Poetry Month 2012: Julie Larios

[heading style=”1″]Poetry Month 2012: EPISODE 8[/heading]

One more week to go on the giveaway of The House by J. Patrick Lewis and Roberto Innocenti. Sign up!


Now, did you know that April is also National Kite Month? Neither did I, but it looks like today’s guest might have had an inkling or a lucky guess. Either way, she goes to great lengths to take us on a journey most kites can only dream about, so let’s give…

a sky-high hello to…

A poet and professor, Julie has published four books of poetry for children: Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious CreaturesYellow Elephant: A Bright Bestiary (which received a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award), On the Stairs, and Have You Ever Done That? What struck me right away about Julie’s books was how beautiful each one is, like little art collections in themselves, the rich poems paired with equally rich illustrations you can get lost in. Here’s just a tiny example from Imaginary Menagerie:

THE IMAGINARY MENAGERIE by Julie Larios, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
from THE IMAGINARY MENAGERIE by Julie Larios, illustrated by Julie Paschkis

When not creating these gorgeous tomes, Julie also writes poetry for adults. Not only has she been published in numerous journals and magazines, but she’s also won a Pushcart Prize and has been included twice in the annual Best American Poetry series. What a treat to have her stop by NWR!

…and now, direct from sunny Seattle, here’s Julie and her soaring verse…

“No Strings Attached”

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No Strings Attached

If I were a wild kite with no strings to hold me,
I ‘d let the wind take me – I’d let the crows scold me,

I’d float through the sky with the sun on my shoulders.
The clouds would all bite at my ears. I’d be bolder
than bold – I would dance, I’d be brave, I’d go soaring—
a life in the sky could never be boring.
I’d fly over houses then over the tops
of skyscraping buildings but I wouldn’t stop
there – I’d sail over sailboats and islands and oceans.
I’d drive the world loco with my locomotion.

Diving and squawking, the seagulls would show me
the migrating whales as they spouted below me.
Over Kansas and Kashmir, the hot sands of Cairo,
Mt. Fuji, Mt. Everest – higher and higher— oh,
wheat fields would wave to me, deserts would sigh,
icebergs would stare as I rose in the sky.
The sun would be one friend, the bright moon another,
and what would the stars be but sisters and brothers?

I’d know all the secrets the sky’s never told me
if I were a wild kite with no strings to hold me.

 [heading style=”1″]Guest Poet Interview ~ Julie Larios[/heading]

Julie Larios

What’s Up with Julie

Julie: who are you, where are you, and how long have you been a rhyming fool?
Rhyming fool? Me? (A small voice in my head is saying, “Yes, you!”) I’ve written poetry for almost as long as I can remember. In 8th grade I won a national poetry contest that Scholastic magazine sponsored. The poem was not brilliant but it had a certain charm and the judges liked it, as did my mother, who kept it framed above her desk for many years (Warning: Do not always trust your mother to be the most objective reader of your poetry.) Fifty years later, I still love writing and I still love poetry. And I still love my mom, who still loves me. Though I spent many years in the Bay Area, I now live in Seattle with my husband and a very cranky cockatiel. My kids are 1) all grown up, 2) married (or about to be), and 3) wonderful people. And I teach creative writing to people who want to write for kids.

It’s clear from your video that you were born to be wild, just like the kite in your poem. So was it your own wild streak and untamed wanderlust that inspired this poem?
I like to imagine what being wild is like – no strings, think of that! – but the fact is I like my life tame and cozy. In the winter, just give me a good book, a hot cup of cocoa, a warm blanket, and a fire blazing in the woodstove; in summer, just change those last three items on the list to lemonade, a hammock in the shade, and kids running through the sprinkler (having a good book to read stays on the list no matter what the season is). That said, I do like to travel, whether the trip is long (Rome, Barcelona, London, Paris, New York City, Guadalajara…) or short (drifting around my own neighborhood on a nice day). My blog is called The Drift Record because I like being a flaneur, someone who drifts around observing people, trees, shadows, birds, house colors, weird signs, cracks in the sidewalk, other fascinating things. If I wander in the dark, I look at the way moonlight changes all those things. But wild? Maybe I’ve got people fooled. I’m far from wild – in fact, if I were an animal, I might be someone’s pet basset hound.

Besides your four books of children’s poetry, you’ve also published poetry for adults, for which you’ve won a Pushcart Prize and other honors. Which came first for you, and do you have a preference? For your children’s books, how long did it take you to soar to publication?
Let’s see – which came first? They’re so woven together in my life that it’s hard to remember. I was writing both kinds of poetry simultaneously when my sister, Mary Cornish (who is also a writer and an illustrator) sent a manuscript of mine to her editor, who accepted it. My first book for children, On the Stairs, was illustrated by my sister, and that was an extra treat for me because she and I are very close. About the same time, I went back to college and began to publish poetry for adults. I can’t say I have a preference for writing one kind of poem over the other – for adults or for kids. I feel very, very lucky to have those three strands braiding together – teaching, writing for children, writing for adults; each makes the other stronger. Winning the Pushcart Prize and getting poems chosen for The Best American Poetry series made me happy in a quiet way. Getting a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award for Yellow Elephant made me giddy with joy and I told everyone I knew. Two treats, just different flavors.

What is your favorite part about being a children’s writer, other than the crazy escapades you no doubt engage in daily?
As much as I love kids and love writing for them, I don’t do a lot of school visits or other things like that. Performing for a crowd runs counter to how quiet my life as a poet is. But having my books in the library makes me happy – I think public libraries are one of the best things about this country. And it makes me happy to think of a child going to the library, browsing, finding one of my books, taking it home, reading it, and enjoying it. I love to think that when that child goes to bed at night, he or she will fall asleep thinking about something I wrote, wondering about it, puzzling it out, being comforted by it. That’s the best part of writing for children – imagining that. That’s heaven.

You are a professor in the Writing for Children MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. What are some of the writerly things you see your grad students struggle with when it comes to writing children’s poetry?
There are a variety of things students stumble over when they’re starting out writing poetry for children. Here are four problems I see over and over again:

1. Tired topics, clichés. So much about good poetry depends on a surprising and unique take on the world. That’s why so many poets are a little weird (and I include myself) – poets’ brains work differently. At least, that’s been my experience. Poetry sees the world fresh. “Make it new” is good advice.

2. Sentimentality. Over-idealizing childhood leads to writing that is “precious” and cloying. I’m always telling my students, “Strange it up.”

3. Abstractions. Get rid of them. God is in the details, and so is poetry.

4. Inattention to sound. Many students misunderstand free verse and think it means they can forget musicality. Not so. Poetry is made up of sounds, images, and ideas – if any one of those is left out, poetry suffers. If you want to write poetry, especially for children, you should consider learning how to scan a poem for its metrical patterns. Do the work, learn the basics, honor the language.

Do you have formal training in writing poetry, or are you just a natural?
I have a Master in Fine Arts with a concentration in Poetry from the University of Washington, where I studied with some excellent poets – Richard Kenney, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds – all three of whom have been awarded “Genius Grants” from the MacArthur Foundation. So my work with them was also about intellectual curiosity, not only creative writing. I’m not sure anyone is just a natural in poetry, though formal training probably changes poetry for adults more than it changes poetry for children.

What’s your best advice for kids who want to write poetry?
Read, read, read poetry. And did I mention read poetry? I’m a big believer in learning to write by reading widely and well, and by reading the way a writer does, looking at the craftsmanship behind the poem. It’s not about learning how to “copy” other poets (though imitation is not a bad first step when you’re beginning). It’s just that by reading a lot you begin to notice certain rhythms that appeal to you, certain turns of expression and types of language and patterns of sounds and images. And as you read, read, read, you can begin to write, write, write, until little by little you find your own voice.

What’s your best advice for poets who want to get their poetry published (other than “don’t bother”)?
Do your very best work, screw up your courage, and send it out. And if it comes back, send it out again, to someone else. Remember that editors are quirky – trust the fact that eventually you’ll send the right poem to the right editor who will read it on the right day. The planets will align, and you’ll get a poem published. Then two, then three…

Can you recommend a particular book of children’s poetry, or a particular poet, that you think children should read? Why that book or poet?
I’d love to see kids reading more Mother Goose rhymes, learning jump rope rhymes on the playground, reading nonsense like the poems written by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, hilarious poems written by A.A. Milne, haunting poems written by Robert Louis Stevenson (you can see I’m fond of the classics). Most of those poems allow for silliness and word play. Some of them are about the world of the imagination. All of them are by poets who loved language. Valerie Worth – All the Small Poems – oh, that’s a wonderful book, full of small gems. Older children can easily read the work of Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Kay Ryan, Seamus Heaney, Walt Whitman – kids shouldn’t settle for mediocre work. They should be reading fine poets – great poets, even complicated poets – from an early age. The music of that kind of poetry will wash over them, and the meaning will come later.

Can we come visit you and peruse your wares? (We’ll bring the kites AND the scissors to set those babies free!)

Poetry blog: The Drift Record — This is where I sometimes post poems I’ve written, but more often I post other people’s poetry, or I write about those shadows and moonlight I was talking about earlier. The blog is about curiosity, and about living as a poet in the world, with your head up and eyes open, looking, observing, reflecting.

Writing blog: Books Around the Table is “a potluck of ideas from four children’s book authors and illustrators.” Some friends (Julie Paschkis, Laura Kvasnosky, Margaret Chodos-Irvine) and I alternate posts on this new blog, which focuses on “the writing life.”

Faculty blog: Write at Your Own Risk  is the unofficial faculty blog for the Vermont College of Fine Arts. My sweet friends and colleagues – most of them novelists — reflect and ruminate.

Thanks for stopping by, Julie, and for adding “No Strings Attached” to No Water River’s growing video poetry library!
Thank you, Renée. And may I say how much I love that beautiful body of water behind you in your videos. There seems to be plenty of water, so it can’t be the No Water River your blog is named for, can it? Nope! That’s a little inlet of the Mediterranean. I explain No Water River right here!

[heading style=”1″]More Stuff About Julie[/heading]

[heading style=”1″]Extension Activities: “No Strings Attached”[/heading]

Books by Julie Larios
Children's Poetry by Julie Larios

[heading style=”1″]Coming Up Next![/heading]

comes in on little cat feet on Friday!

Here’s the whole schedule:

April 2 ~ Kenn Nesbitt 
April 6 ~ Amy Ludwig VanDerwater 
April 9 ~ Laura Purdie Salas
April 13 ~ Deborah Diesen
April 16 ~ Greg Pincus
April 18 ~ Charles Waters
April 20 ~ Irene Latham
April 23 ~ Julie Larios
April 27 ~ Lee Wardlaw
April 30 ~ J. Patrick Lewis

[divider=”1″] Video Location: A sunny day in Seattle, Washington! Huzzah!

See more poems in my poetry video library. 

“No Strings Attached” copyright © Julie Larios. All rights reserved