Influence Poetry and Found Poetry:The Reflection of Creative Writing Pedagogy in the Verse Novel for Young Readers
While the contemporary verse novel for young readers includes a range of texts across a variety of genres and topics, a significant portion of these texts focus on the education and development of the young artist.1 Sharon Creech's Love That Dog (2001) was one of the earliest children's verse novels to feature the coming of age experience of a burgeoning poet, Jack, who looks to predecessors William Carlos Williams, William Blake, and Walter Dean Myers to inspire his own writing. In this essay, I examine the education of the young poet in Creech's text and in three recently published verse novels marketed to young readers: Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), K. A. Holt's Rhyme Schemer (2014), and Kwame Alexander's Booked (2016). Each of these texts advocates for the value of stylistic imitation via the depiction of children who write influence or erasure poems, a move that leads to emotional maturation for the characters within the texts, while serving as evidence that creative writing pedagogy can be accessible to the young readers situated outside the texts.
Each of these verse novels also engages directly with the relationship between artistic creation and an artist's environment. Creech and Holt depict young, white men developing poetic sensibilities reluctantly in order to assist them in expressing their emotions, and Woodson and Alexander feature burgeoning African American poets thoughtfully and intentionally selecting model poets who mirror their realities and allow them to showcase their nascent creativity. In addition, Woodson and Alexander's verse novels highlight model poetry that emphasizes racial tensions: Brown Girl Dreaming explores growing up during the civil rights era and the impact of Langston Hughes on a young writer, and Booked describes a contemporary protagonist erasing parts of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, [End Page 218] a novel that is often cited and even censored for its repeated use of a racial slur. The influence poems and found poems within these verse novels reflect sociocultural concerns and follow the long-standing tradition in children's literature of using texts as pedagogical tools that model behavior (and more specifically, in this case, writing behavior) for young readers.2
The depiction of the education of the young poet in these collections also has implications for the contemporary Künstlerroman narrative tradition, in which loss is often a central motivator for personal growth.3 Just as each protagonist's writing reflects a connection between artistic motivation and social evolution, an element of loss becomes the catalyst that allows the writer-protagonist to recognize the power of language and to pursue his or her art as an act of healing (Trites 69–70). Moreover, as the protagonists in these texts are shown to benefit from reading and writing poetry, young readers outside the texts witness this phenomenon and may be less likely to feel distanced from the creative process. Noting that the only way a young person can develop into an artist is by shedding fear, Woodson reveals in a recent interview that, as a child, she had to let go of anxiety surrounding her calling as an artist: "I used to be afraid of poetry. I thought it was some secret code only certain people were supposed to understand. . . . But I know now that poetry belongs to all of us" ("Lift Every Voice"). Likewise, Alexander explains why he chose poetry as a medium:
The way the word can move on the page can really grab you in and get your attention. . . . There are some topics that lend themselves better to poetry…. There's a lot that boys especially don't like to talk about. We don't have the language. We're not given the language to be able to share these thoughts, these pains, and these emotions. Poetry is a way that allows us to deal with those things and to understand ourselves—to cope and to heal.
The verse novel is uniquely situated to address pain and healing because its form draws attention to itself as a created artifact. The lyric's emphasis on emotion, as well as poetry's general use of the space on the page, invites the reader to linger over language and breaks in the line, in the stanza, and between poems. Moreover, the fact that Woodson, Creech, Holt, and Alexander's verse novels contain poems written by their young protagonists calls upon the reader to hold space in the narrative and slow her pace further in order to consider the writing of the characters separately. Poetry asks more of its readers—more time, more thought, more stillness, more effort—and even though verse novels contain fewer words, there is a depth of meaning that awaits the careful reader—and the goal, as advocated by these authors, is to draw those readers in. [End Page 219]
Creative Writing Pedagogy and Influence
One of the first exercises in creative writing courses includes reading works by published authors, followed by writing a piece modeled after some aspect of that writer's work. In courses at the undergraduate and graduate level, professors often refer to this "response poetry" as an exercise in crafting an "influence poem" or "imitation poem." Often, these poems are workshopped, discussed in concert with their original influences, revised toward pieces that bring in more voice and originality, and then are included in the poet's own collection or portfolio. Not surprisingly, as a common practice in creative writing pedagogy, the act of writing "influence poetry" has also emerged in depictions of the young poet in the verse novel form within children's literature.
Building a teleology of the field of poetic instruction involves looking first to rhetoricians and literary critics. As Tom Hunley notes, "like musicians, painters, and artists in other fields, most poets court influence and can usually name plenty of stylists upon whose work they are building. The fastest and best way that I know to develop an original style is through deliberate imitation of stylistic elements in model poets" (91).4 Hunley's discussion of poetic influence echoes Harold Bloom's famous argument that "poetic history . . . is held to be indistinguishable from poetic influence" (5), and an individual becomes a poet when she "first discovers (or is discovered by) the dialectic of influence, first discovers poetry as being both external and internal to [her]self" (25). Drawing on ideas of influence in children's poetry, Joseph T. Thomas, Jr., characterizes the ways in which child poets are influenced through reading "'official school poetry,' the dominant mode of children's poetry in the school, the kind of poetry written by adults and taught to children in the classroom," and remarks, "certainly there are human children who . . . strive to emulate the adult poets they encounter, but more common are those raconteurs . . . who specialize in the sometimes bawdy playground poetry. These child poets . . . reveal that children have a poetic tradition of their own, a carnivalesque tradition that signifies on adult culture" (40).
Contemporary verse novels for young readers are unique in their approach to what Thomas terms "official school poetry" and "playground poetry" in that they present the child poet learning aspects of the craft through influence, both by revering and parodying various source texts. While Creech and Woodson rely on poets typically associated with "official school poetry" with whom their child-poet speakers to form an artistic connection, Holt and Alexander draw on the tradition of found poetry in order to emphasize play and humor as catalysts for their protagonists' poetic craft, as well as their characters' general distaste for their educational environment. These approaches [End Page 220] to influence poetry underscore the way in which the poetic tradition in children's literature, and particularly the verse novel, "signifies on adult culture" (Thomas 40) by drawing on creative writing pedagogy. Moreover, Creech, Woodson, Holt, and Alexander's use of influence and found poetry reflects their own liberal arts educations5 and their desire to teach/model a specific writing practice to young readers through the work of their poet protagonists.6 The intent of these verse novels is to persuade young readers that poetry has something to say to them, and that they have something to say back to these model poems.
The protagonists' poetic experimentation in Love That Dog, Booked, Rhyme Schemer, and Brown Girl Dreaming is likewise wrapped up in the ways it allows them to work through grief and loss. Reading and composing poetry both convey a sense of permanence in a painful, chaotic world—for Jack, as he mourns the death of his beloved pet; for Nick, as he witnesses his parent's separation and his mother's relocation; for Kevin, as he copes with parental neglect; and for Jackie, as she faces the deaths of her beloved grandfather and aunt. For each of these young poets, writing begins in a place of struggle. Although Jackie loves to tell stories and wants to write, she laments, "when I read, the words twist" (169) and "come slow to me" (221). Jack is reluctant to write because he associates poetry with femininity (1). Conversely, Nick and Kevin's writing emerges from their disinterest in school and their view of poetry as a way to play with language outside of the boundaries set by educational institutions. As Jackie observes, "on paper, things can live forever" (249) and "how amazing these words are that slowly come to me. / How wonderfully on and on they go" (62).
Official School Poetry and the Influence Poem
In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson explores her personal history and traces the first ten years of her life growing up in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York during the 1960s and 1970s. Woodson's exploration of her own coming of age as a writer in Brown Girl Dreaming is one of the primary focuses of the narrative. She explains in the author's note: "At the end of the day, I was alone with Brown Girl Dreaming—walking through these memories and making sense out of myself as a writer in a way I had never done before" (325). She further stresses on her author website in the "Why I Wrote It" section for Brown Girl Dreaming that she "wanted to understand exactly how [she] became a writer" ("Middle Grade Titles"). One poem in Brown Girl Dreaming that begins to articulate Jackie's coming of age as a writer is "learning from langston" (245). While Woodson's verse novel cites Hughes's poem "Dreams" in the epigraph and alludes to lines from his "The Negro [End Page 221] Speaks of Rivers" throughout, the poem "learning from langston" highlights the specific ways in which imitating the stylistic features of Hughes's poetry helped Jackie learn to develop her own poetic craft.
"Learning from langston" begins by directly quoting the entirety of Hughes's "Poem" from his 1932 The Dream Keeper, a book of previously published poems selected for young readers:
I loved my friend.
He went away from me.There's nothing more to say.The poem ends, Soft as it began—I loved my friend.—Langston Hughes (245, italics original)
After the first six lines of the poem, Woodson attributes the lines to Hughes, and follows up with her own five-line influence poem:
I love my friendAnd still dowhen we play gameswe laugh. I hope she never goes away from mebecause I love my friend.—Jackie Woodson (245, italics original)
Just as Hughes's poem begins and ends with the line: "I loved my friend," Woodson's influence poem also employs the repeating line, "I love my friend" at the beginning and end of her stanza. Woodson's own poem references her childhood friendship with her Brooklyn neighbor Maria and emphasizes Jackie's concern about losing her friend. Growing up in a home where she is encouraged to stifle emotion and be serious, this poem represents an invitation for Jackie to pause and contemplate her own fears and emotions. Out of the many poems from Hughes's canon, Woodson's choice to include this specific poem as a point of influence speaks to the ways in which friendship and connection, and specifically those with another young girl, served to shape her growth. In addition to repurposing the first and final lines from Hughes's poem, Woodson also includes Hughes's second line, "He went away from me," as "I hope she never goes away from me" in the penultimate line of her poem. While Jackie's influence poem is by no means inventive or profound, it does reflect a significant moment in the education of the young poet; the true innovation lies in the gesture of the larger poem "learning from langston," which reflects that the edification of the young poet begins with the practice of influence. [End Page 222]
Woodson's choice of Hughes as a model poet for Jackie serves to place her own writing in the context of a long tradition of black American artists, and thus sets her narrative apart as one specifically focused on a brown girl's coming of age as a poet. As Katharine Capshaw notes in Civil Rights Childhood, Hughes's poetry was foundational and inspirational for many children and young activists (28, 102). By linking her speaker's poetry to that of a poet and activist of the Harlem Renaissance, Woodson reveals her own views on the role of the child-poet as activist through constructing a burgeoning activist-poet in Jackie and communicating to young readers that they too might follow in her footsteps. Brown Girl Dreaming thus positions the contemporary Künstlerroman as a site of cultural activism through its use of poetic imitation and influence.
Tom Dolack argues that literary imitation "from [copying to] translation to mimicry to emulation to adaptation and all the shades of gray in between . . . in any poet's [work] forms a spectrum" (2). Dolack further notes that because "imitation, emulation, and influence are the foundation upon which poetry is written," these techniques can be seen "as a means to innovation and originality and as an active, conscious process of incorporating, adapting, and rewriting a precursor's work" (5). Likewise, in Talking Back to Poems: A Working Guide for the Aspiring Poet, Daniel Alderson emphasizes the importance of writing "poetry in response to other poetry" and encourages readers and aspiring writers to "think and behave like a poet practicing the craft" (6) and "begin talking back to poems" by engaging in a writing process that involves copying poems by hand, noticing different elements of poetic craft (such as sound, imagery, structure, and meaning), and finally writing a new poem in response (12).
"Learning from langston" follows Alderson's pedagogical model that creative writing students "work actively while writing poetry" by "us[ing] the methods of the poet in order to make [their] own meaning" (14). In Woodson's "learning from langston," Jackie's influence poem is, more than anything, a stylistic exercise that demonstrates the way in which she utilizes her source text's form, language, and themes. "Learning from langston" begins with the act of copying down and attributing Hughes's poem as an influence text, and the final lines that comprise Jackie's addition fall somewhere in between mimicry and emulation on Dolack's imitation spectrum, in that Woodson's poem "aims to reproduce primarily the external and formal aspects of a work," as well as "revives a source text at the same time that it remains and autonomous work in its own right" (2). By titling her poem "learning from langston," Woodson draws attention to the poetic process that a beginning writer embarks upon through the careful study, meditation, and emulation of predecessor poets, as well as the way in which significant cultural figures can inspire young activist-poets as they develop their craft. [End Page 223]
Woodson's young speaker's drive to learn from a model poet is likewise exemplified in Creech's young speaker, Jack, in her verse novel Love That Dog, a text that takes the form of a poetry journal written by a boy who is reluctant to read or write poetry but does so at his teacher Miss Stretch-berry's urging. Although Woodson and Creech's verse novels represent two different approaches, they both make the experiences and writing processes of the emerging young poet a central feature of their narratives. Much like Woodson's Jackie, Creech's Jack is influenced by several model poets. While Woodson's Jackie is inspired by "official school" poets Hughes and Frost, Creech's Jack takes his poetic influence from Williams and Blake, as well as contemporary writers for young people such as Walter Dean Myers. In a section almost identical to that included on Woodson's website, Creech reveals that "Walter Dean Myers' poem, 'Love That Boy,' has hung on my bulletin board for years. . . . One day as I glanced at this poem, I started thinking about the much-loved boy in Myers' poem. I wondered what the boy might love." She goes on to explain that "the whole story pivots on [Myers's] poem and his influence on Jack." These parallel author statements speak to Woodson and Creech's own education and craft practices as poets, as well as their intent to model similar pedagogy to young readers who might be aspiring poets by creating protagonists who engage in learning through response to poetry.
In Love That Dog, Jack begins in resistance, with the first three entries in his poetry notebook claiming that he does not want to write, cannot understand poems, and will not write any of them himself. Ironically his statements of his refusal are written in lineated verse, and he begins writing influence poetry almost immediately within the first few pages of the verse novel. After reading Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow," Jack writes, "If that is a poem . . . / then any words / can be a poem" as long as the poet simply "make[s] / short / lines" (3). In Poetry's Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children's Poetry, Thomas contends that Creech's Love That Dog "challenges a failing in poetry pedagogy," arguing that, "students are generally not provided an officially sanctioned space to feel frustrated, angry, or resentful toward works of official school poetry. . . ." Yet, Miss Stretchberry "provides her student with such an outlet" (52). Thomas further notes that parody in Creech's work "foregrounds the interface between resistance and play, demonstrating a profound insight into the poetic tradition of the playground rhyme, and perhaps even into the poetic enterprise itself" (52). I would add that Creech's depiction of Jack's burgeoning poetic practice reveals an insightful awareness of the ways in which creative writing education occurs. The influence poem that appears directly following this parody poem demonstrates that Jack is engaged in developing his own voice as a poet. By composing an influence poem based on "The Red Wheelbarrow," [End Page 224] Jack relinquishes his reluctance and struggle with writing, in exchange for finding a way—no matter how indirect—to begin contending with the grief that he experiences when his dog is run over by a car.7
Jack's own influence poem reproduces the first two lines of Williams's poem, " So much depends / upon," and then shifts into emulating the sentence structure and noun/verb construction of "The Red Wheelbarrow" in the third and fourth lines, "a blue car / splattered with mud," before finally moving into an adaptation of the final lines of the poem in order to introduce something new and personal to the speaker, "speeding down the road" (4, italics original). As Thomas argues, "Miss Stretchberry crafts for Jack a space in which he can play with Williams's text's formal devices" (52). Jack persists in this formal play by writing influence poems throughout his poetry notebook that respond directly to those poets he reads in his classroom. For instance, when Miss Stretchberry asks her students to read the poetry of William Blake, Jack writes that he "did not really understand" Blake's poem, but "at least it sounded good / in my ears" (8). The speaker then includes a revision of his "blue car" poem using the "sounds" of the first stanza of Blake's "The Tyger." What Jack refers to as "sounds" are actually meter, rhyme, rhythm, and sentence structure. His influence poem begins, once again, with a close mimicry of the first two lines of Blake's poem, only changing four of the words in the source text: "Blue car, blue car, shining bright / in the darkness of the night" (8, italics original). The final two lines of the first stanza of Jack's poem move into a more innovative adaptation of Blake's lines, "who could see you speeding by / like a comet in the sky" (8, italics original). This innovation is further exemplified in the second stanza of Jack's influence poem that turns to the first-person lyric, while maintaining the meter and rhyme in Blake's original poem: "I could see you in the night, / blue car, blue car, shining bright. / I could see you speeding by" (8, italics original). Although Jack claims to "not really understand / the tiger tiger burning bright poem," it is clear from his influence poem that he does understand not only the content, but also the form of the poem, as well as the intended impact of the poem's music.
The move from a direct imitation of model poets toward the development of one's individual poetic voice also occurs in Brown Girl Dreaming, especially in "birch tree poem" (223–24) and "how to listen #6" (225), two poems that appear consecutively in the collection. Woodson's "birch tree poem" presents a scene in which Jackie's third grade teacher reads Robert Frost's "Birches" to her class. This poem focuses on the imagery, lyricism, and music created by Frost's poem and the physical response engendered in the young listeners, and particularly in Jackie, by the performance of the poem. Woodson's speaker begins "birch tree poem" with the image of her teacher introducing the poem [End Page 225] to her class, "before my teacher reads the poem, / she has to explain" (223); she defines the word "birch" and "pulls a picture / from her desk drawer" to make the tree "real" for the students in her class (223). Woodson's poem then includes the first five lines of Frost's poem, which is in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter: "'When I see birches bend to left and right. . . / Across the lines of straighter darker trees / I like to think'—" (223, italics original). Woodson interrupts the third line of Frost's poem and shifts into Jackie's experience of listening.
Underscoring the significance of her teacher's poetic performance, Woodson's poem includes a scene depicting the impact the teacher's voice reading Frost's poem has on her classroom of students: "and when she reads, her voice drops down so low / . . . some of us put our heads on our desks to keep / the happy tears from flowing" (223). As her teacher finishes reading, the speaker of the poem notes that, "even though we've never seen an ice storm / we've seen a birch tree, so we can imagine / everything we need to imagine" (223). The repetition of the word "imagine" at the end of these two lines highlights not only the importance of imagery and language in poetry in general, but also, more specifically, Jackie's understanding of what poetry can do. Formally, the lines depicting Jackie listening to the poem mirror Frost's own use of blank verse, although Woodson's is a much looser version of the form. The final three lines of the poem further demonstrate the emotional and spiritual experience Frost's poem brings about in the speaker, "forever and ever // infinity // amen" (224). These lines emphasize the permanence of the word on the page. As "birch tree poem" indicates, poetry becomes meaningful to the speaker as a mode of expression when combined with instruction and performance. The poem draws attention to the use of a model poet's work; the power of a single voice reciting a poem; and the impact that specific poetic techniques such as imagery, lyricism, repetition, meter, and form can have on those who read and listen to poetry.
Each of these elements is exemplified in the influence poem, "how to listen #6," that appears immediately after "birch tree poem." Woodson's "how to listen #6" is a poem in her haiku series, which includes eleven total haiku that appear woven throughout her verse novel. In this poem, Woodson uses Frost's "Birches" as a model for her own poem about her particular childhood experience as it relates to the natural world around her: "When I sit beneath / the shade of my block's oak tree / the world disappears" (225). Formal poetic strategies such as imagery and lyricism, and the haiku's reliance upon syllabics and meter are on display in this poem. The poem depicts Woodson's speaker's own experience of meditation in/on nature, as well as her understanding of the power of poetic form. Because "birch tree poem" and "how to listen #6" appear sequentially in her collection, their poetic projects are linked. It is [End Page 226] not a stretch to view Frost's description of the birches as a source of inspiration for Woodson's description of her speaker's oak tree. Each poem makes central the image of a tree and the way in which the speaker of the poem utilizes the tree as a source of meditation and emotional resonance. "Birch tree poem," "how to listen #6," and "learning from langston" all appear in part four of Woodson's verse novel, which immediately follows the death of Jackie's Aunt Kay (150) and ends with the death of Daddy Gunnar (276–77). Half of the poems in part four show Jackie practicing and thinking about her craft, reading, and revealing to her family and friends her desire to be a writer. The poems further echo Jackie's experiences of loss and how they come to shape her as a writer.
Similarly, in Creech's Love That Dog, Jack moves away from direct imitation in his poetry toward his own distinct poetic voice and vision in the poem "My Sky." "My Sky" is a five-page free verse poem that uses various lines from Jack's previous influence poems in order to tell the story of the death of his dog and how this event impacts him emotionally. Once again, the technique of revising previously written poems that include lines inspired by model poets emphasizes poetry pedagogy and practices used by practicing poets at all levels. "My Sky" utilizes three lines derived from Jack's previous Williams and Blake influence poems in order to express, directly this time, the connotations that the "blue car" has for him as an instrument of death that takes the life of his beloved dog, Sky:
. . . I turned aroundand saw ablue car blue carsplattered with mudspeeding down the road
but it was too latebecause theblue car blue carsplattered with mudhit Skythud thud thud.(70–71, italics original)
In this moment, Creech shows how poetic tradition is important for Jack as he begins to uncover his voice as a writer and how poetic techniques such as repetition, rhyme, meter, and sound can add emotional resonance to a narrative told in verse. Jack's poetic voice develops even further when he finally encounters a poem that he thoroughly understands and enjoys: Myers's "Love That Boy" (42–45). Through encountering this poem, copying it, and hanging it on his bedroom wall Jack confronts and processes his grief; he [End Page 227] observes his experience of "trying / not to think about something" and how "it keeps popping back / into your head" (64). Reading Myers's poem, with its repeated declarations of the speaker's love for his son ("Love that boy, / like a rabbit loves to run / I said I love that boy" and "Love to call him in the morning / love to call him / 'Hey there, son!'"),8 also culminates in the final and title poem of the collection "Love That Dog / (Inspired by Walter Dean Myers) / By Jack" (86), a poem that allows Jack to communicate his emotions regarding the death of his pet.
Playground Poetry and the Found Poem
Found poetry, and erasure poetry more specifically, takes the idea of influence and imitation one step further in that the poet composes directly on or within another source text, demonstrating how a model poet's language, form, and content can be used to discover new textual meanings and possibilities. As Thomas points out, "official school poetry and playground poetry exist on a spectrum" (xv), much in the same way as influence exists on a spectrum from copying to innovation. He further argues that visual poetry exists "outside the spectrum of official school and playground poetry" (xvi), labeling visual poetry as, "eminently an avant-garde endeavor" (91). This is also true of erasure poetry, which like visual poetry, has emerged in children's literature—and specifically in the verse novel for young readers—as a rich and promising site for poetic innovation.
In Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, Marjorie Perloff argues that found poetry, or poems that utilize "a collage of found texts," represent a particularly effective form of artifice, pointing out that "at its best, such construction empowers the audience by altering its perceptions of how things happen" (27–28). Echoing this sentiment, Ross Hair notes that erasure poetry "draws considerably on twentieth-century forms of collage praxis and intertextuality" and provides an "example of how to use a pre-existing text and make it say something new" (130, 129). Thus, the erasure poem within the scope of contemporary American poetry also emerges as a poetic practice that utilizes the carnivalesque, avant-garde, and postmodern to create an impact on its readers, while simultaneously reaching back to the traditions of influence, imitation, and emulation in poetry.
One of the fundamental elements of the erasure poem, beyond its radical use of influence, is the treatment of space on the page as a formal tool—whether blacked-out, whited-out, or written over. Blank or black space, as well as the illegible palimpsestic effacing of a text, require sophisticated reader parsing and puzzling and prompt a level of instability in narrative and lyric. Brian McHale notes that "poems of physical erasure exemplify postmodernist poetry's [End Page 228] general tendency toward 'spaciness,' toward attenuation of the verbal text and its progressive infiltration by ever greater volumes of white space" (278). Furthermore, Jena Osman explains that "all found poetry consists of recontextualized text; however, the presentation of the recontextualization varies. There are found poems that collage and incorporate snippets of found texts with more 'original' material . . . and there are those poems that consist entirely of text that came from other textual environments." She continues by noting that "within the latter category there is yet another division: those poems that are found in the public environment . . ., and those poems that are found inside of other texts" (239–40). Osman refers to this style of poetry as "gumshoe poetry" because "it encourages an investigation into language where the reader and/or writer (as detective) discovers new logics beneath the surface, and thus creates a renewed picture of the textual (and consequently nontextual) world" (240). Overall, the practice of taking a text and erasing the majority of the words, while preserving the original spacing (with either blacked out text or white space) or even the original text (written over or crossed through), is an exercise that implicates both the poet and the reader as active agents in exploration of hidden meaning.
Such erasure poetry practices are evident in Alexander's Booked and Holt's Rhyme Schemer, as the authors depict their poet-protagonists resisting educators or educational practices that they believe to be oppressive, confusing, or boring. In Booked, Alexander's protagonist Nick creates a blacked-out erasure poem using pages from classic and contemporary literature, including Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, after his English teacher Ms. Hardwick gives him an extra homework assignment to define and find an example of a malapropism when he fails to pay attention during class.9 Similarly, the young protagonist Kevin in Holt's Rhyme Schemer, writes his own palimpsestic erasure poems using pages torn from various children's texts he finds in the library and at home, such as L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, to make fun of his teacher, Mrs. Smithson, and principal, Mr. Hartwick.10 These poetic exercises incorporate what Thomas refers to as subversive and carnivalesque "playground poetry" that foregrounds parody, resistance, play, and bodily humor.
The process of creating erasure poetry demonstrates subversive and even forbidden behavior for the protagonists: for Kevin, especially, as he defaces books in the school library in order to create and display his writing, but also for Nick who initially creates his erasure in response to his English teacher's punishment (although he later uses them as a thank you to Mr. Mac for his encouragement and instruction). While Nick uses the black-out approach to his erasures, obscuring the majority of the text of his original source material, Kevin instead scribbles over, crosses out, and inks in his own letters, in addition [End Page 229] to circling, boxing, and drawing arrows from one letter or word to the next. Kevin then writes out his constructed poem on the facing page in thick, weighted black ink; often his poems are accompanied by drawings as well.
The first erasure poem in Alexander's Booked occurs immediately following the poem "Huckleberry Finn-ished," in which Nick expresses relief that he has made it nearly to end of Ms. Hardwick's Honors English class without being asked to share his assignment. However, after Nick causes a disturbance in class, his classmate Winnifred disrupts his calm by blurting out, "wasn't Nick supposed to / present a malapropism / to us today?" (49, italics original). Ms. Hardwick responds, "Nick, here's your chance to be funny. / Were you able to find / a malapropism?" Nick replies, presenting his erasure poem, "No . . . / . . . I actually found two" (50, italics original). The next page contains a reproduction of a page from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with all of the words blacked out but those that make up Nick's erasure poem. It reads:
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reads jest like a funeral orgie I shovedit down thet o i 1 et.(51, italics original)
Given the cultural conversations surrounding the use and/or censorship of the racial slurs present in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alexander's choice of a source text from which his protagonist draws inspiration underscores the role that the verse novel can play as a site of cultural engagement and activism. While Jackie in Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming derives affirmative inspiration from the poetry of Hughes and Frost, Nick is shown to draw inspiration driven by parody and deletion rather than direct imitation.
Alexander also uses this moment to encourage his readers to share Nick's interest in language via the use of a footnote. Footnotes are featured early on in the verse novel, as the reader learns that Nick's father is a linguistics professor with "chronic verbomania," who is the author of a dictionary called "Weird and Wonderful Words," which "has freakin' FOOTNOTES" (4) and from which Nick is required to study daily to prepare for college. Throughout the verse novel, many poems contain obscure words that Nick explains, defines, [End Page 230] and jokes about in the text of the poem or the accompanying footnote. For example, the poem "Class Ends" describes a scene in which
Ms. Hardwickreads your assignmentthen runsinto the hallwaycachinnating*like she's about to peein her polyester.(52)
The poem then provides one such footnoted word's definition, explaining the content of the previous page's erasure poem: "*cachinnate [kak-uh-nayt] verb: to laugh loudly. In Huck Finn, Mark Twain misused the words 'orgies' for 'obsequies' (which means 'ceremonies'), and 'jest' for 'just' (which means, uh, 'just'). Get it? Yeah, me either, but Hardwick apparently did, 'cause we can still hear her cachinnating, so I guess my job's done. Nick Hall, SCORE!" (52, italics original).
In this particular set of poems within Booked, Alexander straddles the line between didacticism and carnivalesque in that the content included in the narrative is educational, while the formal delivery of the information is firmly rooted in subversion of authority, play, and humor. The definition, repetition, and modeling of meaning through application of the word "cachinnate" multiple times, as well as the footnoted explanation of the malapropism assignment all point toward Alexander's educative and pedagogical focus as a writer. "Huckleberry Finn-ished" and "Class Ends" also emphasize poetic play and experimentation in their formal structure, narrative tone, and address to the reader. Furthermore, these poems present a reluctant poet, seen as somewhat disruptive and disengaged in the classroom, using influence and wit creatively and playfully.
These two poems are directly connected to Nick's grief in relation to his parents' separation as they are immediately followed by a series of poems where Nick realizes at dinner that "no one's saying a word" and "something's not right" (53–54), and his parents announce that they "are separating" and that his mom has "decided to go back to work . . . in Kentucky" (58, 57, italics original). The erasure poems that appear later in the collection show Nick connecting with his school librarian, Mr. Mac, who invites him to join a student book club and introduces him to verse novels for young readers that address trauma, loss, and healing including Ann E. Burg's All the Broken Pieces (222) and Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (237). These stories help Nick begin to work through his own feelings and further ignite his passion for language and poetry. [End Page 231]
Holt's Rhyme Schemer also includes structural peculiarities designed to emphasize the mix between pedagogy and didacticism. Kevin's poems appear in a dated poetry journal, titled with the day number. Early on in the collection, in a poem titled "Day 3," Kevin explains his experimentation with erasure poetry:
I found the page in an old book.No one will miss it.No one reads those old books anyway.The words just jumped out at melike tickly little fleasneeding a good scratching.So I scratched them.And no one will know it was me.(6)
On the facing page, a reproduction of a page from The Wizard of Oz appears, with its edges ripped (7). Kevin's "scratchings" are inked in. Words, letters, and phrases are circled, and arrows guide the reader across the page. Below the poem on page 6, the words from the erasure poem are written in as marginalia: "We will die. / The smell is killing us! / TEACHER SMELL is deadly. / Barf." Significantly, as the words from the original source text are not obscured, the reader can read the entire page from Baum's The Wizard of Oz, which describes Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Lion walking through the field of poppies whose scent causes the Lion and Dorothy to fall into a deep sleep. This palimpsestic approach allows readers to draw meaning from the original source text as well as from the new poem created through erasure.
Kevin's creation of erasure poetry also attracts the attention of his librarian, Mrs. Little, who invites him to "Beatnik's Brews Poetry Night" where he can listen to poets perform their work and share his own poetry (111). Mrs. Little acts as a source of comfort and confidence for Kevin when he feels alone and cast out from his family. In a scene at the end of Rhyme Schemer, Mrs. Little finds Kevin crying outside a restaurant after being asked to step out by his parents (132); she then proceeds to tell his parents how talented, smart, and funny she finds him (134), before driving him to open mic night at the coffee shop where he is introduced to poetry as a form of art that he can enjoy publicly (137–40).
Championing the Value of Poetry
In "Can Children's Poetry Matter?," Richard Flynn observes that "poetry is both complex, artificially, formally conceived expression and it is work, but in postmodern America it is rarely thought of as serious work; it is [End Page 232] marginalized like children and children's literature" (37). Flynn continues by drawing connections between children's and adult poetry, between poets-in-schools programs and M.F.A. writing workshops, arguing that "the idea that an innocent and separate realm of children's poetry should exist at all is questionable at best" (40), and concluding that "the challenge to those of us involved with both children and poetry is to facilitate the discovery of poetry's value" (42). The verse novels explored in this essay also draw connections between the education of the poet in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions, drawing a link between pedagogy in the classroom and the narratives directed at young readers. As a rhetorical move, the act of inserting a created protagonist's own poems into a narrative is inherently pedagogical as it models for young readers how a poet might begin her own writing practice. This strategy begins to answer questions about how and where a poet gets her ideas, how a poet chooses a specific form, and how a poet develops a unique voice.
These authors also appear to be advocating for the education of the young poet through deeply engaged reading of other poets, followed by writing strategies that emphasize emulation. Additionally, their young poets' grief and loss serve as a catalyst for innovations in their writing craft. Each work puts forward influence, imitation, and writing in response as key developmental writing practices. Whereas Alexander and Holt's protagonists overwhelmingly use the erasure poem as a form of play and subversion in the educational setting, Woodson and Creech's protagonists employ a method of influence that uses source texts in a way that would be sanctioned as appropriate in an educational setting. As highlighted by Woodson's poem "learning from langston," as well as Creech's continued reference to Jack's striving toward "understanding," the practice to writing poems in response to model poets plays a foundational role in the development of a young writer. Adult mediation through teaching, prompting, and other means within verse novels for young readers provides a bridge for young poets in building and performing a model of writing craft in practice.11 Holt and Alexander's protagonists craft erasure poems to emphasize play and Woodson and Creech's protagonists write poems that imitate structure, line, and style, but each of these authors constructs a character whose poetic craft and voice is in development. These pedagogically focused depictions provide a map for and a window through which young readers to see themselves becoming poets through sustained, close reading of model poets and the crafting of response poems that are inspired by the works of other writers that they read. [End Page 233]
Krystal Howard is Assistant Professor in the Liberal Studies Program at California State University, Northridge, where she teaches children's and adolescent literature, integrated teacher education, and comics. Her research focuses on form and cultural studies in literature for young readers. She has published scholarship on the verse novel for young readers, Gothic comics for young readers, and Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's picturebooks. For more information, please visit www.krystalhoward.com.
1. Other verse novels that depict young characters writing poems within their pages include: Jacqueline Woodson's Locomotion (2003), Ellen Hopkins's Traffick (2015), Christine Heppermann's Ask Me How I Got Here (2016), Marie Jaskulka's The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl and Random Boy (2015), and K. A. Holt's House Arrest (2015), among others. Many of Margarita Engle's verse novels also focus on historical writers' Künstlerromane, as well as her own: Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings; A Memoir (2015), The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba (2010), The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist (2013), and The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (2006).
2. As Richard Flynn argues in "Can Children's Poetry Matter?," poets teaching creative writing tend to pass on traditions that they themselves were taught (40).
3. In Brown Girl Dreaming, Love That Dog, Booked, and Rhyme Schemer, the depiction of the poet and her/his experimentation with form, content, line, and craft through the imitation and transformation of various source texts speaks to the widespread emphasis within creative writing education on learning writing through intertextual exploration. For more on the Künstlerroman narrative tradition in children's literature, see Trites's "Re/constructing the Female Writer: Subjectivity in the Feminist Künstlerroman," Alberghene's From Alcott to "Abel's Island": The Image of the Artist in American Children's Literature, Molson's "Portrait of the Young Writer in Children's Fiction," Van Tuyl's "'Somebody Else's Universe': Female Künstler Narratives in Alcott's Little Women and Rowell's Fangirl," Clark's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Little Woman," Shannon's "The Work of Keeping Writing Play: A View through Children's Literature," and Paul's "The Feminist Writer as Heroine in Harriet the Spy."
4. In Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach, Hunley proposes "an instructive model for a rhetoric-based alternative to the Iowa workshop model" of creative writing instruction in which students spend class time "applying the five canons of classical rhetoric—invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery—to poetry writing" (24, 10). Highlighting the idea that rhetoric has traditionally been concerned with the production of texts whereas poetics focuses on the interpretation of texts, Hunley's approach underscores the rhetorical and persuasive nature of poetry writing (28).
5. All four authors have backgrounds in the liberal arts: Creech holds a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature; Woodson, a B.A. in English; Holt, a B.A. in Art History; and Alexander, a B.A. in English.
6. All of these writers are currently serving or have in the past served as educators in some form or capacity. Creech taught high school English, while Woodson served as a mentor for creative writers at The City University of New York (CUNY); Holt belongs to the Writers' League of Texas, and Alexander served as writer-in-residence at Bank Street College of Education and pioneered the Book-in-a-Day initiative. Creech, Woodson, Holt, and Alexander's recently published verse novels demonstrate how authors for young readers are modeling creative practices that they no doubt first encountered in their own writing education, whether as burgeoning poets in their college-level creative writing classes, as teachers of writing, or as writers-in-residence at graduate-level university programs.
7. Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow" is included, along with all of the other original source poems referred to throughout the collection, in an appendix in the back of the book entitled: "Some of the Poems Used by Miss Stretchberry."
8. The first stanza of Myers's "Love That Boy" appears in the appendix.
9. Alexander's Booked, the follow-up to his Newbery winning The Crossover (2014), includes three erasure poems, two written by Nick and one written by his school librarian, Mr. Mac. These three erasure poems take a different source text as inspiration for their creation; in addition to Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Nick also uses Crystal Allen's 2010 novel for young readers, How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy, while Mr. Mac finds inspiration in Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers.
10. There are ten erasure poems written by Kevin within Holt's Rhyme Schemer, and these erasures use multiple source texts including Baum's The Wizard of Oz; Kenneth Grahame's The Wind and the Willows; Jack London's White Fang; J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan (three erasures in Holt's verse novel use this source text); Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel.
11. As recent scholarship such as Rachel Conrad's essay on actual young poets published in Rattle literary magazine's 2014 anthology underscores, young people's participation in poetic practice is of particular interest to those who specialize not just in children's literature, but also in childhood studies, agency, and ethics. Conrad suggests that "conventional Western ideas of autonomy likely interfere with adults' recognition of young people's artistry, which can involve adult mediation through prompting, transcribing, teaching, editing, or other scaffolding. . . . Adult mediation in children's productions, rather than eroding children's autonomy, is part of the background against which children's literary productions take shape" (200).