Interview with the Gifted Renee LaTulippe!
December 18, 2014
Renée M. LaTulippe has co-authored nine early readers and a volume of poetry titled Lizard Lou: a collection of rhymes old and new (Moonbeam Children’s Book Award) for All About Learning Press, where she is also the editor, and has poems in several editions of The Poetry Friday Anthology series as well as upcoming anthologies. She developed and teaches the online course The Lyrical Language Lab: Punching Up Prose with Poetry and blogs on children’s poetry at NoWaterRiver.com. Renée holds theater and English education degrees from Marymount Manhattan College and New York University, and taught English and theater in NYC before moving to Italy, where she lives with her husband and twin boys.
I know you’re going to enjoy this interview. I suspect you’ll be as impressed as I was when I read Renée’s answers, even though I’ve heard her interviewed before, and I’ve read her blog and seen her work. (And some day when I can find time, I will take her Lyrical Language Lab course!)
Renée, I want to thank you for being willing to do this interview.
Thank you for inviting me!
Beth: Most of my readers know you from your involvement with the 12×12 picture book writing community. Could you give all of us a brief overview of your writing journey and what sort of writing you do?
Renée: In a nutshell, I started writing poetry when I was seven and continued to do so through high school and college, where I was an English major with a concentration in creative writing (poetry). It was at this college that my passion was summarily crushed by a professor who sucked all the joy out of poetry for me, and – except for the occasional humorous verse – I didn’t write poetry again for more than twenty years.
At the end of those couple of decades, I found myself as the editor for All About Learning Press, a company that develops spelling and reading curricula. In 2009, I was asked to work on a collection of poetry for children, and I loved it. In all my years of writing and teaching, I had never considered the world of children’s literature, so writing nearly fifty poems for that collection was a revelation and an epiphany. Why had I not been doing this twenty years ago? Since then, I have co-authored nine leveled readers that contain dozens of my prose and rhyming stories. I also have several poems published in current and forthcoming anthologies.
Though I consider myself a poet first, I did join Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 in 2012 to explore the world of picture books, which I find even more challenging than the leveled readers. And despite being a poet, I prefer to write (and read) picture books in prose.
Beth: You also have a very popular (and wonderful) blog/website called No Water River, where you place a great emphasis on poetry. This delights me, as poetry has meant a great deal to me throughout my life. I wonder if you could tell us more about this focus, and why you see poetry as so important for readers in general and children in particular?
Renée: When I first started reading poetry to my boys, one of them said, “Oh, they are like little stories.” And that pretty much sums it up. Whether the reader is a child or adult, good poetry sparks the imagination. It doesn’t lay everything out for you and tell you what to think or what to know; rather, it gives you enough language to create a concrete image in your head, and enough space for you to create your own world and meaning around it. A poem that speaks to you then becomes a part of you. There are educators out there who can give you a whole list of reasons that poetry is important for kids, and I agree with all of them. But for me, the fundamental things are imagination and personal connection.
As an editor, I also firmly believe that poetry is essential for writers – and I mean all writers, not just poets. There is no other form that teaches craft like poetry does, including how to use word choice, imagery, storytelling, emotional weight, rhythm, rhyme, sound, and tight writing to make your prose musical and captivating.
As for my blog, I decided to focus on children’s poetry because I believe it needs a much bigger presence on the children’s literature scene and in kids’ lives, and I want to be an advocate for that. And I made it a video blog because poetry is meant to be read aloud. I am thrilled that No Water River has found its way into classrooms and hope it keeps growing and blossoming.
Beth: Further to that, could you tell us about at least some of the wonderful features on your website?
Renée: Since it’s a video blog, the most important feature is the NWR video library, which currently contains about one hundred videos of both major and emerging poets reading their own work, including Joyce Sidman, Jane Yolen, Janet Wong, Linda Sue Park, J. Patrick Lewis – and on and on.
For the past year I have also been immersed in a huge project called “Spotlight on NCTE Poets.” The project is a series of interviews with renowned anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins in which Lee shares his vast knowledge of and personal stories about each recipient of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children from its inception in 1977. These posts consist of the video interview and lots of poetry by the featured award winner.
And then I have resources like my Poetry Performance Tips, fun posts in the Classic Poems Series, and even Featured Illustrator posts in which I share one of my own poems based on art by an emerging illustrator.
Beth: My theme for my blog and website this year is “empowering others through the arts and through words.” I think you do a stellar job of living out this theme, both through your involvement in music and theatre, and through all that you do in the world of words – I’d like to hear your take on how you seek to empower others.
Renée: Here’s a true story: When I was a grad student, I discovered one day that over half the fellow future English teachers in my class were afraid of teaching poetry and Shakespeare, and would actively try to avoid at least poetry in their classrooms. Shocking!
Since then, it has been a personal mission of mine to knock both poetry and Shakespeare off their pedestals and show how completely accessible – and necessary! – these subjects are for both teachers and students. Students moan at the mention of poetry and Shakespeare because at some point it’s been ingrained in their heads that these are subjects to be revered and read in serious tones, possibly with a slight British accent. Or worse, that there are “right answers” for analyzing a poem! This is not so!
As a high school teacher, my first order of business was to show what a hoot this unemployed actor named Bill really was, and to share beautiful, accessible poetry on a regular basis. I used a lot of drama in the classroom, which can go a long way to break down any resistance to any subject. For all literature, I put the emphasis on the appreciation of craft rather than on the analysis of meaning, which gives kids an easy way “into” a text and sets them up as “craft experts” right off the bat. Empowered with this role of “writing critic,” they naturally fall into analysis through the discussion of craft and through approaching texts through drama. Most importantly, the students found that they can understand these texts; that they can write and appreciate poetry; and that they can use poetry (and all literature) to discover themselves and find their own voices.
I no longer teach high school, but I use these same concepts in the course I teach for kidlit writers, which focuses on raising awareness and appreciation of poetic techniques as a way toward more consciously powerful prose writing. But more about that later!
Beth: Further to the previous question (and answer) I think one of the great ways you reach out to other writers and empower them is through your five-week Lyrical Language Lab course. What led you to create the course? What does it involve? What do you mean by “lyricism” – is this writing in verse?
Renée: As a full-time editor in the educational and personal development markets, I see a lot of books with good concepts but weak language. No matter what you’re writing, it has to be engaging or you will lose your audience in the first paragraph. Over the years, I’ve found myself repeating the same advice to authors: punch up your prose. Engage and delight your readers. Surprise them with unexpected turns of phrase. Keep them on their toes.
And once I started writing for young people and doing critiques, I realized that the advice is doubly important for children’s writers. Lyrical language is musical language, language that delights the ear and is fun to read. Picture books are meant to be read aloud, so using poetic techniques to make the language sing just makes sense. I have a profound appreciation for language and craft, and a desire to impart that to others. Hence the creation of The Lyrical Language Lab: Punching Up Prose with Poetry.
I must stress that The Lyrical Language Lab is NOT a poetry course, nor is it a course solely for PB writers who write in rhyme. Poetry is simply the vehicle I use for helping writers raise their awareness of lyrical language and showing them how to use poetic techniques to enhance ALL writing.
There are 20 lessons, and of those only five are strictly about writing poetry, since learning poetic meter is essential for understanding rhythm, not only for those who do want to write in rhyme, but also for prose writers who want to deepen their understanding of how they can use rhythm to their advantage. All other lessons have direct prose applications and assignments.
The course is taught online in a Facebook group, where students receive thorough feedback on every assignment. Each lesson covers one main concept in minute detail, which is illustrated through mentor texts that include children’s poems, picture books, and MG/YA novels. There are both poetry and prose assignment options for most lessons, as well as many opportunities to apply the lessons to a work in progress.
It’s such a flexible course with so many applications. Past students have used the course to revise entire novels, create new poems for or put the finishing touches on a poetry collection, and develop, write, or polish their picture books. And many have discovered a hidden talent for poetry in spite of themselves!
Beth: Who can take the course, who will benefit most from it, and how can someone sign up to take Lyrical Language Lab?
Renée: I designed the course with prose writers in mind, but it’s really versatile and serves all sorts of writers, from beginning to advanced:
- Prose writers looking to write more lyrically and enrich their writing with poetic techniques
- Rhyming PB writers who would like a stronger foundation in the mechanics of poetry
- Poets looking for writing and revision support, accountability, and inspiration
- Any writer who would like to learn more about writing poetry for children
- Anyone with a WIP in need of revision – the class is great for revision!
Beth: What do you hope people will come away with from your blog/site, from your writing, and from your course?
Renée: I would say that for all three, I would like people to come away with a greater appreciation of our rich, dynamic language and the craft of writing. I also hope they will come away with a greater respect for children’s poetry and its place in the world of children’s literature.
For my course in particular, my goal is to empower writers with:
- The knowledge that every word we use is more than just a verb or a noun or an adjective; it’s also an emotion, an image, a sound, and a memory that can elicit a specific response from the reader.
- The skills to put that knowledge to work to make their own stories and poems more powerful and memorable.
Beth: Would you like to add anything else?
Renée: So that people don’t just have to take my word for it, I always like to share this great article by Jane Yolen on revising for lyrical language, and some words of wisdom from Ann Whitford Paul on the need to be familiar with poetic concepts.
Beth: Where can people find you online?
Course: The Lyrical Language Lab
♦ ♦ ♦
REMEMBER — as with all the other posts this month, anyone who comments on this post will be entered in the giveaway for one copy of Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton’s Julie Andrews’ Treasury for All Seasons: Poems and Songs to Celebrate the Year. If you already have this book, please do still comment — if your name is the one selected, I will find an alternate book for you.