Poet Christine Heppermann is a young adult book reviewer, a backyard chicken enthusiast, and the author of several nonfiction books for children and young adults. With her first YA poetry collection, Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty (Greenwillow, 14 years and up), Heppermann reveals herself to be a thoughtfully astute observer of — and provocative commentator on — the pressures society places on adolescent girls. Drawn from familiar folktale motifs and pop-culture touchstones, each poem in this immensely satisfying collection is a delicious morsel worth savoring.
1. What is this collection’s origin story?
CH: I was in my final semester of Hamline University’s MFA program in writing for children and young adults, working on a verse novel based on the Grimms’ tale “Jorinda and Joringel,” so I was in a fairy-tale mood. While wandering the stacks of my local library one day, I happened upon The Poets’ Grimm, an anthology of adult poetry (adult poetry: that can’t help sounding sleazy, can it?) inspired by the Grimm tales. Flipping through that book spurred me to write “The Woods,” the first poem in Poisoned Apples. After that, whenever I was frustrated with the verse novel, I’d switch to working on a stand-alone poem. Some of those poems were riffs on saint legends or retellings of incidents from my Catholic childhood. Some were about stuff my older daughter and her friends were going through. Some were fairy-tale/contemporary hybrids. Once enough stand-alones accumulated, I realized, hey, there are common themes here…
2. These poems deal with such powerful issues and emotions (the Horn Book review mentions the “intense, expressive drive that fuels” your poetry). Were they cathartic to write?
CH: Every poem I write to completion (as opposed to the many, many I abandon partway through), no matter what the subject matter or driving emotion, is cathartic. It can be such an arduous process to 1. figure out what I’m trying to say; and 2. figure out how best to say it, that when I finally have the “baby bear draft” — i.e. the draft that, for the moment anyway, feels just right — I get giddy. I’m like Maria twirling around at the start of The Sound of Music. The hills are alive!
3. You were a Horn Book reviewer and columnist for many years. How does it feel to be on the receiving end of reviews?
CH: I still review YA for the Chicago Tribune. Having long defended the reviewing profession to writer friends who sometimes feel like reviewers are out to get them, I’d be a hypocrite if I took reviews personally. I know that not everyone is going to like my books. I know that a reviewer’s responsibility is to readers, not to authors. I approach every review in a review journal or major newspaper with the assumption that the reviewer takes that responsibility seriously and has done his or her best to represent my book accurately and intelligently. That said, I avoid Goodreads like the plague.
4. How did “Boy Toy Villanelle” evolve, and why did you use the highly structured form for that particular poem?
CH: I was shopping at Marshalls or Michaels, looking for a present for my younger daughter to take to a birthday party, and the options were making me so mad! The toys marketed to girls all seemed to focus on appearance — jewelry-making kits, “Lip-Gloss Wizardry,” or whatever. Even girl “action figures” like My Little Pony — pretty much all you’re supposed to do with them is brush their hair or make them get married. So I came up with a scenario in which a pony doll uses that stereotype of femininity to her advantage and swaps her accessories for those of G.I. Joe, who’s also been longing to express his true self. I chose the villanelle form because the repeated lines sound like generic ad copy, but each time they’re repeated, the meaning of what they’re advertising subtly twists and changes.
5. Poisoned Apples seems like a total departure from your last book, the nonfiction City Chickens. How is a chicken like a poem?
CH: I am so glad you asked! Most people who purchase chickens want hens, but baby chicks are hard to sex. You get home with what you think is a flock of hens, but, say, half of the chicks grow up to be roosters. It’s the same with writing a poem: you start off thinking you’re writing one thing, but it surprises you by gradually morphing into something else. I love that about poetry. And, in regard to chickens, I encourage owners to love and care for whatever mix they get. Some of the finest creatures I know — have ever known — are roosters.
From the September 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.