A Pocketful of Poems

Pocketful of PoemsTrue con­fes­sions: I have an obses­sive-com­pul­sive per­son­al­i­ty. For­tu­nate­ly, I chan­nel in most­ly healthy ways. A Pock­et­ful of Poems is a prime example.

Back in the 1990’s (was it that long ago?) I came across The Essen­tial Haiku, edit­ed by Robert Hass. Once I plant­ed my face in this col­lec­tion of poems by Basho, Buson, and Issa, I bare­ly came up for air. I was in Haiku heaven!

I’d fall­en in love with this form of poet­ry as a child. I was for­ev­er chal­leng­ing myself to paint a pic­ture or tell a sto­ry using as few words as pos­si­ble, so haiku was right up my alley. But I had­n’t read much haiku as an adult, so this col­lec­tion was a spe­cial treat.

After I read this book, I became absolute­ly obsessed with writ­ing haiku. I could­n’t help myself. Before I knew it, I had a col­lec­tion of near­ly 100 poems! (If I were the Bat­man’s side­kick Robin, of tele­vi­sion fame, I’d say Holy Haiku, Bat­man! And yes, I’m show­ing my age. Whatever.)

The focus of my col­lec­tion was con­tem­po­rary-urban, rather than tra­di­tion­al, giv­ing it my own twist. I want­ed to use this ancient form to cre­ate poet­ry that con­tem­po­rary chil­dren, espe­cial­ly those liv­ing in the inner city—an impor­tant audi­ence for me—could embrace as their own.

I was hap­py with the man­u­script, and was con­vinced some lucky pub­lish­er was going to snap it up.

Not even.

One pub­lish­er after anoth­er returned the man­u­script with some ver­sion of the ques­tion, “Why are you writ­ing haiku?”

First, I was dumb­found­ed. Then, I was irri­tat­ed. What kind of ques­tion was that? (I used lots of col­or­ful lan­guage in the moment.) No one was forth­com­ing in explain­ing what he or she meant by that, which only annoyed me fur­ther. But I had a few wild guesses.

As an author of African Amer­i­can descent, I am rou­tine­ly put in a cer­tain box. I am expect­ed to write either African folk­tales, or books fea­tur­ing African Amer­i­can his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, or “prob­lem” books about con­tem­po­rary African Amer­i­can life. On a more per­son­al lev­el, as Nik­ki Grimes, I am expect­ed to write char­ac­ter dri­ven, nar­ra­tive poet­ry, pri­mar­i­ly because that’s what I’ve pub­lished in the past. If I dare veer off into themed col­lec­tions, or such exot­ic forms as son­net or haiku, well, off with my head! That’s not sup­posed to be in my wheel-house, right? Wrong.

Be that as it may, no pub­lish­er was bit­ing, and I felt deflated.

I sat down to think about what kinds of man­u­scripts I’d been most suc­cess­ful at sell­ing, and real­ized the nar­ra­tive thread was the key that might make even a col­lec­tion of haiku by me more palat­able to pub­lish­ers. So, I pulled out my hefty man­u­script, chose a small num­ber of haiku to work with, and set­tled in for a brand new draft.

I opened my file fold­er of names, and chose one for a char­ac­ter who would light­ly nar­rate my pic­ture book col­lec­tion of haiku. I decid­ed to shape this book as a col­lec­tion of paired poems, writ­ing free verse poems from the char­ac­ter’s P.O.V., and pair­ing each with a haiku on the same theme. I orga­nized the col­lec­tion sea­son­al­ly, and added a sim­ple author’s note about haiku. Once the new ver­sion of my haiku man­u­script was com­plete, I sent it out again.

I hit pay-dirt almost imme­di­ate­ly, but the pub­lish­er’s offer was too low­ball for me to con­sid­er. So I was on to the next house. And the next. And the next. And the next.

Had I made a mis­take by reject­ing that first offer? I was begin­ning to wonder.

I was thrilled for this oppor­tu­ni­ty to grab a pho­to with six of my won­der­ful illus­tra­tors. Java­ka Step­toe, who illus­trat­ed A Pock­et­ful of Poems, is to the far right of me in this shot.

About one year later—yes, I said one entire, bone-crush­ing, ego-deflat­ing, twelve-month period—I received con­tract offer num­ber two! This time the amount sug­gest­ed was rough­ly eight times that of the first pub­lish­er! I screamed yes over the phone. I think my agent has final­ly got­ten her hear­ing back!

It took a few years to bring A Pock­et­ful of Poems to the mar­ket­place, but it went on to make the Bank Street Col­lege Best Book of the Year, and the CCBC Choic­es list. More impor­tant­ly, it con­tin­ues to be a sta­ple in class­rooms across the coun­try. Call this anoth­er les­son in the old say­ing, “good things come to those who wait.”

If you haven’t read A Pock­et­ful of Poems yet, I hope you will. Besides my poet­ry, I know you’ll enjoy the extra­or­di­nary illus­tra­tions by Java­ka Steptoe.

I’ll close with one of my favorite pairs of poems from the book.


Pump­kin is an orange word.
I set its round­ness out
where oth­ers can enjoy it.
I help Mama carve
a crooked smile on its face.
Come Thanks­giv­ing,
we bake oth­ers like it for dessert.
But first we have to wait
for them to arrive.

Pump­kins catch a bus
to town. How else could they get
here by Thanksgiving?

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