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Life on the Deckle Edge

Poetry that purrs with Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Rebecca Kai Dotlich enjoying poetry with Alice Schertle, left, and with Lee Bennett Hopkins, right.
Along the lines of my previous post, I've noticed popping in and out of blogs that I'm not the only one with an office kitty muse. (My office cat is named May, and, like most of our kitties, is a former stray.) That's why I particularly love this poem by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, originally posted by Gregory K at gottabook.blogspot.com. It is reprinted here with Rebecca's permission and followed by an interview with Rebecca, who is leading a poetry retreat for SCBWI Southern Breeze in June. Enjoy!

Rebecca Kai Dotlich

She stared at me from where she sat,
one matted lump of fragile cat
who wore a grayish tattered ear --

she heard me whisper cat, come here.

A squint, a lick, a paw so small,
she did not move or purr at all --
just skin and bones and stars above her.

And that is how I came to love her.

©2009 Rebecca Kai Dotlich. All rights reserved.

For Rebecca's interview, keep reading! For more Poetry Friday, stop by Liz in Ink.

Rebecca Kai Dotlich is one of our most beloved contemporary poets for children. In the Southern Breeze region of SCBWI, we heartily look forward to hosting her for a weekend poetry retreat in north Georgia June 10-12! [Spaces still available as of this writing, but they are filling….]

Welcome, Rebecca! Your poetry has appeared in dozens of collections, anthologies, textbooks and magazines, and you’re the author of picture books as well, including the 2010 SCBWI Golden Kite Honor-winning Bella and Bean. You’ve won more awards than I can count, and Lee Bennett Hopkins says of you, "Rebecca is among the best poets writing for children today…. Her pen is blessed with magic."

How did this journey begin for you? As a girl, you pasted words and pictures on all kinds of surfaces, including, later, “… thin white cardboards that slipped out of my father’s folded shirts from the cleaners.” I love that. Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Good morning, Robyn. First of all, thank you so much for your kind and generous introduction. You and everyone involved have arranged an awesome event. I feel passionate about the workshops I teach, and of course a retreat nestled in the mountains is going to be amazing.

Journeys. We each have our very own, and it would take a book, as they say, to tell even a portion of mine, but … in a few words, yes, mine began as a young girl who loved words, reading books, playing library, scribbling poems and art on thin white cardboards from my father’s newly laundered shirts. I also grabbed any leftover business forms my dad had to play office with. I pasted favorite pictures from magazines in notebooks and words that I would find; I pieced them together and pasted them on the
accompanying page to go with the art. Most times I made my own notebooks by threading yard through the holes of notebook paper and tying a stack together, or gluing the sides of papers together.

But did I always want to be a writer? No. I didn’t know being a writer was an option. When I grew up in the 50’s we never had real authors visit our classrooms and I thought
most authors were dead. But I remember looking at their names on the covers and the spines and thinking how amazing it would be to see my name there. And I do still have ‘dedication’ pages (which were quite creative: “To mom and dad”) that I typed out on my grandpa’s typewriter (which he later gave me and I still have) so in the attic of my mind – maybe?

What were some of your favorite books as a child?

The Gingerbread Man, Nurse Nancy, Golden Books from the grocery, (but most of those titles I have forgotten,) Heidi, Fairy Tales, Pippi Longstocking and the Nancy Drew Series. Later, books about Clara Barton, Anne Frank and Florence Nightengale. To add to those, my brother owned a collection of small orange biographies (of which I still have a few) called the Childhood of Famous Americans Series
published by Bobs-Merrill Co, with stories about Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, etc. I do remember at some time(maybe 11 or 12 yrs old) finding Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

What is it about poetry that especially calls to you? And, particularly, poetry for children?

I really began a love affair with poetry in high school. Sylvia Plath and all those poets with tragic lives. In college, song lyrics (Leonard Cohen) were my poetry, coupled with The Norton Anthology of Poetry 1970, (which still sits on my bookshelf).

In the back of the Norton Anthology, there is this, scribbled in small, messy script:

Rebecca Thompson, 1971, I.U. RKT –
(aprox age 17) This shows I haven’t changed my revision process much (strike-outs are in red here):
“A poet’s soul has many doorsrooms/to for of from which you may/ walk in/
But sorrow takes
up all the most/of the chairs/where joy, then should/have been.”

(Lee would be proud that I removed a ‘the’ from the chairs, even then!)

So what was it, what is it, about poetry that calls to me? Those few chosen words cobbled from imagination, imagery, metaphor, that speaks from one soul to another. Those tiny stories, those small chunks of text that overwhelm me with their power and beauty. And poetry, particularly for children, I found in my 20’s and it saved my life, it enchanted me like no other writing had. Small rhyming blocks of black & white, about muffins and mice and moons, cupcakes and rain and umbrellas and boots, snowmen and stars and ….. it was (and is) a world that seems safe and full of possibilities and imagination and crazy, wonderful enchantment.

This isn’t profound and it isn’t poetic, but reading and writing about these things simply make me happy even when my heart is breaking.

While your children were growing up, you endured years of rejection before your first publishing success. What made you keep your chin up and keep trying?

This will be a fairly short answer. I never felt the choice to keep trying or not to keep trying. It was no different than deciding to eat the next day, or breathe, or love. I would have written until the day I died, rejected or published.

You’ve published several collections of poetry on topics from animals to shapes to science to jump rope rhymes. You’ve also collaborated with other poets, such as current NCTE Excellence in Poetry for Children Award winner J. Patrick Lewis on the spectacular Castles collection you both co-authored. You also wrote and sold a collection of Fairy Tale poems with Jane Yolen. How does interaction with fellow poets inform or affect your own writing?

I’m not sure it actually affects my own writing. It certainly affects my pace. They both are obviously very dedicated writers, and even though I certainly am too, I have to work at keeping up with them time wise. I tend to dawdle more, or change from one project to another. When you work with another poet, you have their deadlines to consider, too. But to address the process and interaction of it: both experiences have been great. We worked well together and felt free to disagree, revise, mull, brainstorm, etc. I’m collaborating with a few other poets, and am excited about those still percolating projects.

You’ve credited the incomparable Lee Bennett Hopkins as a wonderful mentor. For aspiring poets who don’t have a mentor, do you have any advice?

LBH is my first and true mentor. I can’t say enough.

He took me under his wing long ago, and we became fast and dear friends. Lee helps and encourages both aspiring and established poets, but he has always gone above and beyond the call of duty for me. At the same time, he expects a lot, too, as he should, and would never take a poem unless he believes it makes for a perfect fit in whichever anthology he’s cobbling together.

Re: advice. In today’s world, opportunities are available that weren’t when I began writing and submitting. There was no internet, no blogging, no Facebook, no Twitter and tweets; no connecting in any way except by phone, or the (beautiful and traditional hold in your hand) letter. There weren’t the conferences there are now. And I never even heard of a workshop.

There are so many opportunities now. There are authors who offer mentoring services, workshops and conferences where you can meet someone new who might become a mentor. I think it is one of life’s serendipitous events, for the most part. In the meantime, I highly recommend either a writer’s group or a trusted group of writer friends where you can share your work and trade honest feedback.

I’ve enjoyed two poetry workshops led by you, and your love of teaching shines through. Your retreat with us in Southern Breeze will be for writers all across the spectrum – “pre-published” and beginning poets are welcome, as well as seasoned authors. Picture book authors who want to spend quality time playing with and honing language are also invited to attend. What do you hope attendees take home with them from your workshops?

Cookies. Oh, never mind, we won’t be baking, will we? On a serious note, I would hope they will take away a poof! of passion, a tidbit of wisdom, a new love for language and the word, a better understanding for the craft of rhythm and rhyme, new ways of looking at the world as they delve into poetic elements such as imagery and metaphor, and possibly an interest in some amazing poets writing for children today. A note about picture book authors: more than one editor has confided that he/she feels that poets make the best picture book writers. So why shouldn’t picture book writers begin to think like poets? -- my guess is that they do; these two genres share many elements of craft (and heart).

Thank you so much for visiting, Rebecca!

A pleasure, Robyn. Looking forward to June.

The 2011 SCBWI Southern Breeze Poetry Retreat,"Dive into Poetry with Rebecca Kai Dotlich," will take place June 10-12 at the Center for New Beginnings in Dahlonega, Ga. Space is limited. Cost, including tuition, meals, lodging, AND an individual critique with Rebecca, begins at just $295! Manuscripts for critique are due April 25. Learn more about Rebecca here, or to register for the retreat, click here.
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