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Life on the Deckle Edge

Welcome, Steven Withrow!

Steven Withrow pictured with his lovely daughter
I’m delighted to feature Steven Withrow as our special guest today. This poet, storyteller, and author is a passionate advocate for young people’s literature and serves as an advisor to the Keene State Children’s Literature Festival.

He holds a bachelor’s degree from Roger Williams University and a master’s degree from Emerson College. With director Edward J. Delaney, he produced the documentary, Library of the Early Mind.

Steven has taught at Rhode Island School of Design and Suffolk University and has spoken to audiences across North America. He’s authored six books for visual artists and storytellers, including Illustrating Children’s Picture Books (written with his talented wife, Lesley Breen Withrow). It’s a terrific book, and I will feature it soon on this blog.

But today…Poetry!

Welcome, Steven! You have so many talents and interests. Where to start?! How about telling us when and how you first fell in love with poetry.


I don’t remember a single moment of my life when I wasn’t in love with words—and all the syllables and sound clusters that make up words. I’m still more interested in how words touch the ears and how they taste on the tongue than in what they mean. The first poem I memorized, in second grade, was Karla Kuskin’s “Write About a Radish” from Dogs & Dragons, Trees & Dreams. I still know it by heart. I’ve been reveling in poetry and story ever since.

You recently released your first collection of poems for adults as a digital book, Crackles of Speech, available to readers who contact you through your website. What a breadth of subjects, forms, and treatments! Here’s a very small (and insufficient) sampling:

From many nods to the natural world, these lines from “Rooting” –

Hooray hurrah huzzah - for tap, sap, font, and source,
For fingertips of gymnosperms planting gymnastic handstands,
For bending straws of sycamores slurping the groundwater,
For xylem and phloem fixed in daylong flux…,

and an example of a historical reference, with these lines from “Cost of Battle, 48 B. C.” –

His helmet lost - a boy no more than twelve
Conscripted from the town by Pompey’s men -
I hesitate, but only for a flash,
Before I bring the spearhead down. …

and several touching musings on love and family, such as these closing lines of
“Lessons Fathers Only Learn at Home”

I look over at my burbling girl,
once the white and flattened face
of the moon in a sonogram photo,
the now-calm eye at the center
of this maelstrom’s crushing path,
this aftermath, and I start to laugh
at all my wild and cataclysmic joys.

I can’t tell you how much I love “all my wild and cataclysmic joys”! Speaking of children, you are especially interested in and committed to poetry for young readers. And your poem “Cornered” appears in the just-released p*tag, the second digital collection (this one featuring poetry for teens) from Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong. What was it like writing for that project?


Thank you for your kind words about my poems in Crackles of Speech, which is a real miscellany of my work for adults written over a six-year period.

Regarding p*tag, I’ll say first what a stupendous honor it is to be included among such stellar poets as Naomi Shihab Nye and J. Patrick Lewis. Choosing a single photograph for inspiration, from a batch of dozens, was a matter of instinct.

I selected one titled “Corner” that shows the meeting of two walls inside an elaborately decorated church. I thought of how two people meet and fall in love. Borrowing four words from the Jeannine Atkins’s poem that precedes mine—ancient, saved, heart, corner—helped me to solidify my poem’s basic imagery. It was challenging to write and revise a poem within 48 hours—I usually draft poems quickly and often revise over the course of several weeks—but it was the best sort of challenge.

I’m always curious about creative work habits. Do you keep a set writing schedule, or write in fits and flurries, or both?

Given all that I’ve got going on, I write whenever and wherever I can. I’m trying to be more systematic about it, to make it a genuine practice, but it’s often catch-as-catch-can. I always write stories on paper or on the computer, but with poems, I’ll often “compose” silently in my mind while I’m taking a walk or washing dishes, or I’ll speak them aloud while I’m driving alone. As I noted before, I write for the ears and for the tongue. I revise on the computer—but the true test is whether I enjoy saying a poem out loud.

Are your collections born from a theme first or strung together from existing poems?

I’ve written several, as-yet-unpublished children’s collections, and all but one (my first) started with a central theme. I’m told it helps collections sell to editors and book buyers, though I’ve always preferred a grab bag of poems in a single book.

You have just started a grassroots, nonprofit organization, Poetry Advocates for Children & Young Adults, “celebrating poetry as a living thing.” Tell us about it! Who can join, and how do folks get involved?

All that I might say about PACYA can be found at http://poetryadvocates.wordpress.com, especially in this short essay. I invite everyone to get involved and help spread the word.

Finally, are there a few more lines you’d like to leave us with?

Releasing Butterflies
By Steven Withrow

Something seamy and unseemly in the name
they carry, painted ladies, pins a sordid shame

in fore- and hindwing, but its sting recedes in flight,
for they are dazzlers as they grab the air, these brightly

spotted Cynthias of a genus called Vanessa:
you laugh to draw the last, and dub her Iridessa.


[©2011 Steven Withrow, all rights reserved]

Ahh... - delgihtful! Many thanks for visiting, Steven, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.

To learn more, visit Steven at his poetry blog, Crackles of Speech, and at the Poetry at Play blog. For more great poetry, click over to the Poetry Friday Roundup at Great Kid Books!

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