Celebrating Poetry: Sylvia Vardell on Teaching, Awards, Trends, Challenges & New Releases

By Kate Hosford

Sylvia Vardell is a professor at Texas Woman’s University. She also is the author of Poetry Aloud Here! Sharing Poetry with Children in the Library (ALA, 2006), Poetry People: A Practical Guide to Children’s Poets (Libraries Unlimited, 2007), and Children’s Literature in Action: A Librarians Guide (Libraries Unlimited, 2008). In addition, she edits for Librarians’ Choice.

Sylvia is a avid reader, movie lover, and zealous traveler.

As a writer, a professor of library science, a blogger and an anthologist, you have devoted yourself to the celebration and promotion of poetry for young people. What role did poetry play in your own childhood? How did that interest continue to develop?

My parents were new immigrants from Germany, so German was my first language. Rhymes and poems helped me to learn—and enjoy—my new language, English. I felt tuned in to the music of language—how words sounded in German and English—and I still enjoy the sound qualities of poetry, in particular.

In school, I enjoyed hearing poetry read aloud by teachers and librarians (again, that pleasure in the spoken word), but I didn’t seek it out to read in print, although I was an avid reader.

I found an outlet in writing poetry in my angst-filled teen years, and in college, I had a knack for analyzing poetry. (I was good at identifying the appropriate symbolism!)

I taught sixth grade in the late 1970s and shared all kinds of books with my students. Shel Silverstein was a new author, and I saw firsthand what a huge hit his work was with my students. That led me deep into exploring contemporary poetry for kids—and I haven’t quit since!

What are some of the new and innovative ways in which librarians and teachers are promoting poetry? 

Teachers and librarians who love poetry have long been creative in getting kids excited about poetry—from creating classroom poetry cafés, complete with tablecloths and bongos, to holding open mike readings, to filling school hallways with favorite poem displays, to starting the school day with a school-wide poem to linking poetry across the curriculum.

And now with technology tools, they’re hosting guest poets via Skype, creating digital trailers to promote poetry books, using blogs to encourage student responses to poetry, etc.

One of the things I find especially gratifying is how educators now promote a more multidimensional approach to poetry—listening to it, performing it, filming it, as well as reading and writing it.

Are there any poetry collections, anthologies or novels in verse that you are particularly excited about in 2012?

I’m excited at the abundance of titles I’ve seen scheduled for publication in 2012—over 50 so far.

Some of my favorite poets have new books coming out. They include Douglas Florian, Marilyn Singer, J. Patrick Lewis, Margarita Engle, David Harrison, Helen Frost, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Jane Yolen, and even Jack Prelutsky.

My friend and collaborator Janet Wong has a very timely new book of election year poems, Declaration of Interdependence: Poems on Liberty (CreateSpace, 2012)!

I’m looking forward to not one, but two collections focused on featuring poems for performance since that’s one of my favorite angles on poetry: Mary Ann Hoberman (Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart, illustrated by Michael Emberley (Little, Brown, April 2012)) and Caroline Kennedy (Poems to Learn by Heart, illustrated by Jon J. Muth (Hyperion, March 2012)).

And I’m always especially to read the work of new and up-and-coming poets and anthologists, so I’m excited to get my hands on: Jill Corcoran’s collection, Dare to Dream…Change the World (Kane Miller, fall 2012), Carol-Ann Hoyte’s and Heidi Bee Roemer’s anthology with poets from around the world, And the Crowd Goes Wild!: A Global Gathering of Sports Poems, illustrated by Kevin Sylvester (Friesens Press, 2012), and Tim McLaughlin’s book of poetry by young people themselves, Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky; Poetry and Prose by Lakota Youth at Red Cloud Indian School, illustrated by S.D. Nelson (Abrams, April 2012).

Are there any trends in poetry that we should look for this year?

Last year was a bumper crop for novels in verse with some amazing works by first-time authors—like Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 2011), the National Book Award winner.

I’m seeing more interesting verse novels on this year’s lists, and I’m looking forward to checking them out.

I hear Leslea Newman’s October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick, 2012) is very powerful, and I am always blown away by Stephanie Hemphill’s work (look for Sisters of Glass (Knopf, March 27, 2012)).

I’m also so excited to see more multicultural poetry on the docket, including bilingual works by Jorge Luján and Jorge Argueta.

You have worked hard to raise the public’s awareness of poetry awards. Why are these awards so important, and what can the reading public do to support them?

Yes, I do believe promoting the awards is critical primarily because we work in such an award-conscious culture. Awards help people notice poetry.

The downside is that awards by their very nature recognize only a few books, so many wonderful works of poetry don’t get the attention they deserve. That’s one reason that I try to promote lists, rather than single titles alone, to give a taste of the poetry diversity that is possible and available.

I would love it if the reading public would take notice of the poetry awards, buy multiple copies of each winner and honor book, and then hold their own “mock” awards to get kids (and families) reading and talking about even more poetry.

Could you talk a bit about the challenges that both new and established poets face at this time, both in terms of getting published and getting their poetry into the hands of readers?

Yes, there are so many challenges in poetry publishing—getting it accepted and published to begin with, then getting the book sold and promoted, too. Most poets are now heavily involved in the “after” part, using web sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. to get the word out about their books. And it’s still a tough sell in a fiction-centric world!

As the writer Robert Graves noted, “There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money either.”

Digital publishing offers promising opportunities for new writers and my collaborator, Janet Wong (herself a poet) and I have tried our hands at that. We published three e-book anthologies of poems by some of the biggest names in poetry for children (PoetryTagTime for kids, P*TAG for teens, and Gift Tag, holiday poems for all ages).

If it’s any consolation, poetry has the longest “shelf life” of all the genres, in my opinion. It has staying power. Just look at Mother Goose (1695), “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (1806), or even “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout/Would not take the garbage out” by Shel Silverstein (1974).

Poetry has legs. We just need to be sure not to cut it off at the knees by our short-sightedness!

Cynsational Notes

More on Kate Hosford

Kate Hosford grew up in Waitsfield,
Vermont, and graduated from Amherst College in 1988. She was happy to
return to her home state to attend Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2011.

Before becoming a writer, Kate worked as a foster care worker, a
teacher, and an illustrator.

Kate is publishing three picture books with
Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group: Big Bouffant
(spring, 2011), its sequel, Big Birthday (spring 2012), and Infinity
and Me (fall, 2012). She loves writing picture books, children’s poetry
and middle grade novels.

She has lived in India, Germany and Hong Kong, but presently resides in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two sons.

12 thoughts on “Celebrating Poetry: Sylvia Vardell on Teaching, Awards, Trends, Challenges & New Releases

  1. Thank you, Kate and Sylvia, for this great interview. Sylvia is such a powerful and passionate advocate for kids' and ya poetry! She's a gift. Put any teacher in a room with her and that teacher will leave as a poetry lover. And she's great fun, too!

    I enjoyed learning a bit about how Sylvia came to love poetry and her thoughts on both the pros and cons of poetry awards.

    Thanks, both of you!

  2. Thanks for all the poetry info. My daughter hasn't shown much interest in reading poetry yet, but she's enjoyed a few novels in free verse – it's a start! She especially liked Sharon Creech's Heartbeat.

  3. Yay, Sylvia!! We are all her fans. It was fun to hear more about her background and the seeds of her love for poetry. She does so much for our genre.

  4. It was my pleasure! I learned so much from interviewing Sylvia, and am in the process of ordering many of the titles she recommended.

  5. So terrific to find Sylvia featured at this blog! Where does Sylvia find the energy to do all that she does for poetry–in her teaching, on her blogs, on award committees, in articles and textbooks, in the e-book anthologies, and more? (I think she's not a Muggle. Have you seen her green tights?)

  6. Kate, I often learn a lot from doing interviews at Cynsations. I appreciate your doing such a great job.

    Charles, she is a wonder–front lines indeed!

    Janet, it's a mystery, though I could say the same about you. Green tights, hm?

  7. Just found this post while doing research for an interview with Sylvia and Janet Wong. What a fabulous interview with a great lady doing important work. Thank you so much for this!

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