Poetry Advocates for Children & Young Adults
Over at last week’s column, I asked writer, researcher, teacher, editor, producer/film-maker, and poet Steven Withrow in an abbreviated Q & A all about his new project, Poetry Advocates for Children & Young Adults, or PACYA. (As I noted at Kirkus last week, in the name of full disclosure I’m one of PACYA’s advisory board members, a follow-my-bliss, labor-of-love type of activity for sure. I’m happy to be a small part of the many efforts on this project.) The full interview is below. Enjoy.
Jules: How did PACYA come to be?
Steven: Over many years of writing and researching poetry and children’s/YA literature, I noticed that, while there are thousands of passionate children’s poetry supporters in communities around the world—and potentially millions of casual fans—most advocacy efforts and poetry-related programs and events exist in isolation: many voices in the chorus, but not much in the way of harmony.
Writers and readers of poetry for young people have had no central space for connecting with one another and for exploring the incredible range of poetry for young people worldwide and throughout history. Exceptions include the amazing work of Sylvia Vardell, Morag Styles, Bernice Cullinan, Lee Bennett Hopkins, and a handful of others.
I decided to create an online hub to attract poets and writers, artists and teachers, librarians and booksellers, publishers and scholars, and students and readers. Poetry Advocates for Children & Young Adults (PACYA) promotes an open exchange of ideas and encourages collaborative opportunities. Our primary focus is English-language poetry, but we are open to exploring poetry in translation and in other languages as well.
People sometimes speak of poetry as though it were dead and in need of rebirth. I see poetry as very much alive—and absolutely necessary for people of every age group.
Jules: What is PACYA’s mission?
Steven: We are a grassroots, nonprofit, global organization dedicated to:
- Speaking out for the need to engage with poetry at every age level—and addressing the challenges of doing so;
- Creating a global online hub for news, reviews, essays, and interviews; learning/scholarly resources; communication and networking; audiovisual archives; collaborative projects; and more;
- Organizing and promoting readings, awards, workshops, and conferences in North America and internationally.
Jules: You are a busy man. What made you want to take on such a huge project?
Steven: This project is purely a labor of love for me as a poet, children’s writer, journalist, teacher, and researcher. Almost a decade ago I had tried to create a compendium of interviews with children’s poets, yet the publishers I contacted said there was no market for it. I moved on to other projects (including six art-instruction books and a documentary film), but I never lost the desire to create something of lasting value for poets and poetry readers. Once blogging and social media reached a saturation point, I saw the opportunity to create something daring, dynamic, and omnidirectional.
Jules: Tell me who is involved—on the advisory board—to assist you with your goals.
Steven: Our 18-member advisory board for 2011-2013 is a combination of poets, teachers, editors/anthologists, professors, and librarians. It includes Calef Brown, Shannon Collins, Julie Danielson, Rebecca M. Davis, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Janet Fagal, Charles Ghigna, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Carol-Ann Hoyte, Julie Larios, J. Patrick Lewis, Diane Mayr, Richard Michelson, Evelyn Perry, Liz Rosenberg, Ted Scheu, Sylvia Vardell, and Steven Withrow (chair). Because I started locally, all but one of the advisors are American. But we will diversify the board geographically as we go forward.
Jules: Can you please point 7-Imp readers to the new PACYA site, and tell us what readers can find over there?
Steven: The Poetry at Play blog, which is PACYA’s home for the time being, is at poetryadvocates.wordpress.com. We post daily news and weekly/monthly features, including our Poet of the Week feature and an upcoming International Poet of the Month feature by Carol-Ann Hoyte. We are open to ideas for features (essays, interviews, reviews, chronologies, teaching materials, etc.) from our members and visitors. We are definitely interested in creating an audiovisual archive.
Jules: What has been the reaction to PACYA?
Steven: We signed up nearly 600 members in twelve countries on four continents in the first six weeks. I receive emails from new members each day, and the enthusiasm is beyond what I’d hoped for. Many people have said, “I’ve been waiting for the chance to belong to something like this.” I was a painfully shy kid, so it doesn’t surprise me that, as a slightly more outgoing adult, I’d choose to help instill and nurture that sense of belonging in myself and others. Poetry can be a lonely business, but poets (and those who love poetry) can be astonishingly generous.
Jules: If you could change one thing about the way poetry is taught in the lower elementary and middle school grades, what would you change? What about high schools?
Steven: I expect to be challenged about my feelings on this subject…but what bothers me about many classrooms and curricula I’ve encountered (and it’s been this way longer than any of us has been alive) is the reluctance—the enforced resistance—on the part of many adults to allow children and teenagers to experience life just as it is, at that very moment, for its own sake.
I cringe when I hear poems described as “stepping stones” to other, presumably more worthwhile activities. Building comprehension and fluency is well and good, but poems are, at best, exhalations of intelligent emotion. And emotions shouldn’t be tested or tabulated, or underrated.
It’s caught up, I think, in the misguided notion that children and teenagers are inferior to adults. Poetry reminds us that we are all, at every moment, equally alive, equally worthy of attention and respect.
Poetry, for me, is a highly physical art form not unlike composing and performing music, stage drama, dance, sculpture, gymnastics. The joy of poetry, for me, is the joy of arranging and vocalizing and surrendering to pleasurable and/or challenging patterns.
Sharing a poem with a child without paying immersive attention to these bodily aspects is akin to sharing a piece of music only as notations on a staff but never playing a song aloud or picking up an instrument. Kids might learn the concept, but they’re missing something vital.
Jules: How do you make poetry an important part of your own young daughter’s life?
Steven: My six-year-old daughter, Marin, is an enthusiastic rhymer and neologist (new-word-coiner). We often have impromptu wordplay contests, trying to stump each other with silly rhymes, made-up song lyrics, awful puns, and horrid homonyms. My wife and I read aloud with her at least three books a day (in many genres and forms), and we don’t differentiate much between creative play in multiple areas (visual art, music, dance, storytelling, poetry, drama). Here are a couple of poems we wrote together when she was five, along with a piece of Marin’s art:
WORMS ARE WIGGLY AND THEY’RE SQUIGGLY
By Marin and Steven Withrow
Worms are wiggly and they’re squiggly.
When worms go in the rain
They’re fine but they don’t drain.
When worms squirm they pick up germs
And when they dig, they dig like worms.
‘Cause worms don’t have no legs or erms.
By Steven and Marin Withrow
One morning on his way to school
The elephant stopped for a shower.
He dipped his trunk into a pool
And siphoned up with sucking power
Liquid through the tubelike tool
His nose became that scorching hour
Sun shone slant—a cruel jewel—
Then held aloft his water tower
And drenched his bulk in drops of cool
Refreshment, like a nourished flower.
Jules: You are a writer, researcher, teacher, editor, film producer, and poet. What’s on your plate right now, other than this ambitious project, and what’s next for you?
Steven: PACYA is taking up a good deal of my very limited free time, but I’m extremely proud to be a part of it. I work by day as a communications officer for a nonprofit hospital system. My dream is to work on PACYA at least half-time. I’m now revising a verse novel for teens and writing two poetry collections for children. My poem “Cornered” appears in Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong’s p*tag ebook anthology, and my poem “Night Sledding” will appear in the soon-to-be-released Gift Tag holiday anthology.
A documentary film I co-produced called Library of the Early Mind: A grown-up look at the art of children’s literature, directed by Edward J. Delaney, will be available on DVD and by digital download on December 1, 2011.