words down on paper when I’m fairly certain the project is working.
I read in an interview that you came relatively late to (or “happened upon”) writing poetry for children. And yet in the few years since the publication of your first collection, Just Us Two: Poems about Animal Dads, in 2000, you have earned multiple major awards and recognition for your work. That pretty much equates to overnight success in the publishing world! What has this journey to publication and beyond been like for you? Where do you hope to go from here?
Have to chuckle at that “overnight” remark. I have been writing all my life, and my first book wasn’t published until I was in my 40s. Not exactly overnight! I think it just took me a while to find my voice. Even after I started to pursue children’s literature, it took me ten years to get a book accepted. The middle grade novels and picture books I submitted again and again never found homes. It wasn’t until I began combining an old love (poetry) with a new love (children’s books) that I got a toehold. One day I read in my SCBWI newsletter that Millbrook Press was looking for literary works that could be used in the classroom, and I sent in a poetry manuscript about animal fathers (Just Us Two), which was accepted. Millbrook also published my book Eureka! Poems about Inventors before they went into bankruptcy and reorganization. Eventually I had a third poetry manuscript accepted by Ann Rider at Houghton Mifflin (who had seen and turned down dozens of my manuscripts), and I’ve been working with her ever since. Houghton does a beautiful job with my books, which has contributed to the attention they have received. Hopes for the future? Keep finding good ideas. Keep writing.
(Read this free verse poem. It will stay with you.)
Do you have formal training in poetry and/or did you have a mentor? How did this shape your writing? Do you think mentoring is important for new children’s poets?
I think everyone comes to poetry (and writing) differently. I had wonderful, encouraging teachers in high school and college (including former poet laureate Richard Wilbur), and heard lots of visiting poets that made me fall in love with poetry. I’ve been reading it avidly ever since. Maybe I could say that poetry itself is my mentor? When I discovered children’s poetry, Alice Schertle’s work blew me away–especially Advice for a Frog. I wanted to write a book like that. Or one like Kristine O’Connell George’s Old Elm Speaks: Tree Poems. Good poetry thrills me and makes me want to write. As for new writers, I think everyone benefits from writing colleagues that challenge them to work and rework their manuscripts–I’d be lost without my writer’s group. But you want to develop your own voice. So find people you trust, who won’t say, “No, you can’t do it that way.” Believe in your own unique voice.
What are your criteria for a good children’s poem? What advice would you give to budding poets?
Same criteria as an adult poem: it must affect me intellectually, emotionally, and viscerally–a “wow” moment I feel in my gut. Advice to budding poets: read a lot of poetry. Try to figure out what speaks to you and why. Then start writing.
Is there anything you know now that you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out?
Actually, a fellow writer did tell tell me something important early on, and I have been so glad of it over the years. Her advice was: always focus the work. That is the most important thing. Not publication parties, not sales figures, not contracts. The work itself, and the joy that comes along with it.
As a teacher yourself, what advice would you give to teachers who may be reluctant or insecure about sharing poetry with their students?
Go to a public library and ask for the children’s librarian. Ask her/him to hand you a sampling of the best books of children’s poetry out there. Then read them. Find a few poems you like. Share THOSE with your students. Figure out TOGETHER why they’re so good. Your students will catch your enthusiasm! Then, write some poetry with them–they will love it. You can use the ideas on my site here.
If you could go on safari with any children’s poet (living or otherwise), who would it be and why, and what would the two of you do while rattling around in the jeep?
It would be Marilyn Singer, since we are friends but never have any time together. She’d be someone who would stop the jeep at the drop of a hat and inspect any interesting plant or creature with me. Then we could write a book together about everything we find!
(Joyce, you must find a way to make this happen!)
Can we come visit you and peruse your wares?
Yes! Please come visit! There are book trailers, classroom guides, videos of poetry reading, and photos of my dog. And don’t miss my Robin Journal, a journal of the year robins nested on my porch.
Thanks for stopping by, Joyce, and for adding “The Ants” to No Water River’s growing video poetry library!
[heading style=”1″]Bonus Video![/heading]
Did you know that Sylvia Vardell’s students are making “poem movies” from the poems in The Poetry Friday Anthology series? They are all so unique and fascinating to watch, including this beautiful one of Joyce’s poem “Restless,” produced by grad student Ellen Samples. You can find more poem movies on Sylvia and Janet’s PFAMS blog (including one for my poem “These Hands”!)
[heading style=”1″]More Stuff about Joyce[/heading]
- Joyce’s bio
- See a list of all of Joyce’s books. Click on the book covers to find reading guides and to learn more about the history and awards for each book.
- Peruse Joyce’s pep talk and links for writers.
- Invite Joyce for a Skype visit to your school!
- Many interviews of Joyce are accessible online. Here are a few I liked:
[heading style=”1″]Extension Activities for “The Ants”[/heading]
- Joyce researches her subjects and includes factual information in her poems. Have students write their own insect poems. Include research about the insect and incorporate some facts into the poem. For an added challenge, write the poem in the voice of the insect.
- Use any of Joyce’s poetry ideas in your next poetry lesson.
- Explore a selection of Joyce’s books. Choose a variety of poems and show students how poems can take many forms. Discuss why Joyce might have chosen to write specific poems in a certain way (e.g., concrete, free verse, use of repetition, and so on).
- Make the classic ants on a log snack.
Getting antsy? Laura Purdie Salas has today’s Poetry Friday roundup at Writing the World for Kids.
[heading style=”1″]UP NEXT: LEE BENNETT HOPKINS![/heading]
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See more poems in my poetry video library.
All poems © Joyce Sidman. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved.