Read verse and make merry: Celebrating National Poetry Day with Janet Ruth Heller

“You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket,” John Adams once told his son.

I recently discovered this wonderful quote in David McCullough’s John Adams, but it was a lesson I learned at a young age and have carried with me my entire life.

A collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, along with a compilation of 100 great poems, sits on my bedside table. I thumb through the volumes from time to time, stopping at random and allowing the words to roll over my tongue, soothing my mind with their rhythm and imagery.

One day, Emily tells me, “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” and on another William Carlos William says, “much depends on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water.”

So when I heard about National Poetry Day, I was ready for a celebration, despite the fact that it’s a British event and I’m very much located in middle-America.

And I couldn’t think of a better way to get the festivities rolling than a chat with an actual poet, the second part of my interview with my poet-friend Janet Ruth Heller.

Happy National Poetry Day everyone! Now read some verse and make merry!

Here’s Janet…

Tell me about your favorite author… What is it that really strikes you about his or her work?

I love the work of many authors. My earliest favorite author was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I have loved his poetry since I was in seventh grade. He was one of the first writers to use colloquial language in poetry, especially in his “conversation poems.” He can also tell stories in magical ways in works like “Christabel” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Also, he can use sounds in enthralling ways in poems like “Kubla Khan.”

Most authors are usually introduced to writing at a young age. Where did your love for books come from?

My mother and my elementary school teachers read me many excellent books when I was a child. I liked the way that authors like Rudyard Kipling used words and sound patterns. I could listen to stories for hours.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

In 1972, I had a five-month love relationship with a man. I started writing poems about him every week. After he broke up with me, I was devastated. Writing poems helped me to cope with my feelings and heal. I started writing much more frequently than in the past. By the mid-1970s, I was publishing poems, literary criticism, and essays in journals with national distributions.

Where do you find inspiration?

Any unfairness in my society and in the world prompts me to write about it and to become involved in organizations to remedy the situation. For example, I started a union of nontenure-track faculty at Western Michigan University and have published scholarly essays about ways to improve conditions for adjuncts and better methods for evaluating adjuncts. I also love nature, sports, foreign languages, and words in general. I often write about these topics, too.

And now for a not-so-serious shift in the conversation…

What literary character is most like you?

When I was a child, I identified with Phoebe Jackstraw in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm by Betty MacDonald because I shared many of Phoebe’s fears. As an adult, I am more like Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m smart, but I often misunderstand people, as Elizabeth does.

If you could have any accents from anywhere in the world, what would you choose?

I love the beauty of the Spanish language. I double-majored in English and Spanish as an undergraduate, and I have about one-third of a master’s degree in Spanish literature. The language is very poetic and easy to rhyme.

From Passover to Robert Louis Stevenson: An Interview with Janet Ruth Heller

PassoverSurpriseIt’s an honor to have award-winning author Janet Ruth Heller with me once again to discuss her new children’s book, The Passover Surprise (read my review), as well as her writing process and other literary insights.  It’s such a great interview, full of so many interesting tidbits, that I’ll jump right into it:

Tell me about your writing style? How would you describe it?

I try to write in a very clear and concise style.  I avoid extra words, especially adjectives and adverbs.  I want to communicate well with my readers, so I avoid ambiguity in prose.  I experiment with more ambiguity in my poetry, however.

Your writing style comes through in your most recent work, The Passover Surprise. How did you come up with the title?

I have always loved the Passover holiday because we used to spend it with my mother’s twin brother’s family.  My main character, Lisa, has conflict with her father, and I thought that Passover was a perfect time to resolve this conflict.  Passover also celebrates the Jews’ independence from Egyptian masters.  Lisa has learned how to cope with a difficult problem and is becoming a more independent young woman.  Therefore, Passover seems the right holiday to celebrate Lisa’s new maturity.

Almost all writers are also voracious readers. What books have most influenced your life?

My mother read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) to me when I was a child.  I loved the poems’ rhythm and imaginative details.  I was sick a lot as a child (so was Stevenson), so I especially identified with the poem “The Land of Counterpane.”  I read Teenagers Who Made History (1961) when I was a teenager in the 1960s.  Author Russell Freedman portrays young people who began to succeed in their chosen careers when they were teenagers.  He chooses both men and women from very different fields.  Because I was a young writer, I especially connected with the story of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the poet, who won a college scholarship after placing second in a national poetry contest.  This book helped to inspire me to become a professional poet, dramatist, fiction writer, essayist, and literary critic.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

I learned from John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? (1959) to write concisely using specific details and images.  He helped me to make my writing less wordy.

And what are you working on now?

I’m revising a scholarly essay that I wrote about Jaimy Gordon’s novel Lord of Misrule (2010).  I share her love of horses, and I admire her ability to portray the diverse characters surrounding an obscure racetrack.

Looking back, do you remember when your interest in writing first began?

My first-grade teacher Mrs. Mesias did a poetry writing workshop with us.  She liked one of the poems that I made up so much that she dittoed 25 copies of it for the class.  The poem was about flying a kite with my father in a park.  I guess that was my first publication.  I was lucky to have fourth-grade teacher Marjorie Schroeder and high school teachers like Zelma May Oole, Barbara Gensler, and Margaret Sturr, who also admired my writing and encouraged me to develop my skills.

And now for a little fun with a few not-so-serious questions…

If you were an animal in a zoo, what would you be?

I love antelopes because they are graceful and can run fast even over rugged and rocky terrain.  In contrast, I’m rather slow-moving and I have wobbly feet.

You are given one superpower… What would you select?

I would like to be able to know what people are secretly thinking.  Sometimes, I misinterpret people, so I would prefer to understand them better.

And I couldn’t agree more–reading minds would be an excellent superpower and particularly useful for an author. As always, it’s been a pleasure to host Janet today, and I look forward to seeing what pleasant surprises her work brings to readers in the future.



Literary Giveaway Blog Hop: Oct. 15-19

Winner chooses: Janet Heller’s Traffic Stop or How the Moon Regained Her Shape. (Check out my interview with Janet from earlier this week.)

Giveaway details: 1.) leave a comment, along with your email address, on this post by October 19  OR 2.) subscribe to Word Crushes by October 19 (current subscribers are automatically entered). A winner will be chosen at random with the help of  And be sure to visit the other Literary Giveaway blogs:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Devouring Texts
  3. The Book Whisperer
  4. Seaside Book Nook
  5. The Scarlet Letter (US only)
  6. Rikki’s Teleidoscope
  7. Bibliosue
  8. Curled Up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea
  9. The Book Diva’s Reads
  10. Gaskella
  11. Lucybird’s Book Blog
  12. Kim’s Bookish Place
  13. The Book Garden
  14. Under My Apple Tree
  15. Helen Smith
  16. Sam Still Reading
  17. Nishita’s Rants and Raves
  18. Ephemeral Digest
  19. Bookworm with a View
  20. The Parrish Lantern
  21. Dolce Bellezza
  22. Lena Sledge Blog
  23. Book Clutter
  24. I Am A Reader, Not A Writer (US only)
  25. The Blue Bookcase
  26. Book Journey (US only)
  27. The House of the Seven Tails (US only)
  28. In One Eye, Out the Other (US only)
  29. Read, Write & Live
  30. Fresh Ink Books
  1. Living, Learning, and Loving Life (US only)
  2. Bibliophile By the Sea
  3. Laurie Here Reading & Writing Reviews
  4. Amy’s Book World (US only)
  5. Teadevotee
  6. Joy’s Book Blog
  7. Word Crushes (US only)
  8. Thinking About Loud!
  9. Kinna Reads
  10. Sweeping Me
  11. Minding Spot (US only)
  12. Babies, Books, and Signs (US only)
  13. Lisa Beth Darling
  14. Tony’s Reading List
  15. SusieBookworm (US only)
  16. Tell Me A Story
  17. Close Encounters with the Night Kind
  18. Nerfreader
  19. Mevrouw Kinderboek (Netherlands, Belgium)
  20. Boekblogger (Netherlands)
  21. In Spring it is the Dawn
  22. No Page Left Behind
  23. Elle Lit

Dancing with Words: Interview with Poet Janet Ruth Heller

Janet Ruth Heller’s writings range from poetry to essays to picture books to criticism, yet regardless of the format it all contains one thing in common: an ear for the musicality of words, the ability to make a sentence dance and sing.

A teacher at Western Michigan University, Janet has earned numerous awards, as will, I’m sure, her most recent publication, Traffic Stop–a collection of poems with themes encompassing nature to nontraditional women.

In the following interview Janet discusses how poetry can influence all types of writing, some of her favorite poets, and her plans for the future.

And be sure to check back this Saturday when Traffic Stop or Janet’s picture book How the Moon Regained Her Shape (winner chooses) will be given away as part of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hog.

I once took a fiction workshop from the author Lance Olsen who recommended that we all read at least one poem a day. He said our writing would improve by trying to emulate the cadence and feel of poetry. What are your thoughts on that idea?

I believe that writers cannot do their best work in a vacuum: all writers need to read both good authors of the past and good authors of the present. Reading poetry is one way to learn about different rhythms, images, structures, and patterns of sound.  My mother read me many good poems when I was a child, and these got me interested in poetry. Studying music is another way to gain knowledge of rhythm, structure, and repeated sounds. I took piano lessons for eleven years and have sung in choirs and as a soloist since I was a young child. This exposure to music has shaped my poetry and my prose. I wrote my book for children about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Sylvan Dell, 2006), in musical prose-poetry.

Who are some of your favorite poets and why?

My favorite poets are British writers S. T. Coleridge, W. B. Yeats, Charlotte Smith, Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Shakespeare, Seamus Heaney, Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; American writers Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Adrienne Rich, Judith Minty, Lisel Mueller, Hart Crane, Alice Friman, Marge Piercy, Elizabeth Bishop, Jim Daniels, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T. S. Eliot, Maxine Kumin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alberto Ríos, Bruce Guernsey, Mong-Lan; Israeli writers Chaim Nachman Bialik, Yehudah Amichai, Rachel Bluwstein, Chaim Guri, Leah Goldberg; and Hispanic writers Sor Juana, San Juan de la Cruz, Federico García Lorca, Rubén Darío, Antonio Machado, Jorge Guillén, Pedro Salinas, and Dámaso Alonso.

I like writers who have striking images, careful structures, lyrical use of sounds, and profound ideas. I like to read poets from other countries to get a broader perspective.

How has writing poetry influenced and/or improved your other writing?

Writing poetry has helped me to be more rhythmic and more concise when I write prose.  In high school, I learned about haiku poems and began writing them. This format has taught me to avoid wordiness. Working on poems has also spurred me to use more imagery in my prose.

As the founder of the literary journal Primavera, you were one of the first editors to publish work by Louse Erdrich. I think she’s a perfect example of a novelist/short-story writer whose prose reads like poetry. What other writers do you think have the same touch? What do you think it is about their writing that has the feel of poetry?

Poetic writers of prose use many images (similes, metaphors, etc.) and demonstrate sophisticated rhythms. Great playwrights, novelists, and memoirists adapt the dialects of real speakers but make the language more lyrical. I consider the dramas and stories of Anton Chekhov, William Congreve, Athol Fugard, Oscar Wilde, and Tennessee Williams very poetic. The fiction of Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Eliot, Madeleine L’Engle, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Patterson, D. H. Lawrence, Myla Goldberg, Jaimy Gordon, and P. D. James is also very poetic. I find the essays of Charles Lamb, the memoirs of Frank McCourt, and the dramas and memoir of Dylan Thomas very poetic. Of course, many of these authors also wrote/write poetry.

What are you working on next?

I’m writing a memoir, revising more manuscripts for children’s books, revising one-act plays, and revising a book of poems based on characters and events in the Bible.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the connection between writing poetry and writing prose?

The line between poetry and prose changes over the centuries and is not always clear.  For example, William Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge wrote “conversation poems” in the 1790s that were radical because these two writers used more informal language and more prose-like rhythms than traditional poets did. Today, we are very comfortable with the British Romantic poetry that seemed so radical when Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798. Walt Whitman broke away completely from meter in Leaves of Grass (1855), using repetition and parallelism to create new poetic rhythms. In the twenty-first century, authors are experimenting by writing prose-poetry and using nonfiction writing in the middle of poems.