Steven Withrow is a poet, storyteller, teacher, and author of several books for children, teens, and adults including Character Design for Graphic Novels and It’s Not My Fault. His poems appear in many journals and anthologies including the National Geographic Books of Animal and Nature Poetry and One Minute Till Bedtime. He co-produced the film Library of the Early Mind: A grown-up look at children’s literature and lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. He is the founder of Poetry Advocates for Children & Young Adults. His poetry blog is Crackles of Speech.
I have definitely looked closely at technology in art-making and storytelling in my nonfiction books for teens and adults.
Besides the fact that technological images have changed over time in poems, moving from televisions and telephones to text messages and virtual reality, writers have also used the web and social media as platforms for sharing their poems, promoting their books, and collaborating on projects. This is a massive advantage for writers, readers, teachers, and publishers, but it is not without drawbacks and obstacles.
The speed and ease of posting one’s writing online, without the traditional gatekeeping of editors or critics with high standards, have led to a growing glut of dashed-off first drafts that can crowd out more memorable, carefully crafted poems.
I will say that I am less concerned about this than I used to be because I have come to accept that good poems have always been exceedingly rare and mediocre and inept poems will remain numerous.
My favorite new technology is the Voice Memos app on my iPhone. I use it almost every day for taking notes and for composing my poems vocally, out loud, line by line, draft by draft. Having the ability to speak the words aloud, wherever I happen to be, and hear them played back has helped me enormously in becoming a stronger writer.
I would like to see poems shared as works of art rather than used as language arts tools. It’s OK to reference a line or two to reinforce a skill or illustrate a concept as long as you don’t squander the child’s experience of a whole poem. One simple way to honor poems as complex works of art: read a poem aloud, read it aloud again, provide the words on screen or on paper, ask an open-ended question or two for students to think about, and move on to another lesson.
As far as teaching the writing of poetry goes, I think it is important to remember that while a poem is certainly something to be read silently or said aloud, it is also something made: a design, a pattern of syllables, words, phrases, lines, sentences, stanzas. The basics of these concepts can be taught, along with meter and rhyme, to very young children.
Everything else is up to the individual teacher in his or her unique educational setting.
The best thing about being a children’s poet is that I’m always playing with language. Even my more serious poems are playful. The same applies when I’m writing a poem for older readers. Play’s the thing. I really don’t think there is a worst thing about being a poet, but I do hope we will see an increase in the number of anthologies that combine older and newer poems for young readers, particular middle-grade readers, in coming years.
4. This has been an exciting publishing year for you. It’s Not My Fault, your collaboration of children’s poems with UK poet Roger Stevens, was published in August. How did the project come about, and what was it like to work with a British poet?
Thank you. Roger and I became acquainted through Facebook, and he liked one of the poems I shared. We got to talking and decided we should collaborate on a project. Bloomsbury/A&C Black in the UK took our proposal, and the book was published there in August.
It was a great experience working with Roger, and our styles complemented each other well. The book is a rare blend of silliness and seriousness. E-mail made the collaboration seamless. Roger’s imagination, sense of humor, and offbeat rhythms pushed me in directions I would not otherwise have taken.
5. You are also one of the poets featured in the newly released children’s poetry anthology One Minute Till Bedtime: 60 Second Poems to Send You Off to Sleep, selected by former Children’s Poet Laureate, Kenn Nesbitt. What has that experience meant to you?
Kenn was one of the first children’s poets I contacted when I was a student at Emerson College studying children’s literature and publishing in the late 1990s. He really encouraged me, and I’m truly honored that he chose my small poem “Counting Rhyme” for the anthology.
The book itself is gorgeous, and Christoph Niemann’s artwork is superb. I need to be true to my own high standards and say that not every poem in the book is stellar, but there are more hits than misses. I mean no disrespect to Kenn or the project; I’m only saying what I see.
6. Where is children’s poetry taking you next?
I have a few picture-book and children’s poetry manuscripts in the works, and I’m also finishing up my second chapbook for adults. While I like having poems published, I enjoy composing and revising poems even more. I’m committed to making each of my poems as good as I can make it. Over the long term, that might cost me in terms of quantity compared to other writers, but I’ve always been more ambitious about quality. I’m still in love with the craft.
I’d like to give credit and thanks to poets J. Patrick Lewis, David L. Harrison, Julie Larios, Richard Michelson, JonArno Lawson, Rhina Espaillat, Tony Mitton, and so many others for their feedback and encouragement of my writing. My daughter, Marin, is also an amazing first reader.
7. Do you have a poem you would be willing to share?
Here’s a flight of fancy I wrote earlier this year:
Eating the Sky
This sky I cannot taste
But how I might--
If I had a mouth
This sky I can’t ingest
But if I grew
I might just try
[You can hear me read the poem aloud by clicking here.]
© 2016 Steven Withrow, all rights reserved
Thank you again, Steven Withrow, for taking the time for our interview.
Steven Withrow's children's poetry is also featured in:
Steven Withrow co-produced the documentary film, Library of the Early Mind: A Grown Up Look at Children's Literature. The following is the trailer (2:21 min):
Also with Steven Withrow: