In Conversation With Amy VanDerwater

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Today I have Amy VanDerwater, author of FOREST HAS A SONG: POEMS. Her book was recently selected as the winner of the 2013 CYBILS Award for Poetry.
I first interviewed Amy at Check It Out in December 2102

And this just in: Amy informed me that FOREST HAS A SONG just won 2014 Golden Kite Honor Book Award for Picture Book Text that FOREST from SCBWI.

Imagine Amy and me sitting in some cozy chairs, drinking tea, and nibbling on cookies.

Jone: Amy, congratulations on winning the CYBILS’ Award for Poetry. How did you find out?

AMY: Thank you, I was truly surprised, and it was fun to awaken to Mark holding the laptop at the bedside at 5:30am.

Jone: Well, I wonder if we could have a conversation about the process regarding FOREST HAS A SONG? The idea that a poetry book had an arc or a “spine” was discussed during the CYBILS’ deliberations in both rounds. It’s also been discussed among my poetry friends. So how did you decide the arc or the “spine” of the poems for FOREST HAS A SONG?

AMY: I wrote to Marcia Leonard at HMH about your FOREST arc question because I did not determine the order of the poems at all.  I thought that Robbin Gourley, the illustrator, had done so, but she referred me to Marcia. She told me, “Marcia Leonard decided the order after my first attempt. And she was right about everything and got the project on track. She would probably love to share her thinking. I remember she said she spread everything out on her table (my sketches, etc.) and ordered the poems which in the end felt exactly right, very organic.”

Jone: Okay, so did any poems change their form?

Amy: Below you can see two draft  versions of “Farewell”, the last poem in the book, from earliest and then newer and then newer….  A notebook keeper, I still have a soft spot for this first version though it does not give FOREST the voice that the final version does.

Original Draft:
Secrets

Reading my notebook
I think of them all —

Woodpecker poet

Smoke-blowing ball

Tiniest tree frog
trying to woo

A wintergreen leaf

Her silky shoe

One spider spinning
shimmering floss

Mysterious bones

Chickadee

Moss

Forest holds secrets
wild
lovely
small.

Reading my notebook
I think of them all.

Revised Last Draft:

Forest Breathes
Forest breathes
a spicy breeze.
It blows
into my home.
I find a path
of pinecones.
Between tall trees
I roam.
On narrow trails
I silent step.
I go
I don’t know where
through
light brown
dark brown
every brown
on airy earth
in earthy air.

Jone: The transformation of the final poem is incredible.  I felt I was reading the list of secrets of the forest in your notebook.  And then in a process of letting go, the second poem reminds me of a flash draft of the essence of the poem, what you most want to remember.  And then finally you seem ready to say “farewell”   and the essentials returned. So lovely.
What else do you remember about the process of writing this book?

Amy: Sometimes I fear that I am not a very thoughtful writer.  I cannot remember too much about process or why I did things a certain way.  It seems at times that a word is just off or a line must be a particular way, and I don’t even feel that it is me making the decision.  The poem decides.  This  might sound strange, but it feels very true to me.

This is a book about family memories: memories of  my childhood camping days, our family’s hikes behind the house, and our trips to my husband’s family camp in the Adirondacks.  I’ve said before that this book is a sort of love letter to Mark, who carefully observes each wild creature we see or hear.  When I flip through the pages of FOREST now, I can be many places, in many times, at once.

The poems are short, perhaps because I have a short attention span.  But I like being right there in the center of just a few words, evening them out again and again, saying them out loud until all of the extras are gone.  Sometimes I miss one or two extra words, and they can drive me crazy!

Hmm…it is fun to think about something I have not thought about in a long time.  Usually when I write, I simply move on to the next project-voice in my head.  (Keeps the insecurities away!)

Jone: Any word from Marcia?

Amy: Yes, here are words from Marcia:
“As I studied the manuscript, I was struck by the richness of the images and the fluidity of the language, but I was concerned that that the book not be simply a collection of disparate pieces.  When I consider any project, I always ask myself: What will distinguish this book from others that cover the same subject? What is the unexpected element that will add value beyond the intrinsic quality of the text and art?  Very quickly I saw that the poems could be rearranged to create a narrative arc and reflect a year in the life of a girl who loves to explore the woods near her home.  Robbin could then show the progression of the seasons—through the changes in the forest and the actions of the main character, her dog, and her family.  And the reader could absorb all this without it being overtly stated.  It was very satisfying to see the results.  In essence, I feel that my role was to help Forest Has a Song become the book it wanted to be.”

So gracious and smart. I am lucky.

Jone: I find that the idea of creating an arc, or an order of poems fascinating. It’s made me think about my own little book of poetry.
Looking back, I know I could have put more emphasis on the order. It really takes a team to create a book from the manuscript, doesn’t. How great to have an editor like Dinah Stevenson and Marcia Leonard as editorial consultant.

Can you talk about bit about the different forms you used in the book?

Amy: It is so fascinating to see how many people work together to make a book a book.  I feel so lucky to get this peek behind the scenes.  It still feels magical and mysterious, and I love learning about it.
I hear what you are saying about ordering poems.  I wonder if it helps to have a different reader, someone not so close to the work, to see new possibilities in order.  Don’t you just feel like you can be too close to it?

Regarding form, I mostly write in some kind of meter and rhyme, even if it is not a named form.  I do a lot of counting of syllables and spend lots of time flipping through my rhyming dictionary, making lists of rhymes.  In FOREST, there are a couple of haiku, and I explore various forms in my notebook and on The Poem Farm, but usually I just let a poem find the voice it wants to find.  I enjoy trying out the various meters and rhyme schemes in poems I admire; that is a great exercise.  Sometimes I hear favorite poems in my head when I write, and so snips of meters from favorite poems nuzzle their way into my own verses.

Jone: What was your biggest surprise with FOREST?

Amy: My biggest surprise is that FOREST is actually a book and that people have actually read it.  I am honored that Clarion would choose those poems, thrilled that Robbin would take the time to illustrate them, and am just surprised every time likes the book.  I feel lucky to be part of it all, but in a way, I don’t feel responsible.  In a way, it’s as if I got to be there when those poems wanted to be written.  But I did revise them!

Jone: Amy, thank you for stopping by today. I could talk poetry all day long. Thanks for bringing by the cookies.

Please return on Friday for a poem featured in the new POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY for SCIENCE. Bonus: hear Amy read her poem.

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2 thoughts on “In Conversation With Amy VanDerwater

  1. Thank you tons, Jone, for having me today! It is always a treat to come to your library as either quiet visitor or tea drinking guest. I am excited for your postcard project again this year too! Best, Amy

  2. Pingback: Poetry Friday: “Sound Waves” by Amy VanDerwater | Check It Out

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