Sunday, April 15, 2012

One Writer’s Process: Lee Bennett Hopkins

Distinguished poet, anthologist, editor and teacher, Lee Bennett Hopkins, admits that he happened to start writing poetry in the 1960's by accident.

“The first poem I penned, 'Hydrants,' was written in the late 1960’s,” says Hopkins, who has written hundreds of poems since then. “It was a result of my city-living. The first person who heard it was May Swenson, the great American poet, who further encouraged me. At her home in Long Island I read it to her (cautiously) before dinner. After dinner she asked me if I would read it again! After her comments all I did was want to write.”

And did he ever write... and read! “The more I read, the more I wanted to write,” says the much feted poet, whose honors and awards include the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion for “outstanding contributions to the field of children’s literature,” the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Excellence in Poetry for Children, the Florida Libraries’ Lifetime Achievement Award, and the New Jersey Education Association award for Excellence in Education. “I always maintain that you learn to write by reading.”

Sometimes, Hopkins says, a poem will come to him fully formed, as if by magic, and at other times he’ll find himself working on draft after draft after draft. He can spend weeks, if not months, seeking the right word or phrase, “sculpting a poem,” and turns often to his thesaurus, which he considers one of the best reference tools for any writer.

Even though he’s spent a lifetime writing poetry books such as Been to Yesterdays: Poems of a Life (Boyds Mills Press), City I Love (Abrams), Full Moon and Star (Abrams), and novels like Mama (Boyds Mills Press) and Mama & Her Boys (Boyds Mills Pess), Hopkins continues to read and write poetry each day. "There isn't a day that goes by that I'm not reading poetry or working on a poem of my own," he says.

He tries to convey his love for poetry in the many award-winning poetry anthologies that he’s edited (such as Hand in Hand: An American History Through Poetry, My America: A Poetry Atlas of the United States, America At War, and Sky Magic), but readers can sense that love infusing his own poems for children and the poetry workshops for children that he teaches around the country.

As far as he’s concerned, young children have no reason to be intimidated by poetry. “They grow up loving nonsense rhyme, Mother Goose melodies, song lyrics, etc,” he says.

It’s only years later that they learn to dislike it. That’s when they’re forced to apply what Hopkins calls “the DAM approach to the genre: Dissecting, Analyzing, and forced Memorization.”

“It’s when they’re confronted with pointless questions: ‘What does the poet really mean? What does that word truly mean?’ Who knows? Who cares?” asks Hopkins. “I tell teachers to read a poem, any poem; afterward be quiet and ask the class to turn to page sixteen in their math books! Often even I don’t know what the really and truly is when I’m creating a verse.”

After writing and collecting poems for more than a half-century, Hopkins still feels that poetry is a magical, mystical form of art. “I maintain that more can be said or felt in 8 or 10 or 12 lines than sometimes an entire novel can convey.”

Hopkins has two new books coming out this year–Nasty Bugs, an anthology, illustrated by Will Terry (Dial), and a picture book, Mary’s Song, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn (Eerdmans), a poetic tribute to Virgin Mary. He lives in Cape Coral, FL and was kind enough to take some time away from his work to share thoughts on writing with wordswimmer readers:

Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming, how do you get into the water each day?

Hopkins: You ease into water slowly, inch by inch, step by careful step, until the water is totally tested. Then you plunge in and keep going until you’re exhausted.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat... for short work? For longer work?

Hopkins: Daydreaming keeps one afloat for both short and longer works.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Hopkins: Dry spells are forever wringing wet. When you begin to dry, you think about Olympic swimmers, constantly practicing craft, going for the gold, hoping you will win, even envisioning the bit of fame that might come after all your hard work. Actually when a dry spell does occur, I towel myself off and go shopping for a new sports jacket, look at the price, and say to myself, "You want that? Start swimming again!"

Wordswimmer: What’s the hardest part of swimming?

Hopkins: The hardest part of swimming is beginning, ending, beginning again and again anew, keeping your head above water, never letting yourself gasp for air.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Hopkins: Swimming alone is when you ponder, wonder, swim and swim some more.

Wordswimmer: What’s the part of swimming that you love the most?

Hopkins: The best part of swimming? Having swum!

For more information about Hopkins, visit his website:

For more interviews, visit:


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Bruce, for your most inventive interview questions.

My best-est.


Bruce Black said...

My pleasure, Lee. Thanks for helping other writers find their way into the water.

Sharron said...

I'm surprised he had the guts to read something before such an acclaimed figure.

As for children and poetry, I think it's more the 'fear factor' than the having to memorize. Too many rules for freedom.

Bruce Black said...

Part of learning to write--poetry or fiction or anything, really--is learning to take risks, so I'm not surprised at all that Lee had "the guts" to share his work early on. You never know what will inspire you to keep writing.

Anonymous said...

from Lee Bennett Hopkins

Truly 'acclaimed figures' are only
'acclaimed' by others. Most acclaimed figures I've met are extraordinarily generous; real people.

May Swenson was as real as anyone could ever be.

Lee Bennett Hopkins

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Lee, for the reminder to look beyond labels to see the real person. And, thanks, too, for your amazing generosity.