April is National Poetry Month, and what better way to celebrate than by talking with acclaimed poet Nikki Grimes? Her many books include narratives in verse, prose fiction, poetry collections, and nonfiction, frequently featuring African American characters and culture. In Grimes’s latest picture book, Poems in the Attic (illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon; Lee & Low, 5–8 years), a girl describes, in free verse, an exciting discovery: a box of poems her mother wrote during her own youth. Like a diary, the poems offer the daughter an intimate first-person perspective of her mother’s world travels as the child of an Air Force captain.
1. Your author’s note for Poems in the Attic says that you moved around a lot as a child. Did you have adventures similar to your characters’? What were some of your favorite places?
NG: My life was very different my characters’, I’m afraid. My frequent moving had to do with being in the foster-care system, and my adventures primarily took place between the pages of books! However, the challenges that result from a child frequently being uprooted, no matter the cause, are challenges I can relate to. As for favorite places of my childhood, I would have to say the public library, the planetarium, and Central Park. All three were magical.
2. How did you come up with the idea of having the mother write in a different poetic form than her daughter?
NG: I’d been wanting to do a collection of tanka poems for young readers for some time. I’d originally considered creating a collection of paired poems similar to A Pocketful of Poems (illus. by Javaka Steptoe; Clarion, 5–8 years), in which the character introduced haiku poetry, but using the tanka form. However, I came up with the idea for this story and realized it provided me a perfect opportunity to use two different forms to capture the voices of mother and daughter. I had tanka on the brain at that point, so it was an easy choice for me.
3. The daughter reflects, “My mama glued her memories with words / so they would last forever.” How does poetry help to glue down memories?
NG: Poetry is the language of essence. Through the use of metaphor, simile, and the rest, the poet paints a picture, catches the essence of a subject, and plumbs all of the senses connected with that subject. What better genre is there for capturing a memory?
4. As you travel and engage with children, how do you inspire in them an interest in reading and writing poetry?
NG: That interest is already in them. Poetry is a huge part of their childhood, from the ABC song to jump-rope rhymes to “Ring Around the Rosie.” Stoking that interest only requires sharing poems with them to which they can relate. One whiff of poetry about the stuff of their own childhood, their own lives, and they are off and running. Once they’ve gotten a good taste of poetry, just try and stop them from reading and writing it!
5. Which poets inspire you?
NG: Oh, my! That list is long. My library includes Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye, Wendell Berry, W. B. Yeats, William Stafford, Jane Yolen, Pablo Neruda, Natasha Trethewey, Gary Soto, Helen Frost, Mary Oliver, Marilyn Nelson, Shakespeare (sonnets, anyone?), Langston Hughes, Mari Evans. Yikes! Okay, I’ll stop.
From the April 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.