Aside from my picture book review of HI, KOO, last Friday, I haven’t been very active in poetry month this year. Before May is upon us, I wanted to rectify this and highlight a poet on the blog. Today’s interview is with Donna Marie Merritt, a poet whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for several years, who has a gift that transcends generations.
[JM] Donna, where are you from and how has that influenced your writing?
[DMM] I was born in Rome, NY, and moved around quite a bit as a kid. In fact, I had been in six schools by the time I hit fourth grade. My more distinct childhood memories are of North Richland Hills, Texas, but I’ve been in Connecticut since I was 16, so my adult memories are here. The striking difference between a southwest landscape and New England scenery influences my poetry and often leads me to write about nature, though no topic is off limits. Having moved around so much plays a part in what I write for children, as I know what it’s like to be the new kid looking for friendship and acceptance.
[JM] What ages do write for?
[DMM] All ages. My poetry has appeared in Highlights Hello, which is for ages 0 to 2 and Highlights High Five, 2 to 5. The math and science books are for children in grades preK to grade 3. I’ve done stories for school reading programs that range from elementary through high school. And then I have poetry books for adults.
[JM] How did you get started writing poetry?
[DMM] I wrote my first poem when I was eight. In high school I wrote poor-me, highly dramatic, angst poems typical of teens. A few poems were published in my college literary magazine and I won an award for best poetry. Then I stopped. I was teaching, married, two young children… I didn’t come back to poetry (both reading and writing it) until I went through some personal difficulties later in life.
[JM] What are some of the benefits of writing for all age groups?
[DMM] I could give a philosophical or pedagogical reply, but the real answer is that it’s so much fun! I don’t ever feel stuck. If I’ve written a serious piece for a magazine or worked on a poem that was rough emotionally, I can turn to writing a whimsical poem or story for children. I have to say, though, that children are a tougher audience! It takes me a while to get something on paper I feel is worthy. I’m not sure how many people (outside the children’s publishing industry) understand the difficult work that goes into children’s poems, stories, and illustration.
[JM] What has been your experience with the more educational side of publishing?
[DMM] This is where I started. My first published piece was a little tip in Healthy Kids magazine. I wasn’t sure whether to cash or frame that $25 check! That gave me the confidence to submit to educational magazines (a combination of writing and my teaching experience) and eventually led to writing the “Life in the Middle” and “Parent Connection” columns (for educators and families, respectively) for Teaching K–8 magazine. Building up publishing credits helped me to get a freelance job at Abrams Learning Trends and later a position as an editor. Fourteen of my math and science books were written for them (sold directly to schools and libraries) and one, Too-Tall Tina, was written for Kane Press. When I was teaching kindergarten and first grade, I couldn’t find math and science books that were FUN. This was a way to fill in that gap. Learning should never be a chore—hard work sometimes, but never a I-don’t-want-to-do-this chore.
[JM] What advice would you give to those teaching poetry to children?
[DMM] Oh, gosh—make it enjoyable. And whatever you do, don’t treat it as a separate subject. When I taught K and grade 1, nursery rhymes and poems were part of our day. When I taught 7th and 8th grade English, we did NOT do “a poetry unit.” Poetry was, again, part of our day. I began each class with a poem. A writing assignment might be to explain something in prose or poetry. We did not analyze. We talked about how a poem made us feel and what lines caught our eye and why. We talked about poetic techniques but there was no test asking them to locate those techniques in a poem. They often grumbled, as middle schoolers do, but they turned to poetry when, sadly, tragedy struck. My education partner and I taught the same 50 students—she was responsible for math and science and I taught English and history. She was 42 when she died suddenly from an enlarged heart, not realizing she had the condition. Those tough teens were transformed into heartbroken children. The next day, one of my students (quick to argue, defiant…) asked if he could read a poem he had written about her. He stood in front of the class and we were all crying by the time he finished. We put it on our bulletin board and every day after that, students pinned new poems to the board. I never asked them to do that. It wasn’t for a grade. It was the way they were dealing with death, something many of them had never before encountered with someone close. With their permission, I made copies of the poems and we bound them together for the teacher’s daughter, a high school student. When I gave the students their originals, they folded them carefully and tucked them into notebooks silently, unlike other returned papers that tended to be used for basketball trash-can practice. Not a smiley-face kind of story, but it illustrates the important role poetry can play in releasing emotions and working through things. I don’t think my students would have gone that route if they had seen poetry as something to be analyzed rather than valued for its own sake.
[JM] That was so moving, and such a great example of how powerful poetry can be in young lives. What advice do you give children who aspire to be poets?
[DMM] Look around. Notice things. Describe something in a new way. Mostly, read—and not just poetry. Every genre contributes to increasing vocabulary, learning to communicate effectively, and understanding the world around us. Reading and observation are, I think, the two commonalities all poets possess along with writers of all genres.
[JM] Tell us about your most recent publication.
[DMM] Her House and Other Poems is my newest. I have to express my thanks to artist Wendell Minor who created the cover. I love looking at it! This book is about daily life, full of nature poems, relationships, and facing middle age with humor and gratitude, not regret. It contains a mix of forms, mostly free verse and some haiku:
dragonflies shimmer in bright sunlight, scatter all in pond-frenzied flight
The short book trailer gives you a little more.
[JM] Do you have any recurring themes in your poetry?
[DMM] My first three books were part of the Poetry for Tough Times series, each with a specific theme: Job Loss, A Journey in Poetry is about my unemployment years during the recent recession. Cancer, A Caregiver’s View is about my husband’s battle with cancer. Those are the two events that triggered a poetry revival for me, the personal difficulties to which I referred earlier. The third book, What’s Wrong with Ordinary? Poems to Celebrate Life is about walking through that hell and emerging on the side stronger and feeling blessed. And, as I mentioned, there is a theme of gratitude woven throughout Her House.
[JM] You have had much work published, out of all your published works, what did you have the hardest time writing about?
[DMM] Since most of my poetry tends to be on the autobiographical side, it’s hard, to some extent, to write about anything personal. Did I really want people to know how bitter I was after I was laid off or that I questioned whether my husband would survive or that I got drunk one night just thinking about his tumor? On the other hand, those things were part of the experience, just like finding ways to celebrate was part of it. Everything we went through changed us and shaped our future selves. All those emotions were poured into my poetry and the books wouldn’t be complete if I’d left out something because it was hard for me. It would also have been a disservice to readers going through similar challenges.
[JM] Which 3 poetry books would you say are a “must have” for any school library?
This is a hard one as there are SO many great books! For elementary, I’m going to cheat and say that books by both J. Patrick Lewis and Lee Bennett Hopkins better be in your school library. (And, again, so many other fabulous books. Don’t limit those libraries!) For middle school, A Fury of Motion by Charles Ghigna and Love That Dog by Sharon Creech definitely have the ability to take a reluctant poetry reader and give him or her an appetite for more. A high school library wouldn’t be complete without something by Mary Oliver. College libraries should be required to carry Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins and, even though it’s not a poetry book, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It contains more metaphors and imagery than many books of poems. I know that’s more than three and I even restrained myself! Maybe this is a better answer: Any time a student says he or she likes a poem by a particular poet, invest in a book by that author. Library budgets are tight, so consider asking your child’s library what’s on their wish list and then donating a book or two.
Five Fun Ones to Finish. [JM] What word best sums you up?
[DMM] outsidethebox (one word, yes?—poetic license)
[JM] If you could live anywhere for a few months, where would you go?
[DMM] A warm beach. No interruptions. Just paper and pencil and sand and sun and waves and wondering.
[JM] What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing?
[DMM] Chocolate and red wine (for the antioxidants, naturally). I’m also a big water drinker and I’ve been a vegetarian for 15+ years, so I believe it balances out.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[DMM] We had a Yorkshire Terrier named Peaches for 12 years. I never wanted a pet, but gave in for my children and, of course, how do you not grow to love a dog that does a happy dance every time she sees you and forgives (and forgets!) your every mistake? She died a few years ago and I still miss her. When my husband Stew and I got married (second marriage for us both), he came with a cat. She is not as quick to forgive (or forget!) but she was a stray who definitely needs affection and I have to admire her self-important attitude at times, as if she is merely putting up with us because we feed her. Her name is Little because she was a tiny, tiny kitten, but that name does not suit her anymore!
From What’s Wrong with Ordinary?
I take out cold chicken Slice it in case someone Wants sandwiches this afternoon InstantlyI have two admirers Cat, rubbing against my let Dog, looking up, whimpering Dog, dreaming till now Swears she’s not been fed for days Cat, aloof all morning Promises to be my best friend ever “No people food,” I sternly say Put the fragrant dish away Accidentally drop a piece for each BeforeCat returns to ignoring me Dog settles in the sun spot
There is a longer tribute to Peaches in Her House.
[JM] Your favorite dead poet?
[DMM] Edna St. Vincent Millay. Here’s an example why:
My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends It gives a lovely light!
Dorothy Parker is a close second. Then there is Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden…
[JM] Where can we find/follow you and your work?
1. Her House and Other Poems Hickory Stick Bookshop: http://www.hickorystickbookshop.com/product/her-house-donna-marie-merritt
or Stairwell Books: http://usshop.stairwellbooks.co.uk
or If you’re in CT, you can stop by Hickory Stick in Washington Depot, Byrd’s Books in Bethel, or the White Memorial Gift Shop in Litchfield. The Bookstore in Lenox, MA, carries it as well. Shop local!
2. Job Loss; Cancer, A Caregiver’s View; What’s Wrong with Ordinary?
Call Hickory Stick for availability: 860-868-0525
3. Too-Tall Tina (under my former name of Donna Marie Pitino)
Kane Press: http://www.kanepress.com/order.html
(or Amazon—though, as you’ve seen, I really love to give independent bookstores and small presses the business)
You can also check out my website for new books and upcoming events: http://www.donnamariebooks.com
or my blog: http://blog.donnamariebooks.com
and you can get an overall picture on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donna_Marie_Merritt
Joanna, thanks for the great questions and having me here. I love your posts!
Donna, now I wonder why it has taken me so long to interview a poet. This was just so uplifting. Thank you for all your courageous poetry and for sharing a little of your journey with us today. To your continued success.