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.
Being 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.
On 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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
Intrigued? Please visit Lee Bennett Hopkins’ website for more information and a wider selection of books.
THANK YOU, Vicki. I am very honored you chose to interview me.
Marvelous interview. Lee is a treasure trove of experience, information, and Poetry with a capital P. Big smooches to you, Lee! xo
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.