A way with words
Spokane’s Kenn Nesbitt plans to hit ground running as children’s poet laureate
Sure, there’s national poetry month. It’s April, in case you’ve been under a rock. And some people celebrate children’s poetry week.
Kenn Nesbitt, the Spokane author named children’s poet laureate this week by the Poetry Foundation, has a smaller-scale ambition:
“Having an entire poetry month is a great thing, but it seems a little daunting,” Nesbitt said. “What are we going to do with an entire month?”
Actually, Nesbitt, 51, a former computer programmer who consulted for Microsoft and wrote an early Web-editing program that made a “staggering amount of money,” has been filling years with poetry. Publishing his first humorous collection for kids in 1998, he left behind programming for good and switched to full-time poet a few years later. He also runs a popular poetry-for-kids website and travels to schools across the U.S. to talk poetry via “stand-up comedy for third-graders.”
His laureateship gives him a higher-profile platform from which to spread the word about words. He took it over from outgoing laureate J. Patrick Lewis in a ceremony Monday in Chicago.
“They gave me this medallion,” Nesbitt said. “I’m planning to put little googly eyes on it and pipe cleaner antennae and drag it around the country and take pictures of it in unusual places.”
John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, said Nesbitt’s “great energy,” along with his high-quality work, contributed to his selection as laureate. His website, poetry4kids.com, is the most visited children’s poetry site on the Web, Barr said – important for a generation growing up with computers in hands.
“He’s one of the hardest-working children’s poets of his generation,” he said.
Nesbitt’s poetry often puts a madcap twist on everyday school and family situations. Lewis has called his poems “irrepressible, unpredictable, and raucously popular.”
The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, created the children’s laureateship in 2006 after conducting a study that found that children who loved poetry were more likely to grow into adults who loved poetry. It’s not related to the U.S. poet laureateship created by the Library of Congress.
Jack Prelutsky, a popular children’s author who lives in Seattle, was the first appointee.
Nesbitt’s two-year title comes with a $25,000 award and a mission: to raise awareness of children’s “natural receptivity to poetry.” Kids, according to the Chicago-based foundation, constitute poetry’s most appreciative audience, especially when the poems are written especially for them.
As poet laureate, Nesbitt is officially committed to delivering two “major” public readings, advising the Poetry Foundation on children’s literature, and choosing books for the foundation to highlight on its website.
He intends to surpass the minimum requirements. How he’ll do that, specifically, he doesn’t know yet – beyond perhaps a Poetry Minute initiative.
In Nesbitt’s vision, the minutes add up. Poems written for children tend to be quick reads. But a minute-long poem a day – read aloud by teachers, who could choose titles tied to their curriculums – would total a solid three hours of poetry in a school year.
And it takes only a couple of weeks of regular exposure to get kids hooked on poetry, Nesbitt said, leading them to libraries to find more or to write it themselves. That’s partly because children’s poetry, especially the humorous kind, offers a big emotional reward for a little reading effort.
“More often than not, there’s a punch line or twist at the end that makes you smile, that makes you want to turn the page and do it again,” Nesbitt said.
Born in Berkeley, Nesbitt grew up in California, studying computer science at National University in San Diego.
He wrote his first children’s poem in 1994; “Scrawny Tawny Skinner” was inspired by Shel Silverstein and a 4-year-old he knew who wouldn’t eat (“They tried forcing, they tried coaxing;/Tawny said ‘I feel like chokesing!’ ”).
His first poetry book, “My Foot Fell Asleep,” was followed by titles including “The Tighty-Whitey Spider” (2010), “My Hippo Has the Hiccups” (2009) and “Revenge of the Lunch Ladies” (2007).
Nesbitt’s poetry is funny, but also good, said Beth Page, manager of children’s books at Auntie’s Bookstore on West Main Avenue – giving young readers credit they deserve for solid senses of humor.
“They don’t always need things about, excuse me here, boogers and underwear humor,” Page said. “Sometimes they just want something that’s going to make them laugh and is just a little impossible, but yet still something they can picture, something that’s probable in their minds.”