- Old Guard → Avant-Garde → Kindergarde:The 2014 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry
Dana Teen Lomax, ed. Kindergarde: Avant-Garde Poems, Plays, Stories, and Songs for Children. Illus. Cliff Hengst. Lafayette: Black Radish, 2013.
JonArno Lawson. Enjoy It While It Hurts. Illus. JonArno Lawson. Hamilton, Ontario: Wolsak, 2013.
Robert Priest. Rosa Rose and Other Poems. Illus. Joan Krygsman. Hamilton, Ontario: Wolsak, 2013.
Maurice Sendak. My Brother’s Book. Illus. Maurice Sendak. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.
For the first time since its inception in 2005, the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry is being awarded jointly. Kindergarde: Avant-Garde Poems, Plays, Stories, and Songs for Children, edited by Dana Teen Lomax, and JonArno Lawson’s Enjoy It While It Hurts were both deemed unequivocally excellent by the judges.1 That part was easy enough. The painful, soul-searching part was that we feared losing our credibility if we awarded the prize to Lawson again. Lawson was the winner in 2007, 2009, and 2013, and his new book, Enjoy It While It Hurts, redolent with elegant gothic Art Nouveau, Wilde’s ironic aphorisms and Decadent aestheticism, was, as Craig said, “one of the best books of [End Page 381] children’s poetry not just this year, but in many generations.” In the end, we posed our problem to Bill Breichner, Johns Hopkins University Press Journals publisher, who confirmed our initial judgment: “penalizing Lawson for his continued excellence would lessen the award for everyone.”
With that affirmation, we feel confident in our decision to designate Enjoy It While It Hurts and Kindergarde as our joint winners and laud their embrace of linguistic, thematic, and intellectual experimentation. The title Lomax chose for her anthology—Kindergarde, a portmanteau of “kindergarten” and “avant-garde”—in itself provides us with a useful new coinage. “Kindergarde” is exactly the right word to describe the verse found in Kindergarde, in our Honor books, Rosa Rose by Robert Priest, with its tip to Gertrude Stein, and My Brother’s Book, the late Maurice Sendak’s Blakean exploration of death, and in JonArno Lawson’s newest award-winning work, Enjoy It While It Hurts. Too often children’s poetry collections seem afraid to challenge children linguistically or intellectually, instead condescending to readers with overly simplified, obsessively on-topic verse. What we loved about the word kindergarde is that it defined for us a new genre of children’s verse, something that previous judges had recognized in Lawson’s work and in the work of many of the shortlisted children’s poets discussed in earlier award essays: namely, intelligent, uncompromising poetry with the shock of the new, poetry written by poets unafraid to address the continuum of human experience.
Kindergarde—in addition to being the first winning anthology in the history of the award—breaks away from the infoverse of the “for school” market and escapes the stranglehold of “old guard” Romantic verse of innocence, nature, and naïve children cavorting through sunshiny summer days. Unlike the usual children’s anthologies of old favorites recycled into new groupings, Kindergarde includes new and reprinted works by accomplished, contemporary poets who typically haven’t designated their work as belonging to the “for children” market. Unlike the designations “crossover,” which Sandra Beckett associates with literature that “crosses from adult to child or child to adult,” and “cross-writing,” which Uli Knoepflmacher and Mitzi Myers define as addressing the two audiences simultaneously (Beckett 58–59), Kindergarde isn’t about reception. It’s about production. With kindergarde verse, we move beyond cross-writing; this new avant-garde children’s poetry assumes an audience willing and able to play poetic games and to engage with a variety of literary traditions.
By taking its cues from avant-garde artists such as Picasso and Kandinsky—both inspired by real children who provided glimpses of the possibilities of discovering the world afresh—Kindergarde aligns itself in part with early twentieth-century avant-garde. With its portrait-sized, color-saturated, [End Page 382] school-bus yellow cover and asymmetrical title lettering, Kindergarde evokes Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist magazine Blast...