Kenn Nesbitt is the author of The Aliens Have Landed! a collection of humorous poems for children. He lives in Washington state with his wife, two children, three cats, and six computers. His zany and whimsical poetry has appeared in children's poetry anthologies all over planet Earth and can also be found on the Internet at Poetry4Kids. When he's not playing with his family, cats, or computers, you'll find Nesbitt writing poetry or visiting elementary schools, sharing his crazy brand of rhyming humor with kids everywhere. Included: Links to poetry resources for teachers.
Education World: Do you remember the first poem that really grabbed you as a kid, the one that turned you on to poetry?
Kenn Nesbitt: Yes, I do remember the poem, although I never knew the title until today. Since you asked, I did a search for it on the Internet. The poem is apparently titled "The Dying Fisherman's Song" and it's attributed to "anonymous."My father taught me this poem, and I memorized it when I was in fourth grade or so. As I recall, his father taught the poem to him, so it seems to have been around for some time.
EW: Why did you decide to write poetry for kids instead of for adults?
Nesbitt: I used to write poetry now and then, mostly free verse about whatever I happened to be thinking or feeling, but it never really -- as you say -- "grabbed me." When I wrote my first kids' poem, however, I was hooked. It was thrilling! The rhyme, the meter, the humor all captivated me, and I've not been able to stop doing it since. Although, originally just a hobby, writing poems for kids has blossomed into a full career.
EW: Do you think poets -- especially poets who write for children -- look at the world in a different way than other people do?
Nesbitt: Although I know a number of children's poets personally, I can really only speak for myself, since I'm not sure how any of them view the world -- or whether their view differs from that of non-poets. I don't believe that I have any special or different worldview though. About the only thing that I may do differently is to take an active interest in the idiosyncrasies of the English language, and notice when I come across puns, oxymorons, anagrams, and so on. When I encounter such things, I tend to ask myself how I can incorporate that into a poem. Is that a different way of looking at the world? I don't know. You decide.
EW: What's the secret to writing poems for kids?
Nesbitt: There are many tricks or techniques to writing effective children's poetry, but I hope none of them are secret. I try to make the process as transparent and engaging as possible -- both on the "How To" section of my Web site and in the poetry writing programs I do at elementary schools. Moreover, it depends on what type of poetry you're writing for kids. The humorous verse I write is very different from that of, say, Myra Cohn Livingston or Kristine George or Janet Wong.
However, if I had to pick the one thing that I think is probably the most important, it is simply this: write. If that sounds glib, I don't mean it to be. What I mean is, it is easier to do just about anything -- see what's on TV, get something to eat, go shopping, and so on -- than it is to sit down with a pen and paper and say, "Now I am going to write a poem."
It also means don't be afraid. Sure, some of the poems you write will not be very good, but some of them may be masterpieces. You have to write the bad ones -- even if you throw them away when you're done -- to get to the good ones. I probably throw away half the poems I write. As much as I'd like to imagine that everything I write is great, it really doesn't work out that way. Some of the ideas I get for poems don't turn out to be as funny as I thought they were when I started. Some ideas I just can't get to work.
I think you can improve as a writer with every piece you write. By forcing yourself to sit down and write more often, you become a better writer and hopefully write more masterpieces and fewer poems for the wastebasket.
EW: What do kids find funny? How does a kid's sense of humor differ from an adult's sense of humor?
Nesbitt: I think a child's sense of humor works the same way an adult's does. By that I mean that surprising, unexpected things make us laugh, whether we are kids or grown-ups. The punch line of a joke makes you laugh because you don't expect it, and you are surprised by it's clever juxtaposition of ideas or because in hindsight it should have been obvious. There are lots of ways to make someone laugh, but this is, I think, the crux of it, and it holds true for children and adults.
What is surprising and unexpected to a child, however, is often different from what is surprising and unexpected to an adult. Adults have a larger vocabulary and a broader knowledge of the world that allows them to "get" jokes that kids would never understand. So jokes for kids have to take into consideration the words and concepts they know or don't know, as well as the things they are interested in.
In my opinion, the best jokes are the ones that work equally well for adults and children. That's why you'll find that a lot of my poetry appeals equally to teachers and their students or to parents and their kids.
EW: You're writing a book for kids on how to write funny poems. Why is it important that kids be able to write poetry?
Nesbitt: I don't necessarily think that it's important for kids to be able to write poetry, but I do think it's important for kids to learn to write well, and I think poetry is one of the most effective tools for teaching good writing skills.
EW: Many kids find the idea of writing poetry intimidating. Do you have any suggestions for the teachers who are struggling to get them started?
Nesbitt: Go to PoetryTeachers.com. It's an outstanding free resource for teachers that is loaded with simple, fun poetry lesson plans teachers can use to get their kids started writing poetry.
EW: Which of your poems do kids ask to hear most often? What about that poem in particular do you think appeals to them?
Nesbitt: Kids seem to have two favorite: "I Stuck My Finger Up My Nose" and "Swimming Ool." The themes, nose-picking and peeing in the pool, have two things that make them appealing to kids: They are about bodily functions, and they are universally understood -- that is, they don't involve wordplay or anything else that requires mental work to get the joke. I think it's the same thing that makes the Captain Underpants books [by Dav Pilkey] so appealing to kids.
So I don't scare off any teachers reading this interview, I should mention that most of my poetry does not involve bodily functions, but is nonetheless a heck of a lot of fun for kids.
EW: Lots of teachers love to write. Do you have any advice for teachers who want to write their own poems for kids?Nesbitt: Yes. Go to Poetry4Kids and click on the link that says "How To." Almost everything I know about writing poetry for children is all right there.
Read more about the importance of exposing kids to poetry in A Good Poem Will Give You Goose Bumps! by Kenn Nesbitt.This e-interview is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Linda Starr
Copyright © 2007 Education World
Originally published 04/15/2002; updated 04/28/2009