Today is an exciting day here at Reading to the Core! I’m so happy to welcome poet Leslie Bulion to talk about her third collection of nonfiction poetry, Random Body Parts: Gross Anatomy Riddles in Verse (Peachtree, 2015). Leslie is also the author of At the Sea Floor Cafe: Odd Ocean Critter Poems and Hey There, Stink Bug!, as well as four books of fiction. You can read about all of Leslie’s work on her website.
The words “gross” and “riddles” in the title of this collection will automatically lure readers who wouldn’t ordinarily pick up poetry. In the opening poem, Leslie invites readers to “Riddle Me This:”
“Of course you have a body,
But do you have a clue,
Where all the body parts you’ve got are found
And what they do?”
Leslie delivers on her promise of grossness. In “Lunchtime,” kids will learn which body part has “Mucus [oozing] from deep inside” and which makes “gobs of mucus disgusty.” (“The Gatekeeper”) Leslie’s poems are full of humor, and allusions to Shakespeare’s plays are woven into every poem. Side notes include the kinds of fascinating facts kids love. For example, did you know your kidneys are the size of a gerbil?
Mike Lowery’s appealing illustrations blend cartoon-like drawings with photos and antique anatomical prints. Leslie included a glossary, as well as notes about the poetic forms used and the Shakespearean references. There is also a list of resources for further investigation.
Without further ado, welcome, Leslie!
Thanks so much for inviting me to your blog, Catherine!
I’m always interested to learn where authors get their ideas. What made you decide to write a poetry collection about anatomy?
A week of summer entomology camp for grown-ups sparked my science poetry journey as I thought about pairing two wonderful things that come in small packages: hundreds of millions of years of evolution packed into a critter the size of a beetle, and a poem’s elegant arrangement of words and ideas. From HEY THERE, STINK BUG, the next obvious stop for me was AT THE SEA FLOOR CAFE: ODD OCEAN CRITTER POEMS, since I have a graduate background in oceanography. I always mine my subjects for their full grossness potential, so moving on to body parts was–well–a no-brainer.
One aspect I love about the collection is that each poem contains an allusion to one Shakespeare. Why?
In my collections, I am always working from what I call my “big idea.” In RANDOM BODY PARTS, the big idea is riddles, since the subject matter is fairly familiar. I am carefully selective about the forms of poetry I use for each individual subject. One obvious place to start this collection was with a sonnet about the heart. I chose Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18 as my mentor text. Fun! I decided to keep playing with Shakespeare’s words and moved on to “Grumble, grumble, roil and rumble” inspired by the witches’ speech in Macbeth. Shakespeare’s rich words and phrases are part of our English lexicon and will be enjoyed over and over again during the lifetime of any reader–it’s never too early to start sampling the banquet!
Can you describe the process you used to research these poems?
I read GRAY’S ANATOMY and other reference books, used many excellent online sources, and my favorite: I watched the UC Berkeley online “General Human Anatomy” lectures given by the inimitable Dr. Marian Diamond (here’s a link to a NYTimes article about the class http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/education/edlife/18anatomy-t.html?_r=0 ). Back to school! YAY! I reread Shakespeare, and read many recent reference books about Shakespeare’s language, and combed through lists of quotations, revisiting the original sources when something caught my eye.
I became a dedicated list-maker: lists of disembodied parts, lists of favorite Shakespeare lines, phrases and his wealth of invented words, lists of poetic forms I wanted to include. Then I played the match game. Some of the Shakespeare references are more obscure than others–the process was a challenge!
What advice can you give to teachers and students who are inspired to use Random Body parts as a mentor text and write their own collection of nonfiction poems?
In all of my collections, I try to include a range of poetic forms. Some forms are simpler and some are more complex. They all use some sense of rhyme and/or rhythm, and those aspects touch on math and music as well as language. This may seem counter-intuitive, but paring a body of science research down to a coherent and elegantly brief poem is a wonderful way for students to seek and demonstrate an integrated understanding of their subject matter. Rather than listing “facts,” I suggest finding the juicy nugget of story you’d like to communicate about your particular subject. What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned in your research? What was surprising? What connections have you made? Those are the ideas that give science poems their shape. I love the readers’ theater possibilities with poetry, and especially with poems for two (or more) voices. Also, writing and solving riddles taps all kinds of other skills, and provides many classroom possibilities for learning fun. On the illustration side of things, I think the book’s multi-layered design and Mike Lowery’s illustrations provide endless mentor art possibilities–so accessible, fun, and visually literate!
Who are your poetic influences? Favorite poets?
There are so many wonderful poets writing now that I’m going to limit my answer to the poets who set me on this path from my childhood (thought I didn’t know it at the time): A.A. Milne and Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.
You say on your blog that even though you wrote poetry when you were younger, you didn’t always want to be a writer. What finally helped you decide to become a writer?
My friend Pam told me to. That’s the real answer. She is a writer and editor and has been my friend since I was 12. Well into adulthood I wrote her a long letter about making choices as a parent, and she asked me to write for the magazine PARENTS. Somewhere along the way I told her a story about something that happened to one of my daughters and she said, “That would make a good children’s story.” I’ve never looked back since.
Leslie, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions! I know teachers will be happy to include this collection in their health/anatomy units.
It is absolutely my pleasure, Catherine. I am so excited to add this new collection to my body of work!
Thank you to Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each day during the month of March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.
Today I’m also joining Alyson Beecher of Kit Lit Frenzy and other bloggers who feature nonfiction picture books each Wednesday. Thank you, Alyson, for this round up of terrific new nonfiction!