The Power of Poetry: Carol McAfee Talks to Jasmine Warga About How Poetry Can Heighten Emotion

By Carol McAfee

I am delighted today to speak with author Jasmine Warga, whose books have always deeply moved me, from her very first book, My Heart and Other Black Holes (HarperCollins, 2015) to her recent Other Words For Home (HarperCollins, 2021). As recent events unfold and we feel we swim in a choppy and dehumanizing sea, Jasmine’s voice of empathy arrives like a lifeboat.

Jasmine, so wonderful to talk with you! Please tell us about you as a writer. Your aesthetic. What do you most care about that you want to share with the world?  For instance, I know you care deeply about empathy and relationships.

Hmm! You are certainly correct that I care deeply about empathy and relationships. That is a good starting point. The words honesty and compassion come to mind, too.

I think I’m always interested in exploring the messy parts of human (and perhaps now, given my forthcoming book, not-human!) hearts and asking those big questions of my readers.

My most clear driving force in my writing would be that I’m always more interested in questions than I am in answers.

Does where you live/work affect your writing? Choice of subject matter? Mood?

I definitely think my environment affects what I write about—not so much in a conscious way, but writing is, of course, a by-product of what we observe. I also find my mind working in different ways when I’m on a trip than when I’m at home, and so different sorts of ideas spring up from the change in location.

What time of day do you generally write?

I prefer to write in the morning, but ever since I became a mom, I’ve learned to work at whatever time is available to me.

Where is your workspace located?

I am so lucky to have a lovely cozy office complete with my ancient desktop computer. I recently hung up some floral wallpaper that makes me very happy.

Your desk: artifacts, mementos, quotations, photographs that inspire you?

My desk is cluttered (I use this verb with the utmost love!) with pictures my kids have made me. In particular, my oldest daughter made me a bracelet with the beads that spell out: Don’t Give Up.

I love looking at that when I feel particularly stuck. And—I always have a candle.

Do you draft first on computer? Use pen and paper? Pencil? Quill?

Always the computer. I wish I was a longhand writer, but my handwriting is miserable, and I have lupus so my joints often hurt so typing is easier on my hands.

Do you have any rituals or things you do habitually to get you down to the actual act of writing?

I already mentioned the candle, but here it is again. I almost always have a candle burning while I write. I get into plenty of kerfuffles with my cat who frequently runs across the keyboard. At least when he does that though, my word count temporarily explodes upward for the day.

Tom Stoppard’s definition of poetry is a good one to start from: “the simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.” What is your definition of a poem?  In terms of prose, what makes something more of a poem or less of a poem?

Wow. I love that definition. To me, a poem is something that beckons you in the spiritual sense. It stirs your insides and demands you pay attention to it. I always say that my favorite poems are poems that punch me in the nose. Do you know what I mean?

Who are favorite poets/writers who have inspired you most?

Jacqueline Woodson, Jason Reynolds, Kaveh Akbar, Mary Oliver, Louise Glück, Ada Limón, Diane Seuss, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, Tiana Clark—I could go on and on. Poets are my heroes.

Who, in your life, (another writer or someone else) has inspired you that people would be surprised by or just wouldn’t know.

Ah—I would say the moody indie scene of the early 2000s. Lyricists like Joanna Newsom and Conor Oberst and Matt Berninger and Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird and Jenny Lewis. I came of age listening to their words and music.

Who do you write for? Yourself? A particular person? A cause?

Young people. I care deeply about making sure our young people feel seen and empowered to find and use their own voices.

What poetic techniques do you use most in your writing?

Hm. I do love repetition. Here’s a passage from the second chapter of Other Words For Home:

But our city does not look like Aleppo, before or after.

It is not sprawling and noisy with buildings

pressed up against

one another

like they are crammed together in an elevator with no room to breathe.

Our city is on the sea. It sits below the mountains.

It is where the rest of Syria comes when they want to


No one is going to come this year, Fatima says.

And I wonder if that is because there is no one left

who needs to


You can see from that passage I repeated the word breathe on purpose for effect.

I like playing with words like that. For me, poetry is a form that is most interested in language—that uses language to enliven and deepen story.

In the books you’ve chosen to write in verse, in the poems you’ve written, why did you choose poetry?

Ha, well I’m not sure I chose poetry as much as it chose me. I wrote Other Words for Home in prose. I edited it over and over and over again. It was not working. I couldn’t figure out why.

Then—I decided to take a leap and rewrite it all in verse. From putting the book into verse, I was able to free Jude’s voice. It came alive on the page. So I suppose I chose verse for that reason—the fact that it is so intimate, that it really lets the voice be the star of the story.

Plus, Arabic is an inherently lyrical language, and I liked the idea that by telling this particular story in verse, I would be able to honor the tradition of Arabic language and poetry, and hopefully capture some its texture and cadence, even though the book is written in English.

How, specifically, do you think poetic techniques can improve our prose?

Interesting and surprising uses of language always help to heighten stories and make them come alive. I think I’m continually drawn to lyrical language because it helps to better reveal those messy big human questions that all us writers are constantly exploring.

Cynsational Notes:

Jasmine Warga is the New York Times-bestselling author of middle grade novels Other Words For Home and The Shape of Thunder (HarperCollins, 2021). Other Words For Home earned multiple awards, including a John Newbery Honor, a Walter Honor for Young Readers, and a Charlotte Huck Honor. The Shape of Thunder was a School Library Journal best book of 2021, was shortlisted for the 2022 Barnes and Noble Children’s Book Award, and has been named to several state reading lists. She is also the author of young adult books, My Heart and Other Black Holes and Here We Are Now, which have been translated into over twenty different languages. Her next novel, A Rover’s Story, will be out on October 4, 2022. Jasmine currently teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from Cincinnati, she now lives in the Chicago-area with her family in a house filled with books.

Carol McAfee writes about resilient kids and teens from broken homes. A graduate of Vermont School of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adults, Carol recently finished her middle grade novel in verse, My Name is Max, about a boy, a girl, and a robot lost in the Maine wilderness. She is currently at work on a young adult called Tobacco Creek, where, during a Civil War reenactment, sixteen-year-old Zoey falls in love with a time-traveling Union soldier.