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April 2018 Horn Book Herald: Spring News: Five questions for Margarita Engle

Poet Margarita Engle is the author of poetry collections (Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics), picture-book biographies (Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music; The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano), memoir (Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings), and works of historical fiction (Lion Island, Silver People, Hurricane Dancers, The Surrender Tree), just to name a few. Her work is consistently lyrical, authentic, and true, with stories from the past and today that linger in readers’ minds. She is the current Young People’s Poet Laureate (2017–2019).

1. What has the first year of your Young People’s Poet Laureate–ship been like?

ME: It has been challenging and rewarding. I followed Jacqueline Woodson in this role, so I knew I had heroic shoes to fill. I’m the shy, quiet variety of poet, rather than a performance virtuoso, so I’ve tried to achieve a balance between travel, speaking, and writing. I started out by making bilingual videos with the help of the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. The Poetry Foundation is enormously supportive, offering me opportunities to work with children in April and the Chicago Teachers’ Institute in July. I love recommending outstanding children’s poetry books on the Poetry Foundation website. Wherever I go, my theme as YPPL is peace. I speak to children, teens, and adults about building bridges of words to cross borders, oceans, and the gaps between cultures. We live in a global society. We need empathy and compassion so we can be friends with our neighbors, near and far. Compassion is the seed of peace!

2. You have two new books (both with Atheneum) — Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots, a YA historical-fiction verse novel shedding light on a little-told, horrifying WWII-era home-front event; and The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar, a picture book about “the first woman of powered flight.” Were you working on these projects at the same time?

ME: I often overlap at the research stage, but once I’m immersed in the writing process, I try to focus on one project at a time. Jazz Owls took much longer to write, but picture books are actually slower, since they need a couple of years for the illustration and design stage. My editor, Reka Simonsen, chose the illustrators, and as always, her artistic sense is perfect. Both Rudy Gutiérrez (Jazz Owls) and Sara Palacios (The Flying Girl) brought the manuscripts to life with their exquisite artwork.

3. Enchanted Air was your memoir in verse, but all of your work feels so personal, even when it’s not autobiographical. How do you get so close to your subjects and topics?

ME: Thank you! Daydreaming is the secret to feeling close to one’s subjects. My writing is personal because I read as many diaries, letters, journals, and other first-person narratives as I can find. Then I imagine being on the inside of the story instead of the outside. How did it feel to live in this particular time and place, experiencing these unique historical events? I usually write in first-person and present-tense. My goal is to give the reader a feeling of travel and time-travel.

4. Can it be hard to find the poetry in difficult subject matter?

ME: No! Poetry can bring freedom of expression, combined with the beauty of language, to any difficult subject. Writing poetry is a process of exploration. It’s an experience, not a chore.

5. What do you say to people who think they don’t “get” poetry?

ME: Most of the poetry written for young readers is straightforward and easy to understand, but it’s meant to be experienced, not dissected. Instead of asking yourself, “What did the poet mean?” ask, “How does this poem make me feel?” Since poets are often striving to express the inexpressible, it’s okay to enjoy a verse without being able to explain every word. Think about how we enjoy music without analyzing melodies and rhythms. Poetry is music. Poetry is also interactive. The “blank” spaces between lines, and between stanzas, are not empty. They’re filled with echoes that resonate like vibrations from a ringing bell. These echoes include the poet’s emotions, as well as the reader’s thoughts and feelings. They’re the ideal platform for inviting children to perform readers’ theater, or write their own verses, filling in the missing voices in a multiple-viewpoint story.

When adults tell me they don’t “get” poetry, I suggest reading it for enjoyment, not for interpretation. Above all, when adults tell me they’re afraid of poetry, I ask them to keep their apprehension secret, so they don’t infect young people with the virus of fear. Let children and teenagers decide for themselves. They need a safe home for their emotions, and poetry is often that place.

From the April 2018 Spring News edition of The Horn Book Herald.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She is a current member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

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