Re-inventing What Our Lives Give Us: Conversations with Paul Janeczko - Poet, Anthologist, and Teacher
Patricia L. Bloem and Anthony L. Manna
In Paul Janeczko's anthology The Place My Words Are Looking For (1990), poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes:
Maybe if we reinvent whatever our lives give us we find poems . . . (p. 145)
Finding poems comes naturally to Janeczko, who has created numerous poetry anthologies, written several volumes of his own poetry, and, for the past six years, run poetry workshops for schools throughout the country. Although Janeczko expects to publish his twenty-second book this year, each anthology is a distinctive invention -- or re-invention. In each book Janeczko has broken ground, carefully crafting thematic units, finding new poems that speak to adolescents' ears, or inspiring students to read and write.
To explore his award-winning work, several of our classes at Kent State University spoke by phone with Janeczko in April and May of 1995. We also talked with him after his presentation at the 1995 Virginia Hamilton Conference, an annual forum on multicultural literature at Kent State University.
The following conversation is a compilation and composite of these several interviews.
Interviewer: We'd like to begin with a question that came up when we read the piece you wrote for the Nilsen and Donelson text. You say that an anthologist needs to "break new ground." What do you mean by that?
Janeczko: Soon after I published my first anthology, I realized that my job as an anthologist demanded more from me than gathering together some well-known poems. I set out to widen my circle of reading and began looking for contemporary poets -- women poets, poets of color, and poets who weren't in the mainstream journals. But I knew I wouldn't find these people easily because new poetry is reviewed so sparingly. I came up with a system for finding poems. When I have a theme for an anthology, I send out postcards to about a hundred poets inviting them to submit a few poems. I always ask them if they know of other poets I should learn about, poets whose work deserves a wider audience. As this database has grown, I've been able to break new ground by bringing together truly diverse groups of contemporary poets in my books, many of whom are new poets. If my anthologies sometimes feature nontraditional or unconventional forms of poetry, it's because younger writers in particular tend to be experimental, not only in how they go about making poems, but in the issues they write about.
I: Do you think that your "teaching books" are breaking ground? I'm thinking here about books like Poetspeak, Poetry from A to Z, and The Place My Words Are Looking For, books that encourage us to read and write poetry in a more focused way.
J: I think that in some ways they do break ground. For instance, in The Place My Words Are Looking For, I combined poetry and comments by the poets about their poems. Poetry From A to Z is even more ground breaking in that it includes an anthology, comments from the poets about the poems and suggestions on how to write poetry, and my suggestions for writing activities. To combine those elements in a trade book is unusual. The tone of this book isn't like a textbook's, though, because the activities are open-ended. I tried to give kids credit for their sense of creativity and their willingness to experiment.
I: When you sit down to shape an anthology, are you influenced by the fact that the book will be marketed for young adults?
J: Well, yes and no. The first rule for me is that I need to like the poems myself. But I also need to keep in mind that these are kids I'm appealing to, from early to late adolescence. Kids, after all, are exploring, and I want to give them poems that will help them do that, that are going to widen the avenues that they explore. So I do have them in mind, but it's not from a manipulative standpoint. What I set out to do is to give them a book that recognizes where they are in life and that will, at the same time, push them, a book that will help them reach out and go beyond themselves.
I: How can an anthology do this?
J: An anthology to me is like a deli counter. You know, you go to a deli counter and you order a half a pound of provolone, some pastrami, a little cheese maybe; and, when you get home and make sandwiches, you say you like this or that and you're ready to go back and buy more. That is what an anthology is. You read an anthology, you like Marge Piercy, so you pursue her poetry. You like Ted Kooser, so you pursue him. I've been blessed with an editor who understands this. I'm not so sure another editor would have taken so readily to Marge Piercy's "Rape Poem," which found its way into Poetspeak.
I: When did you begin to realize that an anthology could work this way?
J: My first anthology grew out of the poems I'd been using when I was teaching in a high school in Cleveland in the late '60s. When I discovered that my students weren't excited by the poems in the required nine-pound literature anthology, I started bringing them copies of poems I thought they'd like. At around this time, I happened to meet Jerry Weiss, who was responsible for the Laurel Leaf imprint for Dell, a company that was a leader in young adult and paperback publishing. Weiss said he would take a look at whatever poetry I had collected. I augmented the selections I'd been using with my students, organized them, and sent them off. That manuscript became The Crystal Image. When the book came out, I sent a copy to Stephen Dunning because I had so much respect for Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle -- talk about a ground-breaking poetry book -- and for his books on teaching literature. When he wrote back, he wasn't able to give me a glowing report on The Crystal Image. His point was -- and I will never forget these words -- that an anthology should break ground. He told me it wasn't enough just to put together a lot of poems that had appeared in other books.
Dunning was right, and I've tried to follow his advice ever since by taking risks. For one thing, I've experimented more and more with the overall format and structure of an anthology. My early anthologies were traditional in the sense that I organized many poems around one subject such as death or nature. It's much more difficult to do what I do now, which is to form brief sections of three or four poems on a particular topic. Not only do the poems need to connect in subtle ways, but so do the different sections of the anthology. I've also come to realize that the first and last poems are perhaps the most important: they're the anchors. Once I have those, I'm much more relaxed. I can get a little crazy until I've settled on that first and last poem.
I: Is this the format you follow for all your anthologies?
J: What I feel more comfortable doing now is to allow smaller groups of poems to create their own powerful connections and then to make sure that each section of the book grows out of all that precedes and follows it. I carried that to the extreme in the anthology of narrative poems, The Music of What Happens, where there are no divisions at all. I wanted it to read like one long poem, like a long story. I've learned that there always must be some kind of plan, some good reason for where poems are placed in an anthology. This plan is what transforms a gathering of different poems into a memorable movement or evolution.
If you look at the table of contents in Pocket Poems, for example, you see that the poems are divided basically into three major sections. The first section is about childhood experiences. That section ends with poems about leaving and going away. What follows is a small group of seasonal poems, a spinoff, which I placed in the middle of the book as a kind of interlude to demonstrate the passing of time. The last half of the book contains poems with more adult concerns, and this leads, naturally I hope, to the final few poems about returning, about coming back home after gaining much experience. The very first poem in this anthology is Ted Kooser's "Pocket Poem," and you don't have to be a Rhodes Scholar to understand why that one gets the entire thing moving. The last is David Allen Evans' "Sunset," which, of course, connotes a closing. So, for me, Pocket Poems is a book that is fairly typical of what I'm after as an anthologist. There just has to be a sturdy structure, something that holds the entire thing together.
In This Delicious Day, a book for younger readers, the poems move you through the course of a day. It opens with a Richard Snyder poem about taking full advantage of the day and ends with Adoff's "Past," which talks about savoring the present day and anticipating the possibilities of the future. I know that very few people will pick up an anthology and read it from cover to cover as they would a novel. But were they to do that and be mindful of what they're reading, they would more than likely figure out the arrangement of the poems and perhaps increase their enjoyment of them.
I: In many of your anthologies the arrangement seems to be a progression from innocence to experience. Yet, things always seem to end on an upbeat note. Is that why you ended Going Over to Your Place with Kooser's "At Midnight"?
J: That raises an interesting point. I'm very careful about the tone of an anthology. You know, adolescents can be terminally existential. That kind of gloom doesn't seem to bother many of them; in fact, they revel in it. But I don't want a dark tone to dominate a book of poems. I want an anthology to have some kind of balance -- different points of view, different moods. In Going Over to Your Place, there's a chronological progression to the way poems are laid out and a balance in the ways people think about life. Striking that kind of balance is something I have to work on consciously when I'm shaping an anthology. This was the challenge I faced when I did Looking for Your Name. When I started working on it, I had in mind the idea of battles -- that was even the working title -- because it was to be a book about conflict, not only in a physical or militaristic sense, but in a psychological and spiritual sense as well. But even though Looking for Your Name evolved into something quite different from what I had intended, I still had to be careful about not making it too dark. Even though it's the most somber of my books, I tried not to let the dark poems take over.
I: Let's go back to the issue of breaking ground. How do you think it applies to what you're working on now?
J: The most groundbreaking anthology I'm working on now is a collection for young adult readers, that I'm doing with Naomi Shihab Nye. It's called I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You. It's a YA book that deals with gender issues. On the left-hand side of each page you find a poem written by a woman, and on the right, a poem written by a man. The two poems are somehow related -- they may have the same theme, same topic, or whatever. So readers will be able to open the book and find two poets of different sexes talking about basically the same thing. The book will also include translated poems, which is one of the things Naomi brought to the book. There are going to be some unusual graphics, and then Naomi and I have a running commentary about the book.
I: The two of you are commenting on the poems?
J: No, we're conversing about the process we used to put the book together. The point was to introduce a little by-play between us that would echo the by-play between the two poets on those pages. And Naomi has her introduction where she talks about growing up female, and I have mine about growing up in a house of mostly boys. We also talk about how we decided to do the book.
I: What else is in the works?
J: Another project I'm working on, an anthology again, is a collection of cowboy poems for elementary students. There is no book of cowboy poems out for kids. I think it might have more appeal for boys, which is one reason why I was interested in doing it, because boys, so they say, are not interested in poetry. Another book that's on the way is called Friends...Or Not, a book for kids that will explore the whole notion of the ups and downs of friendship. Friendship is so powerful and is such an important part of our lives, or could be, that it's a topic I wanted to devote an entire book to. I also sold a collection of my own poems -- baseball poems. Its working title is That Sweet Diamond, and again it's for middle grade readers. So, those are some of the projects I've been working on when I m not in the schools.
I: We understand that you spend a lot of time in schools throughout the country leading poetry workshops. What do you do to interest students in poetry?
J: First of all, I want teachers and kids to know that there is little correlation between academic and artistic achievement, particularly where writing is concerned. I don't want them to think that poetry is only for the gifted and talented. Teachers always seem surprised when students who usually don't do very well academically, come up with good poems. But this doesn't surprise me at all, because often it's the disenfranchised students who latch onto poetry. I'm not completely sure why this happens, but it's probably because poetry gives these kids a chance to speak about things from the heart. Poetry is the perfect vehicle for that. Also, many disenfranchised kids are rebellious to one degree or another. I think they see poetry as a form of rebellion because it has its own set of rules. They relate to this thing called "poetic license" and go with it.
When I'm out in the schools, I also tell them the truth about how I got started writing. I know they probably expect to hear some heartwarming story about how I wrote my first poem on the kitchen wall when I was three, and how my parents were so pleased that they cut out that piece of sheetrock and saved it in our attic in New Jersey.
Well, the truth is that when I started writing in fifth or sixth grade, I didn't write poetry or stories. I started by sending away for all the free stuff that was advertised in magazines I found around the house. I think it was that sense of an audience that intrigued me. To know that there was somebody out there, somebody I could write to and for, besides myself, sparked my interest in writing. What did I need a free sample of tarnish remover for? What I needed was to get that package back with my name and address on it. I think that was the first time I felt the narcotic of seeing my name in print. A lot of kids take heart in this story. I mean, here is this guy who didn't do particularly well in school but still managed to wind up being a writer. There's hope for them in my story.
I: How do you motivate students to write poetry?
J: Kids like to write poetry, because they like to play with language. I simply try to take advantage of this interest when I visit a classroom.
I: Have you found that it's easier to involve younger students in writing, given their attraction to language play, than it is to involve older students?
J: When I do get a chance to work with high school students, I find there is always a group of them that writes poetry. For a lot of high school kids, poetry writing is simply a great way to give voice to their emotions. I believe that one of the biggest failings in high schools is the lack of attention given to kids' emotional lives. Consequently, they turn to violence or graffiti or other destructive ways of dealing with their emotions. If they had opportunities to give voice to their emotions in more constructive ways and in a supportive environment, it would make a big difference. Poetry is one way -- there are other ways, of course -- but poetry is one productive way for adolescents to express what they're experiencing inside. So, I'm never surprised that high school students are writing poetry because I know what poetry can do.
I: How do you get kids started reading and writing poetry?
J: One of the things that has always worked for me is using humor in the classroom. Approaching poetry with a certain degree of levity always helps. When you first plunge into poetry with kids, start with humorous or nonsensical verse with lots of rhyming. After you've established a relationship with the kids and see that they are taking to the process and that it can be fun, it's time to move on to more serious subjects and more demanding forms like free verse. I used this approach when I was still teaching full-time, and I use it now when I go into the schools. Kids tend to complain about having to come up with rhymes, but they generally prefer to write poems that rhyme because they can easily tell where the line is supposed to end. Rhyming sets a limit to the form, and for them, this is comforting. I might start with one of the forms I included in Poetry from A to Z, such as the clerihew or the "opposite."
Many teachers start by reading a lot of poetry and then move into writing. I have always come at it the other way around. I feel that, as kids write poetry, they not only begin to understand what goes into making a poem, but also they begin to read poetry with a different kind of attention. You know, an important part of the writing process as it's taught now is publication. It's important for kids to see their work in print. For many kids, that's pretty heady stuff. When they publish their poems in a small class book or put them on the walls for everyone to read, they're taking ownership of their work. Once they do that, you've really got them hooked.
I: You've said a lot about encouraging students to write poetry, but what suggestions do you have for getting them to read poetry with the same kind of excitement?
J: If we want kids to be readers of poetry, we have to be readers of poetry ourselves. Most of the teachers I meet are not. Every single time I do a workshop for teachers, many tell me afterwards that poetry is their worst area. They tell me they want to include poetry in their programs, but they just don't know what to do with it. Well, let's face it, poetry does demand more. It demands that we read differently, but that shouldn't scare us away. When I work with teachers, I especially like to use "A History of the Pets" by David Huddle, which I included in Pocket Poems. After I read the poem, I say, "What does this poem mean?" Naturally, my audience becomes a little uneasy. Then I tell them that the poem doesn't mean anything; it simply is.
I: But if we don't explain the poem, what do we do? We're thinking especially about teaching learning disabled kids. Although many teachers have gotten away from the diagnostic, prescriptive approach that LD teachers were trained to follow, the challenge still persists.
J: It would be a great start if we just let kids read poems and enjoy them. Now, once they are enjoying poetry, then you could get them to look more closely at particular poems by asking them how poets do what they do. What I'd like to see changed is the mind set that says we have to explicate a poem to death. I applaud a teacher who gets up in front of a class and reads a poem with no strings attached as though saying, "Here's a poem I came across; I liked it, and I wanted to share it with you." Maybe it's a poem about apples in the fall, or snow, or sports, or peace. Poems don't need to mean something; poems are something. And a good poem is bound to make you react. Maybe it makes you laugh, maybe it makes you angry, or disgusts you, or makes you cry. Poetry shouldn't be put on a pedestal because poetry is everyday stuff. It's about things of the heart, about things that have an impact on us. That's why I think poetry needs to be part of everyday life in a classroom.
I don't think it's necessary to prepare a special lesson or unit on poetry every time you bring it into the classroom. After you read a novel with ninth graders, for instance, you can make poetry writing one of the options for their response. When my students and I used to read A Day No Pigs Would Die, one of the assignments was to write acrostic poems about the characters. While an acrostic poem may seem artificial, it's a form that got my students thinking about the relationships in the novel, and it also encouraged them to see the importance of finding the right words to communicate their ideas. Of course, another effective extension to reading a novel is to bring in poems that relate to the novel's themes and concerns. If you do this, kids will see that poems can express many of the same feelings they found in the novel. I think we need to do all that we can to demystify poetry for our students, and that's why I recommend that we begin with having them experience poetry on a daily basis instead of building anticipation and anxiety for it by reserving it only for special occasions like poetry week.
I: Don't you think we can also decrease anxiety about poetry by offering students poems they can relate to?
J: Absolutely. If you find the right poems, kids will respond the same way they do to a piece of fiction that strikes the right chord in them. That's what an anthology can do. Here's how this poet did it, and here's another. Let's compare and contrast to see who did a better job. There are poems that are going to be better than others, and there are poems that you're going to understand better than others, that you feel more about than others. A poem can touch a reader in many different ways. I mean, you read a poem by J. Patrick Lewis and you have a good laugh over it, or you read one by X. J. Kennedy and you see how mischievous he is with his characters. Kids need to know that response to poetry runs the gamut, just as it does with all literature. Sometimes we should expect nothing more from reading poetry than being satisfied with the emotions a poem evokes.
I: Why do you think is it so important to read poetry?
J: Anatole Broyard, who used to write for The New York Times, said that, if we don't read poetry, we won't have our hearts broken by language, which to his way of saying that thinking is one of the prerequisites of a civilized world. You know, a good poem can put you in touch with strong emotions. Philip Booth once said that poetry brings us closer to what it means to be alive. There's also James Dickey's famous assessment of poetry, that poetry is "just naturally the greatest goddamn thing that ever was in the whole universe." A good poem is like a booster shot of humanness. We need more of that. I think that's the "so what" of poetry.
Nilsen, Alleen P., and Kenneth L. Donelson. "Paul B. Janeczko: On Collecting Poems." Literature for Today's Young Adults. 4th ed. HarperCollins, 1993.
Anthologies by Paul Janeczko
The Crystal Image. Dell, 1977.
Don't Forget to Fly: A Cycle of Modern Poems. Bradbury, 1981.
Going Over to Your Place: Poems for Each Other. Bradbury, 1987.
Looking for Your Name: A Collection of Contemporary Poems. Orchard, 1993.
The Music of What Happens: Poems That Tell Stories. Orchard, 1988.
The Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say about and through Their Work. Bradbury, 1990.
Pocket Poems: Selected for a Journey. Bradbury, 1985.
Poetry from A to Z: A Guide for Young Writers. Bradbury, 1994.
Poetspeak: In Their Work, About Their Work. Bradbury, 1983.
Postcard Poems: A Collection of Poetry for Sharing. Bradbury, 1979.
Strings: A Gathering of Family Poems. Bradbury, 1984.
This Delicious Day: 65 Poems. Orchard, 1987.
Wherever Home Begins: Ten Contemporary Poems. Orchard, 1996.
I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You, edited with Naomi Shihab Nye. Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Home on the Range. lllus. B. Fuchs. Dial, 1997.
Poetry Collections by Paul Janeczko
Stardust otel. Orchard, 1993.
Brickyard Summer. lllus. K. Rush. Orchard, 1989.
Forthcoming Poetry Collection
That Sweet Diamond. Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Professors at Kent State University, Patricia Bloem and Anthony Manna arranged interviews with Janeczko by their classes as well as interviewing him themselves.
Copyright 1997. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not inteded for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Bloem, Patricia L., and Anthony L. Manna. (1997) Re-inventing what our lives give us: Conversations with Paul Janeczko -- Poet, Anthologist, and Teacher, The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 3, 12-16.