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Delightful Interview with Joy Acey, the Princess of Poetry

“Delightful Interview with Joy Acey, the Princess of Poetry” by Joan Y. Edwards

Joy, thank you for being a guest on my blog. You are a fun person. I know they’ll enjoy learning about you and your writing tips, too.

You’re welcome. I’m excited to be here with you and your readers. Let’s get started.

1.  How did you do in English as a kid?

Oh, I wish I could say I was a brilliant student, but I wasn’t. For some reason, I grew up with the image of myself as a B student. I can remember in fifth grade, my teacher Mr. Rainbow would give us a practice spelling test on Wednesday and a final one on Friday. If we got 100% on Wednesday’s test, we didn’t have to take the test on Friday. Oh, I loved the idea of that. The fairness of it. So, for the first half of the year I’d study really hard on Monday and Tuesday. I’d ace the test on Wednesday and I’d smugly read my reading book on Friday while the rest of the class (except for about four others) would struggle through the test. Man, I had perfect scores, and the funny thing was my friend Helen’s mother would give us a practice test first thing on Wednesday morning. We walked to school together and her mother wouldn’t let us leave until Helen finished the test. So, Wednesday morning I’d know what needed extra work and I’d concentrate on that and ace the test. Poor Helen would struggle like the dickens, and I just didn’t understand why she had so many troubles. (What kind of friend was I?) So after doing this for half a year, I’d proven to myself that I could do this and it didn’t seem worth the effort after that. So I slacked off, got lazy and I’ve never been a great speller since then.

The same was true with math. Third grade we had timed tests and we could go out to play when we finished the weekly test. Well, the weather got cold and I didn’t want to go out to play, so I took my time and wrote really neatly, showed all my work, double checked, and it took me forever to finish the test. I do remember once in fifth grade, for Halloween, I took my math problems and I put one for the stem, one for each eye, and one problem for the nose, etc. I carefully numbered each problem so my teacher could follow what I was doing. I got my paper back with an F on it and a note to re-do the work. My teacher was unwilling to follow my pattern to find the answers and so it wasn’t easy for her to follow the key from her book. I wasn’t going to re-do the work that was correct and creatively done in the first place. After that I wasn’t going to try to please that teacher. Can you see my problem here? Oh, I was a difficult child. I was constantly testing boundaries and trying to make new rules.

I’ve always been left-handed and so my handwriting was not terribly neat growing up. When I was in Jr. High we got grades for penmanship and my mother said, enough was enough of my sloppy ways. I had to do two pages of penmanship before I could go out to play. I do have fairly neat handwriting, although no one cares about that with computers now and it isn’t even taught any more. All those pages of loops and slants—lost.

I did have a unique childhood. My mom was a single mom when I was little. She taught first grade. When I was in fourth grade Mom married the manager of a drive-in theater where she had a part-time job as bookkeeper. My step-father got transferred to El Centro, California to manage a drive-in theater there. Mom taught school all day and worked at the drive-in at night. My sister and I would either babysit ourselves or we’d go to the drive-in with our folks. I saw a lot of movies and learned a lot about writing: show don’t tell, character development, plotting, and visual presentation.

When I was 14, I got my work permit and I started earning my own money. In high school I wrote for the school newspaper. In my English classes, we split grades for creativity and execution. I always got A+ for creativity and B for the execution. Commas and spelling always brought my grades down. Plus I liked to make up words. A great number of my papers came back with a note “This word isn’t in the dictionary.” I’ll bet a lot of my words would have been in Oxford English Dictionary (OED) but this was before the days of computers and on-line dictionaries. I still love making up words to fit specific situations.  I think that is part of the reason I love being a poet because the creativity is supported in that genre.

2.  When did you decide to become a children’s poet?

I’m not sure anyone decides to be a children’s poet. You’re born to it. As Bernice Cullinan (founding editor of Wordsong, the poetry imprint of Boyd Mills Press) once said to me, in a voice that almost sounded like it held pity, “If that is what comes out of your pen, then that is what you must write.” I really have to control my writing to write prose. To NOT put that galloping rhythm in and to NOT make the lines rhyme. I have to really be careful to NOT use reversals, just so I can make the writing rhyme. At times it is a burden, but most of the time it is good fun. I often see how the lines should look on the page. And strangely enough, all of my education and life experiences have helped to make me a better children’s poet.

I have a Ph.D. in human communication and I approach my poems from the question of, “What am I trying to say?” What is the best way to say this? What is the purpose of the writing and how is the best way to present this so the reader can read the poem the way I mean it to be interpreted.

3.      What’s your favorite book? Why?

I have a whole shelf of poetry books I love. I have a collection of textbooks on writing poetry in various forms, and dictionaries. I love some of my current collections of poetry books for children. I guess my favorite is The Poetry Friday Anthology. I feel so honored to be included in this anthology with all the great children’s poets that Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong assembled.

I recently read THE POEM THAT WILL NOT END by Joan Bransfield Graham published by Two Lions Press with Krysten Brooker as the illustrator. It is a picture book for kids with several poetry forms explained. It is a cool textbook and story at the same time.

4.  Are your characters based on real people?

Nope, if I have a character in a poem, it usually is a reflection of me or my idealized child. Sometimes it is fun to use an animal—then I’ll look at the characteristics I’m dealing with and select an animal to represent the characteristics. Size and shape of the animal often has something to do with it. I don’t often write about rabbits or bunnies because they don’t make a lot of sound.

Joy and her sister in Easter Dresses.

5. Do you outline your poems before you write them or do they flow on their own?

Writing poetry is all about flexing muscles. It is like having a tool box and being able to put more tools into it. I often decide that I want to try writing a form, say a luc bau, or a fib, or tanka. Then I try to think of something that will fit nicely into that form of poetry. If I’m tired of writing poems in common verse (rhyming quatrains), I’ll see if I can write the poem in a different form. Often, I try a new form that I haven’t ever used. That’s one of the things I like about writing children’s poetry. It never gets boring because there is always something new to learn and to try.

6.  How much research do you do for writing your poems? 

I actually do a lot of research. The best idea is to keep your eyes and ears open at all times. You never know when you’ll see or hear something that will inspire a poem. I’m constantly double-checking the information I include in poems to make sure that it is correct. When I wrote science poems for an anthology recently, I was busy asking all my science friends what they thought were important subjects for children to know about. What were topics I should be writing about? I also checked Common Core and State learning standards to write appropriate poems for the grade level I was aiming for.

Research is one of the fun things about writing poetry. You can write a short couplet to illustrate a single thought. You don’t have to invest in long chapters like a novel. I’m constantly chatting with my local librarians about their books and their knowledge about children. I frequently ask my librarian: “Do you have a book about________?” I need to know if someone has already covered the subject, or if there is a way I can have a different approach. See how much fun this can be?

7.  Do you ever cry while writing poems?

Yes, of course. For a poem to be successful, I need to be able to convey the right emotion, if it’s sad. But, I also think children should have laughter in their childhood, so I often laugh about something silly I put into a poem. I do laugh at myself a lot. When a poem seems to be a “little crazy,” I brainstorm to see how I can “up” its silliness factor. I have many fantastic followers who frequently have fun ideas for poems that they share with me. It is fun to write those poems, too.

8.  Do you have trouble saying goodbye to your poems?

Nope, because I know a poem is never really finished. I’m more likely to become bored with a poem than to want to keep it with me.

Joy in Kindergarten

9.   What’s your favorite poem you’ve written?

Oh gracious, that is a difficult question! I’ve probably written over 5,000 poems. I’m constantly writing and sometimes I even forget that I’ve written a poem because I’ve moved on. I think my favorites are poems I can make into a game. I also like the call and response poems that take many children to perform the poem. I like it when a poem sets up a pattern. Then I can write multiple poems using the same structure. Or, more likely, I like to encourage someone else to write a poem using my structure. That is the MOST fun for me, when I can get someone else to play poetry games with me.

10.  What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you related to your writing or book tours?

My editor asked if I’d like to make a video of me reciting my poem in an anthology, and I had the funniest time getting the job done. I was using the camera on my phone and I taped the camera to my garage because the editor wanted the background to be outdoors. But half way through the taping, the camera fell off the garage because the tape wouldn’t stick well to the stucco wall. Then when I got all set to do it again, I got an error message on my phone because it was too hot and my phone needed to cool off. It really was funny to me. I kept thinking, where are my kids when I need them. I have two grown sons, one lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the other in Seattle, Washington. I could have used them to do the recording.

11.  What is your favorite genre?

The more and more I write, I know that I’m supposed to be writing poetry. Specifically, poetry for children. It is my small little corner of the world. And now that I’m writing with a “body of work,” I’m developing stronger tastes in what I like and don’t like. I’m getting more and more specific in my writing skills.

Silhouette of Joy, First Grade

12.  How can a writer create a distinctive voice?

Write for yourself and your own distinctive voice will ring loud and clear. Don’t worry about a distinctive voice. Just write what you know and your voice will come through in the writing. If you end up channeling Dr. Seuss, or Emily Dickinson—you’ll hear that and be ready to get rid of writing for someone else.

13. How do you decide the right narrator for a poem? 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person?  This is the fun part of writing poetry. You can write a poem in a particular subject from each narrator voice and end up with three different poems.

14. How do you check your manuscript for proper formatting?

Proper formatting is one of the fun areas of poetry. You get to set your own format and rules and then follow the rules! Poetry is constantly changing.

It used to be in Elizabethan times they capitalized every new line. Heck, if you read some of the original Emily Dickerson poems you’ll see that she capitalized every noun in the Germanic tradition. But now poets look at enjambed lines and some, like me, only use a capital to signal to the reader that a new sentence is beginning. When poets started using computers, the computer automatically would print a capital after each hard return for a line break. So a lot of poetry at that time had caps at the start of each line.

If you read a lot of early picture books you’ll notice that a lot of publishers still do this with phrasing, every time there is a return, the line starts with a capital letter.

I personally don’t think this helps children with learning the rules of punctuation. It used to be that each line ended in punctuation too. I question each punctuation mark that goes into a poem. What does it tell the reader in how to read the poem? See, I view that old fashioned way of starting each line with a capital letter as being lazy. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked other poets why they started each line with a capital letter and I get the response, “It’s just the way my computer did it.” That isn’t thinking about the poem and the meaning of the words. Your job as a poet is to let the reader know how the poem is supposed to be read. This is like the rule that changed between having two or one spaces after each period, or as the Brits would say, after each full-stop.

So, the formatting of a poem should enhance the meaning of the poem and help the reader to interpret how to read the poem. This is part of the reason poets have fun with concrete poems and caesuras—the formatting gets to add to the meaning and the experience of the poem for the reader.

One of the things a poet needs to do is take risks and be inventive.  This keeps the poems “fresh.”  Here are some examples on my playing with poetry, playing with form:

Here is an example of quatrains that I have revamped to make it easier for the reader to read and to make the poem more visually interesting.  http://poetryforkidsjoy.blogspot.com/2013/10/riding-my-imagination.html

Here is the way the poem could have been presented:


My bus is a chariot,
A magical sleigh,
A yellow banana
To take me away.

Using capital letters with every hard return is old-fashioned, and doesn’t help a child with learning to read. It is one of the things I feel strongly about–a poem should help to expand the child’s world.


My bus
is a chariot,
a magical sleigh,
a big yellow banana,
to lift me away.

I’m a goldfinch flying.
It’s really too cool.
My imagination soaring
as I land at school.
…Joy Acey

This same logic of formatting holds for using center margin.  Some poets use center margin because they think it “looks pretty.”  This logic doesn’t help children with learning to read.  The only reason a poem should use center margin is if the topic of the poem is about something central, or holding things in.  I recently saw a poem about the wind that used central margin and it looked all wrong to me.  A wind is a breezy, flowing thing and that poem needs the text to show the windy nature, not to hold everything to a central core.

Formatting does make a difference.  My poem, “Worm,” can be read from top to bottom; or bottom to top. An illustration adds to the fun and information flow of the poem:

The written word and the visual is a wedding.  The two must serve each other. I formatted my poem, “Waves,” to show the movement of the waves in the ocean and how they fall when they get to the beach area:

The next two poems, “Sun” and “Moon” were an interesting revelation for me.  I first wrote them in a traditional left to right fashion:

But since the sun and moon both rise in the east, I later revised the words with the visual so that the poem read right to left because the east is usually on the right side on maps. But, I didn’t think the poem was successful because it asked children to read in a backward direction.  See not all of my poems are successful.

Part of the fun of writing poetry is that I can easily revise and change a poem.  The more I write the more fun I have with my writing.  The writing is a learning process.  I’m learning not only about poetry, I’m learning about myself.  And I’m learning about what I like (and what I don’t like) in children’s poetry.  The poem is the way I share with children the many things I know, the experiences I’ve had.

15. How do you find and replace your “Pet Words,” the words that you use too many times?”

I am careful not to use the same word families for rhyming poems. It is easy to overwork certain words. Therefore, I have a rhyming dictionary that I use a lot. Sometimes I open a page and challenge myself to write a rhyming poem with the words on that entry where my finger lands.

16. How do you check and change incorrect spelling?

This is my bête noir. I rely heavily on the computer’s spell check software. But I do need to remember to look for the squiggly red lines the computer shows under misspelled words. I run into problems using foreign words, like bête noir.

Sometimes I make mistakes with their, there, they’re or were and we’re. I know the rules and I know what I should use, but unless I consciously check, I sometimes type the wrong word. I feel so stupid when I catch myself, or feel even worse if someone else points it out. That is what critique groups are for—to be another pair of eyes. I sure appreciate my critique group.

17. How do you know when your manuscript is ready for submission?

Most of the time, I don’t know when a manuscript is ready for submission. I recently submitted a collection of 28 poems on one topic and afterwards I thought of (and wrote) five more poems. My brain at least wasn’t ready to leave the topic and move on. So, I figure I’ll wait and see what happens with the submission. I’ll make changes before I submit it again. If the publisher accepts the poem collection, I’ll talk to the editor about moving poems around and adding the new ones.

See, this is the fun stuff poets get to do. I’ve never had a poem accepted that the editor didn’t have suggestions for changes. Usually, the revised poem turns out to be stronger. I love working with editors. They are really creative people and have brilliant suggestions. I’ve loved working with Kathleen Hayes at Highlight’s High Five and Janet Wong at Pomelo Books.

18.  Who or what has been the most help and inspiration to you as a writer?

Oh, my goodness. I’ve been writing for so long that I’ve gotten a lot of help from a lot of people. I’d have to say I owe so much to Bee Cullinan who really was the person who gave me permission to write poetry.

Then I probably should give credit to the nasty poetry professor at the University of North Carolina who wouldn’t let me take his introductory poetry class. I was so frustrated and upset over that. I cried for at least a week over that.

But thankfully, Marcia Douglas at NC State University let me take her class and I learned so much—she also was instrumental in getting me a job teaching poetry at their summer Young Writers Workshops.

Andy Boyles was instrumental in getting my first children’s poem sold to Highlights. I’ve attended many of the poetry workshops at Highlights. I recommend them highly. I’ve made some long-lasting poetry buds through the workshops.

Kathleen Hayes, editor of High Five and HELLO, has done special things with my poems to get them to more children to read and hear.

Plus, the illustrators for the poems have been wonderful. David Harrison has contributed greatly to my education and Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell have published several of my poems in their anthologies.

Sylvia Vardell’s blog helps to keep me current in my reading, letting me know about recently published children’s poetry books. I do hang out with the Poetry Friday poets and I learn a lot from them.

Tabatha Yeatts has had poem exchanges over the last two summers and at Christmas. I’ve made some good poetry friends through that—Linda Baile, Laura Purdie Salas, Amy Ludwig Vanderwater, Becky Shillington, Buffy Silverthorn, and Robyn Hood Black.

I guess everywhere I turn I find people to help me along my journey—like you Joan, and Linda Andersen and many of my friends in the Carolinas.

One more thing I want to mention. At the last Highlights poetry workshop, Rebecca Davis, editor for Wordsong, talked about the difficulty of finding illustrators for poetry. And it was an eye opener for me. Poetry doesn’t sell as well as fictional picture books. So an illustrator is going to make less money doing art for a poetry collection than for a picture book. As a poet, you do have to ask yourself the question of why an illustrator would want to do your illustrations. It is something to keep in mind.

Joy’s Bio:

Joy Acey, the Princess of Poetry, has won many prizes for her poems and has published in several small journals and anthologies including HIGHLIGHT’S High Five magazine. She is a performance artist and conducts writing workshops for children and adults. She’s hopped a freight train and rode in a boxcar over the world’s second largest wooden trestle bridge. She was on a TV game show and won enough money for a trip to Australia. She has lived in England and Japan. She has walked across a volcano in Hawaii and a glacier in New Zealand. She has gone swimming with iguanas in the Galápagos and was in Ecuador during a revolution. She recently returned from a trip to Peru where she visited the rainforest. Always looking for new adventures to write about, she now lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband and a Welsh springer spaniel named Spot.

Joy’s Blog: www.poetryforchildren.blogspot.com She posts a poem a day and a poetry prompt for children to write poetry of their own.  She’s been doing this for three years now, so there are a lot of poems.

Joy’s Books

The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (Teacher’s Edition): Poems for the School Year Integrating Science, Reading, and Language Arts

I am in Kindergarten, Second and Third Grade Student Editions.

The back matter in the teacher edition is fantastic with listings of web sites for poetry and science, poetry books for children dealing with science, resources for teachers, web sites for poets in the books, a great index, a glossary of science terms for children and bios for all the contributors.  It is a terrific resource.  Carole Boston Weatherford and Kristi Dempsy from the Carolinas are in the book.  Roby Hood Black from SC and Allan Wolf from Asheville are in there too. There are 78 really great children’s poets in the books, I’m just happy to be included.

Student Editions for Elementary Grade Levels

The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science, Kindergarten (includes Joy Acey)

The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science, First Grade Student Edition (does not include Joy Acey)

The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science, Second Grade Student Edition (includes Joy Acey)

The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science, Third Grade Student Edition (includes Joy Acey)  http://www.amazon.com/The-Poetry-Friday-Anthology-Science/dp/1937057925/

The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science, Fourth Grade Student Edition (does not include Joy Acey)

The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science, Fifth Grade Student Edition (does not include Joy Acey) http://www.amazon.com/Poetry-Friday-Anthology-Science-Student/dp/1937057941/

Joy’s Video Performance

Watch Joy performing a poem HOW TALL IS THE BOY?:

Guest Interviews Online with Joy

  1. David Harrison’s blog: http://davidlharrison.wordpress.com/?s=Joy+Acey&submit=Search.
  2. Jon MacRush’s blog: http://maclibrary.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/interveiw-wednesday-meet-joy-acey/
  3. Linda Martin Andersen’s A Writer’s Playground blog: http://lindamartinandersen.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/haiku-for-you/


Thank you, Joy. Your interview was intriguing and fascinating. Like your name, you embody JOY in all its glory. Thank you for being a guest on my blog.

Thank you to everyone who reads this blog post. You make me smile…:). If you’d like to ask a question or tell something to Joy Acey, Princess of Poetry, please leave a comment.

Do something fun today.
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards

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