Art Talk with Children’s Poet Laureate Kenn Nesbitt
When Kenn Nesbitt found out he would be the new Children’s Poet Laureate, he said he was “floored.” We’re not sure why. After all, the poet has published over a dozen books and collections of poetry and has endeared himself to kids across the country with his instinctual ability to make them laugh. Known for his raucous, rollicking rhymes, Nesbitt has tackled everything from bedtime and school lunch to invisible dragons and skateboarding hamsters, turning each into a wild ride of wit and whimsy. In his hands, even homework—the holy grail of all things unfunny—becomes a hilarious romp. We recently spoke with Nesbitt by phone about humorous poetry, his former life as a computer programmer, and why working with kids is magic.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience with the arts?
KENN NESBITT: My earliest memories of appreciation of poetry and the literary arts was Dr. Seuss. When I was a kid, we not only had the books, we had the LP records. So I could listen to Fox in Socks, and Green Eggs and Ham, and The Cat in the Hat. We had a lot of Dr. Seuss books and I would just read them over and over again.
But probably what had a bigger impression on me was that my father had memorized a great deal of poetry. He loved poetry, especially the Victorian poets. We used to go on a lot of road trips in our car to go camping or water skiing at the lake—things like that. I have two brothers and we would fight a lot in the backseat if we weren’t occupied. So besides counting cars and things like that, [my parents] would tell stories and sing songs and my father would recite poetry. I remember I was just enraptured; I just loved it. I loved these rhyming, rhythmical stories that he would tell. Those were my earliest memories, and that’s what developed into a lifelong interest in poetry.
NEA: Before you turned to poetry professionally, you spent 20 years working in the computer industry. How did you make that transition to writing children’s poetry?
NESBITT: I was working at Microsoft when I wrote my first funny kid’s poems. It wasn’t that I thought I would do this for a living; I wasn’t even really thinking about getting published. I came across a recording of a Shel Silverstein poem and it struck me that I could write a poem like that. So I just sat down and I wrote it. I shared it with my friends at work the next day, and they seemed to be impressed and I thought well, maybe I’ll write another one. So over the next few years, I maybe wrote a poem every three or four months—not a lot. And then I noticed I had written a dozen poems, maybe 15. And then I thought, “Gee, I wonder if I could write a whole book.” And I just started writing a couple of poems a week over the next six months and I wound up with 50 or 60 poems. I went to the library and started looking at who publishes children’s poetry, and I sent my manuscript off to a publisher and they loved my work enough that they started putting my poems into various anthologies of children’s poetry. A couple of years later they decided to do a collection of just my work. It just snowballed from there.
NEA: Do you see any overlap between your work with computers and your work with poetry?
NESBITT: A lot of people say, “Gosh, computer programming and poetry, those seem like polar opposites.” But I don’t think there’s really as much difference as people think. For one thing, in both cases you’re working with language, and you’re pushing words around to make them do what you want. In one case, you’re trying to give instructions to the computer on what it should do and in poetry, you’re trying to tell a story. So in that respect, they’re very similar.
NEA: Why do you think poetry is important for children?
NESBITT: That’s a tough question. I think that literacy is critical to children. As they’re growing they have to become literate, well-rounded human beings and I find that poetry is one of the best and easiest ways to accomplish that. Poems are short little packages that make children feel successful, that open their eyes to new perspectives, and let them see the world in new ways that they previously didn’t or couldn’t. I think it’s a great way to get kids to feel like reading is fun and writing is easy and they can do it too.
NEA: You visit some 60 schools a year. What is your favorite part of doing school visits?
NESBITT: That’s easy; my favorite part is talking to the kids. I dislike almost everything about school visits. By that I mean the actual physical getting there: organizing all the logistics and flying and renting cars and staying in hotels and being away from my family. But once I’m there and in front of the kids, it’s absolute magic. It’s so much fun to have several hundred elementary kids just laughing their tuchuses off…. I can walk into a school and six hours later I can walk out of there and I’ve got every kid in that school really excited and wanting to read and believing they can write. There’s nothing better.
NEA: Well your poems are hilarious. And I think that element of humor is not often associated with poetry—poetry is often seen as very intimidating. How do you view the relationship between humor and poetry?
NESBITT: In the world of children’s poetry, humor is not looked down upon as it is in the world of adult poetry. And I think that’s great. Because it’s the humor that attracts kids to the writing. Every one of my poems is like a little joke. They all have a punch line. Kids learn that very quickly; they know that at the end of the poem, there’s going to be some twist or some sort of zinger that’s going to make them smile and make them laugh. Knowing that encourages them to read to the end even if they encounter some vocabulary that they might not otherwise know—something that’s going to cause them to stretch a little bit. Whereas in another book, that kind of vocabulary might be a showstopper. In humorous poetry, they have a reason to keep going. When they get to the end, they laugh and want to do it again and they turn the page and keep reading.
NEA: Not only is humor frowned upon in adult poetry, but in many ways, so is rhyme and alliteration. How or why do you think adult poetry outgrew that?
NESBITT: This goes back over 100 years now. It used to be that all poetry was rhyming and metrical until the late 1800s, so Walt Whitman and poets like that said no, poetry doesn’t have to conform to these strictures. It can be broader than this. So there was an explosion in the late 1800s, early 1900s of free verse poetry in which the words follow the rhythm of the writer rather than this strict metronome of lexical stresses within the word. And it was such a change. It was an absolute sea change in poetry and it has really never gone back. I would say in a way it was akin to the modern art movement—Impressionism, post-Impressionism, postmodernism. Poetry underwent its own revolution in the early 1900s and it’s just never gone back. So writing poetry like the Victorians today would be like painting like someone from the 1700s.
NEA: You, of course, work exclusively in rhyme. Can you talk about the linguistic appeal for you there?
NESBITT: For me, the rhyming is sort of secondary. Of course for readers, it’s the first thing they notice. For me, the rhyme comes second; the rhythm comes first. I’m far more interested in the other workings of the poem—the meter, the assonance, the internal rhymes—than I am necessarily in the end rhymes. Nevertheless, I’m labeled as a rhyming poet.
In general, rhyming makes poems feel lighter and sillier and goofier. It’s actually quite difficult to write a serious poem about a serious subject if you’ve got a bouncy rhythm and end rhymes. It’s a clash that doesn’t really work. So because rhyming tends to make the poem feel lighter and more humorous, it lends itself well to humorous poetry. And I’m far more interested in making people laugh than I am in pointing out injustices in the world. There are plenty of people doing that and I think that’s wonderful. Personally, I want to make kids laugh because I want to make them read. I want to make them want to read.
NEA: You mentioned that you start out with rhythm instead of rhyme. Can you walk me through your creative process?
NESBITT: Step one is I decide what I’m going to write about. It could be absolutely anything. It could be something I see around me, something that happens to me, someplace I go, something I like, something I don’t like. Once I’ve decided I want to write about x, then I start thinking about the words. For example, my daughter was looking a little tired one day, so I thought to myself, “My sister says she’s sleepy.” I’m not going to say, “My daughter says she’s sleepy” because this is a poem for kids. So I think, “Okay she’s going to need to take a nap.” So I just start writing, “My sister says she’s sleepy. Her energy is sapped. She says she’d feel much better if she climbed in bed and napped.”
At that point, I start thinking what’s funny about this? What’s the joke? How am I going to make somebody laugh with this? And then I think well, it would be great if she wasn’t actually tired and she was just faking. So then I’ll come up with a punch line. In this case, [it’s] “This happens every time my mother says to do her chores.” And then I’ll work backward from there to how am I going to structure this whole thing and put it together to tell the joke. I don’t necessarily start with the end in mind, but I try and get there as quickly as possible. It’s kind of like how you don’t get in the car and just start driving randomly; you know where you’re going. So I like to figure out where I’m going as early as possible with a poem so that I can drive the poem in that direction. So that in a nutshell is my creative process. The other thing is putting myself in the chair as often as possible to do it. Inspiration does not strike unless I’m in the chair.
NEA: Many of your poems focus on workaday subjects like school, food, holidays, and seasons, but with your words, they always feel fresh and funny. How do you manage to find new material and perspectives within these themes?
NESBITT: A lot of it comes from just being exposed to kids. I have my own kids, although they’re teenagers now, but I speak to maybe 30,000 kids a year in school programs. And I’m not just speaking at them; we’re having a discussion and they’re throwing out ideas. So I know very clearly what kids like and what kinds of jokes they’ll get and what they won’t get. For example, I wrote a poem two weeks ago called “I Didn’t Go Camping.” It’s [about] all the things I didn’t do. And it ends with “Boy, I played plenty of Minecraft this summer.” Now I don’t play Minecraft though my kids certainly did. I know that’s something that has currency. It is completely relevant to every kid in elementary school right now. I like to write things that are relevant to kids, and I know what’s relevant because I talk to them about it.
Can’t get enough of children’s poetry? Check out our interview with Nesbitt’s Poet Laureate predecessor, J. Patrick Lewis.