A Conversation With Kenn Nesbitt

Kenn Nesbitt
Author, Kenn Nesbitt


Cameron Brooks: First of all, I’d like to say that I’ve enjoyed reading your poems recently. I shared some of them my students, and they just roar.

Kenn Nesbitt: What grade do you teach?

CB: I teach third grade.

KN: Perfect, that’s who I write for.

CB: I find that many of your poems remind me of specific students. Take, for example, the poem “The Contents of My Desk.” It begins, “A nail. A nickel. A snail. A pickle…” It reminds me of a girl in my class who hoards the most random things in her desk. How do you tap into children’s zany habits and sensibilities?

KN: Well, I don’t know. A lot of kids will ask me, do I write about things that happened to me as a kid, and the answer is almost never. There have been a couple autobiographical poems, but I think mainly it comes from two things. One, I visit a lot of schools, and I do a lot of assembly programs and workshops, so I’m always working with kids. I see what makes them laugh, and I see how they behave, and how they interact with each other — the things that they say, what they wear, and what they’re interested in. The other thing is just, as a writer who tried to make a living as a working artist, I put myself in the chair — I put my hands on the keyboard, and I just type until something comes out. It’s got to be funny enough to make me laugh. It’s got to amuse me. From there, I’ll take it and put it on my website and let kids vote to see which ones they really like, and which ones they don’t like. And the ones they don’t like, you know, I put cement boots on them and throw them off the end of the pier.

CB: I read that back in 1995 you were writing 3-4 poems a year, and now, in addition to your books, you’re constantly adding new poems to your website for the kids to review. How did you become so prolific over the years?

KN: Well, that comes and goes. I’m working on different things all the time. There are times when I’m focusing just on the poems. I’ll sit down, and over the course of a couple of months I’ll knock out fifty or sixty poems, just bang-bang-bang, then I’ll put them up on the website. Then there will be times where I’ll go for months and months without writing anything because I’m focusing entirely on something else. The poems on the website eventually find their way into my books. It’s not like I’m writing the books and separately running the website. The website is sort of a test bed for my poems so that I can make the books as funny as possible.

CB: I’m looking forward to sharing your website with my students, specifically the rhyming dictionary. Has technology always played such a huge role for you?

KN: I’m actually a computer programmer by trade. I spent many, many years working in computers before I ever wrote anything for children. In fact, before I ever wrote anything for kids, I wrote roughly 250 magazine articles for computer magazines. So everything you see on my website I did myself. I coded all that. I wrote the rhyming dictionary myself, although that was written really for my own benefit because I needed a rhyming dictionary. So the answer for me is yes, absolutely. The technology is really beneficial, and I’ve used it in a lot of different ways, not only to make my work available to kids, but even to help me write for kids.

CB: How did poetry influence you as a child?

KN: Oh, deeply and profoundly. I never found out about poetry through school. National poetry month wasn’t instituted until 1996, if you can believe it. There wasn’t the emphasis on poetry in elementary schools then that there is today, and as a result I can’t remember ever reading a poem, or writing a poem in elementary school at all. All the poetry that I knew about came from my father. My dad had memorized many poems, things like Casey at the Bat, and Dangerous Dan McGrew. He could just recite them at the drop of a hat, and it was some nonsense poems that he recited more than once on long road trips that really got me interested, because I was able to memorize those, then get around and repeated them to myself. I should note that I didn’t actually figure out that I could write poems until I was much, much older. I wrote my first funny kids’ poem when I was thirty-two. That’s why, at first, it was just a hobby. The idea of actually writing an entire book wasn’t even a fantasy. I never even thought about it.

CB: I encourage students to become collectors of interesting words. We’re constantly looking for words that appeal to some sense, and I find that your poems are filled with vocabulary that strikes both advanced readers and those who struggle. Could you talk about your target audience in terms of vocabulary?

KN: My target audience for my poetry is primarily grades three through five. I don’t think an awful lot about “Is this a third-grade word?” Some of the vocabulary that I throw into my poems might otherwise be a stumbling block. They might trip over these words and go, “Well I don’t know what that means.” I just hope that because I’m using exactly the right word, not only for meaning, but also for the sound, the kids will give me that little indulgence. My hope is that just by introducing them to words, later in life they will say, “Oh, I remember this word from a poem I once read.” Then the word won’t seem so foreign, and hopefully they’ll pick up the meaning from context. I try not to put in words that are too difficult. I do always keep my reader in mind as I’m writing.

CB: I find that many kids have an aversion to writing because they haven’t felt successful yet, but I think poetry often gives them the chance to really feel good about something that they’ve written. I think the lessons on your website could help them along in that sense. Is that what you had in mind when you began to put all the different parts of your website together?

KN: Oh, absolutely. Now, I should say that, unfortunately, I have not taken the time to actually finish that “How to Write Poetry” book on my website. I’ve got four chapters on there, and I’ve got the ideas for the other chapters in my head, but I haven’t finished them. But fortunately, there are other websites that are really useful for kids for learning how to write poetry. One that I particularly like is gigglepoetry.com. They have a poetry class section where they’ve got thirty-odd poetry writing lessons for kids. The idea behind that section of my website is that I want to show kids, this is not rocket science. You can do this. You don’t have to be a college graduate to write a poem that will make your friends laugh. You just have to be willing to take an idea, maybe the first idea that pops into your head, figure out what’s funny about it, and start writing. My hope was that those steps that I outlined there can show kids – look here’s how you go from an idea, to making it funny, to putting some words on the paper, to making it rhyme, and ending up with something that people are going to enjoy.

CB: I want to ask you about a specific poem. Many of my students’ parents work the graveyard shift [Kenn begins to laugh.] — so you know where I’m going with this. They can relate to the poem, “I Think My Dad is Dracula.” Where did you get the idea for that poem?

KN: Well, I was stealing from myself at that point. Years ago, I wrote a poem called, “My Father Looks Like Frankenstein.” My dad doesn’t look like Frankenstein, really. But, you know, he’s got a bit of a square head and sort of a flat top. It’s not that far off. So I had written this poem called “My Father Looks Like Frankenstein, and I suppose I was just thinking, “You know, I want to write another monster poem. What am I going to write?”

Jack Prelutsky taught me this little trick. When you’re out of ideas, copy from yourself. Look at the old poems you wrote, and write the opposite of them. Or, write them in a new way. So I take this poem, “My Father Looks Like Frankenstein,” and change it into, “I Think My Dad is Dracula.” Then, of course, I have to figure out, well, how can this be, and what’s the punch line? What’s the joke? Why is this funny? Somewhere in there I came up with, “…he works the graveyard shift.” By tacking that little gem at the end of the poem, it turns it into a joke because it’s got a punch line.

CB: I think that’s why your poems appeal to kids, because they give them that ending — that punch.

KN: Absolutely. It gives them a reason to keep reading. That is, not just to read another poem, but if they hit a little stumbling block in he middle of a poem, if they’re familiar with my work, they know that they’re gonna get a zinger at the end if they just keep going.

CB: Your latest book, More Bears, is your first picture book. Can you describe the departure from poetry to prose?

KN: Well, let’s see. This is the first book I have written that is not poetry, and it doesn’t rhyme. As I said before, I’ve written hundreds of magazine articles, but I’ve never really written any fiction. This particular book though, it came to me in a dream. I woke up in the morning, and I had the entire story in my head. Not the specific words, but the beginning of the book and the whole concept and the ending. I had it all in my head. All I could do was … I jumped out of bed and I ran to my computer, and I started typing madly, as fast as I could. Later that day, just coincidentally, my editor called me about something else, and I said, “Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, but you have to hear this!” He said, “What?” I said, “Well, I have this idea for a picture book.” And he said, “Well, what is it about?” And I told him, “Well, I can’t really describe it. I can’t even tell you what it’s about. I just have to read it to you.” I hadn’t written the whole thing, and had only written the first few pages. But I sat down and I read it to him over the phone, and I was yelling. I was yelling, “MORE BEARS!!” There was another editor in the room at the time and they had me on speakerphone. He told me later that they were high-fiving each other. They loved it. They loved it, and they agreed to do it right away. They just said, “Keep writing! Write the rest of it! Send it to us, we want to see it!”

It’s an unusual story for a children’s picture book. I think with so many authors — they write and they write and they write. They come up with one idea, they write another book, and another book. They send them to agents, and they send them to publishers, and just collect rejection letters. To wake up from a dream with a story in your head, and write it down, and have the publisher say yes that day, is pretty amazing.

CB: Do you have any advice for teachers exploring poetry with their students, to foster that love of poetry, both reading and writing it? The majority of our readers are teachers, so what would you say to them?

KN: Well, first off, you know we have to realize that everyone likes a different kind of poetry. What I mean is, poetry in this respect is like music. Not everyone likes the same kind of music. Sure, lots of people like hip-hop, and lots of people like opera, and lots of people like country. They’re not necessarily the same people. Poetry’s sort of the same way. Some people just love rhyming, humorous, funny poetry. Some people like cowboy poetry. Some people only like sad, depressing poetry, and some people like poetry that really gets to the heart of your feelings. But one thing that I find among children, especially kids in first, second, third, fourth grade, is that they all seem to enjoy funny poetry. So my advice for teachers is that this is where you start. It’s not the end all, and be all of poetry, but even if you as a teacher much prefer reading poetry about feelings, and poetry with more depth of meaning, I think the best place to start with kids is with the funny poetry because that is what is going to get them hooked. If you can spend a month getting your kids hooked on funny poetry, then you can bring in something that’s not so funny. Bring in a poem that makes them think, or that makes them feel something different. They may look at you and go, “Well that wasn’t funny.”

As long as you’ve chosen a poem that can actually strike a chord with them, you can say, “Yeah, but was it good?” Then you can start expanding out. The problem, I think, is that many teachers, not knowing where to start, will start with things that are measureable, like haiku, where you’re counting syllables, or acrostics, where you’ve got the letters running down, the first letters of each line. That’s very measurable, so it makes it easy to grade, but it’s also not necessarily exciting for kids. For example, my latest book is called The Tighty Whitey Spider, and it is all action poems involving animals doing extreme sports and crazy things like that because I want it to be exciting for kids. I realize, as a poet and an author that I am competing with Spongebob. So get ‘em hooked first, and then show them what else poetry can be.

CB: My last question is a little off the beaten path. I noticed on your website, a love for Marmite, which I had never heard of. So what’s the story behind this love affair?

KN: You’ve probably heard the song by Men at Work, I Come From a Land Down Under, and you might recognize the line, “He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.” Marmite is the British cousin of the Australian Vegemite. It is a yeast extract that originally came from the beer-making process. It was the sludge left over from the bottom of the vats after they were done making the beer. They would scrape that off and add some salt to it. What they discovered is that it is incredibly high in B vitamins, and it’s very healthy for you. So they started encouraging people to eat this, and it sort of became a national favorite food, like Vegemite in Australia. But it is also an acquired taste. For example, in Australia, mothers will put a little bit of Vegemite on the nipple of a baby bottle when they feed their infants to get them acclimated to that yeasty taste. Americans generally don’t like it. I discovered it in England, and went head over heels for it. But it’s one of those foods that you either love it or you hate it.

CB: Have you written a poem yet about it?

KN: I haven’t because my audience is primarily American and my audience is also primarily children. It might make sense to write a Marmite poem for a British audience, because I’m sure that most British kids know what Marmite is, and I’m sure they either love it or hate it.

CB: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, and good luck with the website. I’m looking forward to more poems.

KN: I’m really looking forward to More Bears!

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