Sunday, July 24, 2011

Beach Talk with Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell

Remember playing Tag as a child? Someone would sneak up behind you or catch you without warning and shout, “Tag, you’re it!”

It was a game of narrow escapes, near-misses, breathless dashes and sprints, and a chance to reach out and (sometimes) unfreeze a best friend.

Two ardent lovers of poetry (and best-friends), Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell, have taken the pleasure and delight that each remembers from playing Tag as a child and brought that same excitement and playfulness to PoetryTagTime, a collection of thirty poems from thirty poets who Janet and Sylvia invited to share a poem within a day of being tagged.

The first electronic-only poetry anthology for kids, PoetryTagTime offers young (and not-so-young) readers a poem a day for a month on a vast array of subjects ranging from the moon, toenails, and turtles to smelly hotels, snow, and dogs.

“Our poets have shown us here that poems can take many forms and create many moods," write Janet and Sylvia. "Poems can be short or long, rhymed or not, funny or serious, and about a whole wide world of subjects (including World Wide Wagging)."

Poets were asked to follow only four rules: share an unpublished poem (either a new one or a gem from their files) within a day of being tagged; make the poem accessible to children eight years old and under; keep the lines “short” to make it easier for some readers to read the poems on their e-books or cell phones; and explain their poem’s connection to the poem that comes before it in the anthology.

“We wanted to encourage poets to reach out and take inspiration from each other by connecting their poems,” write Janet and Sylvia, who hope readers will be inspired, too, to continue the game of Tag by looking for more poems to connect with those that they find in the book.

Most of all, they hope the tag theme will encourage readers to play with poetry and have fun writing.

Janet’s books have received numerous awards and honors, such as the International Reading Association's "Celebrate Literacy Award" for exemplary service in the promotion of literacy, and the prestigious Stone Center Recognition of Merit, given by the Claremont Graduate School. She has been appointed to two terms on the Commission on Literature of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Sylvia, a professor at Texas Woman's University, is the author of Poetry Aloud Here, Poetry People, and Children’s Literature in Action, and co-editor of Bookbird, the journal of international children's literature, and the annual review guide, Librarian’s Choices.

Recently, Janet and Sylvia joined us on the beach to talk about their newest adventure in poetry together. So, pull up a beach chair or find a shady place under a beach umbrella, and join us for a conversation about how they came up with the idea for their newest book.

Wordswimmer: How did the two of you happen to become friends?

Sylvia: I remember coming up to Janet for an autograph at a conference many years ago. I so admired her work and was thrilled to meet her. I had no idea she would also be such a gregarious dynamo! We have since presented together at conferences, enjoyed dinners together, she has come to my university to speak to my students, and we’ve become good friends.

Janet: I remember being so flattered and grateful to Sylvia when she first invited me to be on a panel with her, Terry Young, and Nancy Hadaway at a convention—either the annual IRA or NCTE convention (I forget which). I think my single piece of advice to new authors would be: go to teacher conventions and you’ll make lasting friends who will understand and appreciate your work.

Wordswimmer: And how did you get the idea of working together on a book?

Sylvia: Janet served on the NCTE Poetry Award Committee (which I had co-chaired just prior to her stint) when Lee Bennett Hopkins was selected. I offered to help the committee with the proposal for the conference session to feature Lee and his work. Then I had the brainstorm to create a simple “festschrift” inviting other poets to write a poem in honor of Lee, thinking we would make a “homemade” anthology to give away at the session. Well, Janet loved the idea and got on board to help me with the project, even approaching NCTE for funding—which we got. It became quite a lovely, bound book with art donated by Stephen Alcorn and original poems by 60+ poets. It also led to an amazing partnership and a discovery that Janet and I were kindred spirits with very similar working styles. We continue to find projects that bring us together, PoetryTagTime being the next big one.

Wordswimmer: What prompted the idea for PoetryTagTime?

Janet: In 2010, Sylvia created a game of “Poetry Tag” at her amazing blog, Poetry for Children, which celebrates poetry not just during National Poetry Month in April, but all year long. We poets loved the way she made a game out of our poems. She invited us to "play" by offering a poem for her readers to enjoy, then "tag" a fellow poet who then shared her/his own poem that was connected to the previous poem in some way-- a theme, word, idea, tone. We offered a sentence or two explaining that connection.

Sylvia: Poets responded enthusiastically and we shared a chain of poems by luminaries such as J. Patrick Lewis, X. J. Kennedy, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Singer, Alice Schertle, Pat Mora, Naomi Shihab Nye, Helen Frost, and Nikki Grimes, among others. The success of that first round of Poetry Tag inspired Janet and me to take this idea one step further and envision a book version of Poetry Tag for kids that would be electronic only—completely innovative and ground breaking.

Wordswimmer: How did you decide who to invite as contributors?

Sylvia: That was actually pretty easy. We made a list of poets we knew whom we thought might want to participate and started asking. Nearly everyone said yes right away. We got a few no’s—due to scheduling conflicts and whatnot, but everyone was kind and supportive.

Janet: The hardest part was that we had too many YES responses! There were a number of poets who we would’ve loved to have invited for the first round, but we decided to “save” them for future books where they could show off their special talents; for instance, we reserved many poets for our teen anthology (entitled p*tag, an eBook coming in October--in time for Teen Read Week).

Wordswimmer: Did you or the poets decide on the order of tagging? How did you determine order?

Sylvia: We had a set list of poets who agreed to participate (thirty-- to promote the one-poem-a-day notion of National Poetry Month). Some poets had some scheduling constraints which we tried to accommodate. So, we usually gave a poet a choice of 3-5 names from which to select.

Wordswimmer: Was there much revision or editing as part of the process?

Janet: What little editing took place was mainly copyediting (pointing out typos), but we did have one exciting exchange with David L. Harrison, who had written a clever but sad poem about the sexual single-mindedness of a drone. Since the ideal age range for this book is 8 and under, we asked if he might consider a slight revision. Being ever the gentleman and quite an efficient poet, he quickly and graciously provided a revised poem. I’m hoping that he uses the original poem in one of his books, though, as I liked it very much; besides, the life of a drone is sad!

Wordswimmer: Why did you decide on e-book rather than traditional publishing?

Sylvia: I think that was Janet’s idea. And quite honestly, I was more interested in trying something brand new—like e-publishing.

Janet: I wanted to be able to offer an affordable—actually, a downright cheap—anthology to teachers on a budget, to make poetry an “impulse buy,” and given the costs of printing and warehousing regular books, I knew that an eBook was the only way.

Wordswimmer: Any chance of it becoming a traditional book?

Sylvia: Nope. Although I can see kids and classes printing a copy and making it their own with original art. That would be fun!

Wordswimmer: Do you envision a sequel, possibly a tag series?

Janet: We're working now on a sequel for teens, called p*tag. So far, p*tag is shaping up to be an amazing book: Marilyn Singer starts it off with a reverso, the form she invented for Mirror, Mirror; Betsy Franco follows with a poem filled with piercings; Allan Wolf burps up kittens; and Naomi Shihab Nye muses about buckets of wind and worry. J. Patrick Lewis, Joyce Sidman, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Helen Frost, Margarita Engle, Arnold and Jaime Adoff and twenty others still have poems to come. And I think it will be even more special than PoetryTagTime because Sylvia photo-illustrated it!

Sylvia: Yes, there are two really different things about p*tag, our teen anthology. First, there are photographs (which I took). Each poet chooses a photo and writes his or her prose connection and his/her poem about whatever that photo inspired. The connection between the photo and the poem isn't always obvious; for instance, Allan wrote about a pregnant cat outside a teahouse in Shanghai because the mass of parked bicycles in the photo reminded him of his visit to China. The second difference in this book is that each poet needs to connect to the previous poem by using three words from it; that provides the "tag" aspect.

Wordswimmer: Anything else you'd like to share?

Sylvia: We’ve been so pleased with the response and grateful to our poets and fans for their support. But we do wonder how to break into the wider world of Kindle (and other e-readers). It seems to me that we only found the poetry niche and we were hoping to draw more people into poetry by making it electronic—and cheap. That’s our biggest—and ongoing—challenge!

Janet: I’d love to see kids reading poetry on cell phones while they’re sitting in the back of the car, stuck with their parents in traffic. And reading poetry aloud from an e-reader for the whole family to enjoy. You don’t need a Kindle, Nook, or iPad to read an eBook. You can even download an eBook to a regular computer—and there are tons of free and inexpensive offerings, from classics to quirky indie-published books. Which leads me to this thought: I’d like to see more people doing indie publishing, writing those stories that their grandparents used to tell, filling the many small gaps in literature that exist because of the limitations of traditional publishing. This is an exciting time to be a writer—and a reader!

For more info about PoetryTagTime, visit:
For tips on writing your own poems, visit:
For more info about Janet’s work, visit her website:
For more about Sylvia’s work, check out her site:


Andrea Mack said...

Bruce, this is so cool! Thanks for sharing this info and interview.

Bruce Black said...

Andrea, it's amazingly cool, isn't it? And I can easily see the idea of Tag as a wonderful writing prompt for all writers, not just poets...