Monday, November 15, 2010

A letter from Joyce Sidman, poet extraordinaire

A few weeks ago I reviewed a book of poetry called This is just to say. The book was so unusual and interesting that I asked the author, Joyce Sidman, to tell me about how the book came to be written. I know what it is like to turn an idea into a story for a picture book, but how does one go about about writing a collection of poems? This is Joyce's response to my questions.

Dear Marya:
In addition to writing, I work part time in Minnesota schools as a writer-in-residence.  My job is to introduce elementary-aged students to poetry writing in an intense, one-week period—in which we play with metaphor, use sensory details, and look at the world with a poet’s eyes.  We also sometimes look back into our own sordid pasts.
   This Is Just To Say began with a poem I wrote with a room full of fourth graders. The lesson for the day was “apology poems” based on W.C. Williams’ poem “This Is Just to Say.”  We’d read and talked about the poem, and I was leading them into writing a group poem by talking about an incident from my childhood: breaking a tiny glass deer that my mother put out at Christmastime—and expressly forbade us children to touch.  Together, we re-imagined that long-ago sequence of events: irresistible temptation, clumsiness, abd disaster.  The worst, I told them, was when my mother started to cry.  The students helped me explore and write down all those feelings on the board in the form of an apology poem called “The Glass Deer”.  Then, as they began writing their own poems, one of the boys piped up: “So, are you going to send that poem to your mother?  You know, to apologize?” 
   I felt a brief clutch of child-like terror.  Had I even told her I’d done it, all those years ago?  Did I really want to bring it up again?  But I swallowed my pride, and I sent it to her; I felt I owed it to my students.  And she wrote me back a lovely letter about how she'd felt all those years ago, and what made her cry (losing a bit of her childhood). 
   This incident made me think about apology and forgiveness, how one deserves the other.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if apology poems could be answered?  Wouldn’t it be great if a whole classroom of children wrote poems and then got responses to them? 
   Once I sat down to write, This Is Just To Say poured out of me in a way that few books have. The characters in this book spoke for themselves, but they also spoke for me, for my heart.  There was so much to apologize for!  The goodies I’d filched; the stupid, thoughtless things I’d done; the feelings I’d hurt.  My students’ voices echoed in my head as well: children who’d felt sorrow over minor transgressions, as well as helplessness in the face of tragic events. One of poetry’s goals is to unbundle the heart and let it expand, and believe me, I did a lot of unbundling! The forgiveness poems were just as rewarding.  In a perfect world, apology and forgiveness should go hand in hand.  This may not always happen in real life, but it was deeply satisfying to create a world in which it does.

Thank you so much Joyce. You can find out more about Joyce and her books on her website.

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