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Curiouser and Curiouser with Lee Bennett Hopkins

Lee Bennett Hopkins

Lee Ben­nett Hopkins

As I read each of Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins’ col­lec­tions of poet­ry, I find my curios­i­ty piqued: “How does he do this?” When I was a grad stu­dent, I came across Mr. Hop­kins’ book, Books Are by Peo­ple: inter­views with 104 authors and illus­tra­tors of books for young chil­dren. Those inter­views pro­voked my imag­i­na­tion and pro­pelled my career. It’s a priv­i­lege to be inter­view­ing Mr. Hop­kins for Bookol­o­gy.

Lee: My good­ness! Between 1969 and 1974 I inter­viewed 169 book peo­ple; l04 in Books Are By Peo­ple and 65 in More Books by More Peo­ple. Thank you for remind­ing me of these incred­i­ble adventures.

You have been an edu­ca­tor, an author, and an influ­encer. How did you turn to poet­ry books as a path in your life’s work?

I began to real­ize the impor­tance of poet­ry when I began teach­ing sixth grade in Fair Lawn, New Jer­sey, in 1960. I used verse with all stu­dents but found that slow­er read­ers were excit­ed over poems. Vocab­u­lary was often with­in their reach, works were short; more impor­tant we learned that more could some­times be said and felt in 8 or l0 or l2 lines than some­times an entire nov­el could convey.

Been to YesterdaysBeing a city child my entire life, I think the rust­ed metronome start­ed beat­ing, telling me to write ‘city.’ “Hydrants” was the first poem I wrote for chil­dren. At a din­ner par­ty of her home in Long Island, I read it to May Swen­son, one of America’s most renowned poets, who told me she liked it. I was hooked. This led me to cre­at­ing Been to Yes­ter­days: Poems of a Life (Boyds Mills Press/Wordsong). Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1995, now close to 25 years since its pub­li­ca­tion, the book is being used in Al-Anon pro­grams, youth groups, and stud­ied in writ­ing cours­es. In essence, it is about a strug­gling teen who wants to “make/ this world/a whole lot brighter” to grow up to become a writer.” My life has been, is, blessed with poetry.

After teach­ing six years and get­ting my master’s degree at Bank Street Col­lege in New York (when Bank Street was on Bank Street in Green­wich Vil­lage), I was offered a job to work at Bank Street’s Resource Cen­ter in Harlem, enrich­ing lan­guage arts cur­ric­u­la into class­room pro­grams with an empha­sis on poetry.

Don't You Turn BookOn May 22, 1967, when Hugh­es died, I could not share his only book for chil­dren, The Dream­keep­er and Oth­er Poems, pub­lished in l932, due to the stereo­typ­i­cal depic­tion of blacks. I bold­ly called Vir­ginia Fowler, edi­tor at Knopf, ask­ing why a new edi­tion had nev­er been done. Vir­ginia asked me to lunch, also sug­gest­ing I do a new col­lec­tion. The result was one of my first antholo­gies, Don’t You Turn Back: Poems by Langston Hugh­es, illus­trat­ed in won­drous two-col­or wood­cut engrav­ings by Ann Gri­fal­coni (l969). In addi­tion to a host of awards, it was an ALA Notable.

In 1994, the 75th Anniver­sary edi­tion of The Dream Keep­er was pub­lished with wood engrav­ings by Bri­an Pinkney. I was invit­ed to write the intro­duc­tion to the book by Janet Schul­man, an icon in our industry.

The Dream KeeperI then began to do many antholo­gies with the aim to bring a bevy of poets’ works to children.

Hook­ing chil­dren on read­ing at a young age is imper­a­tive. I believe they should be read to in the womb! Poet­ry, in par­tic­u­lar, brings a sense of song, melody, sootheness into a child’s life. This can be a life­long gift.

Which comes first: the idea for a book of poet­ry, the theme, or do poems swirl about you until they sug­gest a collection?

Each of the three above hap­pen. At times I get an idea or focus on a theme; at oth­er times poems do swirl that sug­gest a collection.

What are the steps by which you gath­er poems for a book?

I have a vast library of poet­ry to turn to. Thank­ful­ly, I have a very good mem­o­ry. Ask me for a ‘horse’ poem, a poem about piz­za, or a poem about a jacaran­da tree and I’ll have it for you in min­utes. If I am cre­at­ing a new col­lec­tion of poems espe­cial­ly com­mis­sioned for a book, I issue a BY INVITATION ONLY to a select group of poets.

Do you scout new poets?

At times I do. How­ev­er, “new” poets scout me. I real­ize how dif­fi­cult it is to get one’s work into an anthol­o­gy since very few are pub­lished each year. Hard­ly more than two to five are pub­lished annu­al­ly.  A pic­ture book themed poet­ry col­lec­tion might have between 16 to 20 poems. Major poets must be includ­ed. How­ev­er, I love giv­ing new voic­es a chance. I have start­ed many poets on their path to success.

Do you visu­al­ize how a poet­ry book will be laid out when you’re select­ing poems?

All of my col­lec­tions have an arc. I want read­ers to read a col­lec­tion as if they were read­ing any book. There is a begin­ning, mid­dle, and end.

When you’re assem­bling a new book, do you think about bal­ance? Col­or? Sound?

Most def­i­nite­ly. All of these are important.

A sampling

A sam­pling of Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins’ pop­u­lar poet­ry anthologies

Do you ever run out of the right poems for a book? What do you do then?

For­tu­nate­ly, I work with pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers who will go back to the “draw­ing board.” It some­times takes many rewrites to get to the place where one feels the work is done. Poets only want their best to be published.

What are the tools you work with? Pen, scis­sors, jour­nals, the computer?

I work on the com­put­er. Poets send work via email attach­ments. I print them, edit them, often cut and paste. Some­times a poem comes through full-blown; at oth­er times a poet and I will work together.

What does your work­space look like?

I work in my library/study sur­round­ed by thou­sands of books. I have a large cher­ry-wood desk com­mis­sioned by an Amish crafts­man ide­al for space, fil­ing, etc.

Lee Bennett Hopkins' office

Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins at work in his library/study

Some of the bookshelves in Lee Bennett Hopkins' office

Do you work in silence? Or is there sound sur­round­ing you?

I work in total silence. I love the noth­ing­ness of qui­et. I have a per­fect view from the win­dows in my study, look­ing out at sway­ing palm trees, a rush­ing water­fall, beau­ti­ful sculp­ture. I’m star­ing at all this as I write now. Mag­ic in the making.

The view from Lee Bennett Hopkins' office window

The view from Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins’ office window

The fountain and grotto at night

The foun­tain at night

What is your favorite object in your workspace?

I have many. A few? A piece of wood sculp­ture the poet and dear­est friend Aileen Fish­er made for me. A let­ter open­er from a won­drous friend who died far too ear­ly in life. A bronze bust of Har­ri­et Tub­man with a sto­ry too long to tell. A paper­weight designed by Tri­na Schart Hyman that launched the first issue of Crick­et mag­a­zine. And shelf upon shelf of trea­sured auto­graphed books by author-friends, lit­er­al­ly A‑Z — Alma Flor Ada to Char­lotte Zolo­tow. These are a life­time of treasures.

What pleas­es you about the work you do?

My entire career has been devot­ed to bring­ing chil­dren and poet­ry togeth­er. Poet­ry is life in its deep­est form.

You leave the chil­dren of the world with the gift of poet­ry. We’re thank­ful for the work you’ve done, the wis­dom you’ve shown, the ded­i­ca­tion that has shared poems that res­onate with indi­vid­ual read­ers. Thank you, Mr. Hop­kins, for your con­tri­bu­tions to the world of literature.

Lee: AND … I thank YOU for bring­ing chil­dren and books together.

Lee Bennett Hopkins Guinness Book of World Records

Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins is in the Guin­ness Book of World Records as the per­son who has pub­lished the most poet­ry antholo­gies, num­ber­ing 113 in 2011 when he broke the record.

Intrigued? Please vis­it Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins’ web­site for more infor­ma­tion and a wider selec­tion of books.

3 Responses to Curiouser and Curiouser with Lee Bennett Hopkins

  1. Lee Bennett Hopkins January 15, 2019 at 3:17 pm #

    THANK YOU, Vic­ki. I am very hon­ored you chose to inter­view me.

  2. Renee LaTulippe January 16, 2019 at 5:02 am #

    Mar­velous inter­view. Lee is a trea­sure trove of expe­ri­ence, infor­ma­tion, and Poet­ry with a cap­i­tal P. Big smooches to you, Lee! xo

  3. Virginia Euwer Wolff January 25, 2019 at 11:40 am #

    This is a love­ly inter­view, and how does Lee get to have such a stun­ning­ly broad and deep library? Ah, he’s earned it. Thanks to Lee for such thought­ful and gen­er­ous work through the years, and thanks to Vic­ki for tak­ing us on this reward­ing tour. Hap­py New Year to us all.

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