Interview: Nikki Grimes on Writing Poetry

nikki grimesComing this month, Poems in the Attic is a collection of poetry that creates a tender intergenerational story that speaks to every child’s need to hold onto special memories of home, no matter where that place might be. We interviewed master poet Nikki Grimes on her process for writing poetry and if she has any tips to share.

In Poems in the Attic, the reader is introduced to free verse and tanka styles of poetry. Why were you drawn to the tanka form?

Poetry, for me, has always been about telling a story or painting a picture using as few words  as possible.  Haiku and tabla are forms that epitomize that.  I’d previously played with an introduction to haiku in A Pocketful of Poems, and I have long since been intrigued with the idea of incorporating tanka in a story.  Poems in the Attic provided such an opportunity, so I jumped on it.

Many readers are intimidated by poetry or think it is not for them. For people who find poetry difficult, where would you recommend they start?

Start with word play.  I sometimes like to take a word and study it through the lens of my senses.  Take the word “lemon”, for instance.  What is its shape, its scent,  its color?  Does it make a sound?  Does it have a taste?  How would you describe that sound, that taste?  Where is a lemon to be found?  What does it do or what can you do with it?  In answering such questions, in a line or two in response to each question, one ends up either with a poem or the makings of a poem.

poems in the atticIs there something people can do to be “good” at writing poetry? Where do you find inspiration when you get stuck?

There are a few answers to that question.

  1. Read poetry voraciously.  If you aspire to write good poetry, you must first know what that looks like.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.  Writing is a muscle that must be exercises, no matter the genre.
  3. Play.  Build your vocabulary.  Experiment with a variety of forms.  For too many trying poetry, rhyme is their default.  But rhyme is bot synonymous with poetry.  It is merely one element of it.  Explore metaphor, simile, alliteration, assonance, and all the other elements of poetry.  Think interns of telling a story and painting a picture with words.  These practices will lead you somewhere wonderful.

What’s one of your favorite lines from a poem?

I love lines from my poem “Chinese Painting” in Tai Chi Morning: Snapshots of China.  In seeking to describe the magic of a master painter, I wrote

“a few strokes

And a bird is born

A few more,

And it sings.”

Do you prefer poetry on the page or poetry read aloud? Who is your favorite poet to hear or read?

I especially love poetry on the page, in part because not all poets read their work well.  I do love to hear Naomi Shihabe Nye, though, and I especially loved to hear the exquisite Lucille Clifton.

Learn more about Poems in the Attic on our website or Nikki Grime’s website.

 

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