WOW. Just wow. Member and multiple award-winning author Margarita Engle has been offered the position of national Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. Spoiler alert: she accepted.
The title, and its $25,000 prize, is given biennially in recognition of outstanding poetry for young children. In an interview after her win, Engle recently told Publisher’s Weekly, “I want to choose the theme of peace, or paz. It’s a bilingual theme, and maybe if I can draw in other poets it will become multilingual.”
Despite her new responsibilities and added work, Margarita agreed to share a bit about her journey and her love of poetry. Thanks again, and congratulations from the region!
Poetry is an Adventure
No one can prepare to become the national Young People’s Poet Laureate. There is no career map, alchemist’s recipe or scientific formula. One morning I was living in solitude, simply enjoying the process of writing. By afternoon, I had received a dreamlike phone call, and nothing seemed real anymore. The impossible had become possible through some mysterious pathway beyond my understanding or control. I was offered an honor, but it is also an opportunity, and in a certain sense, a responsibility. Now I need to figure out how to carry gifts of poetry to places where authors don’t usually go—children who live at the end of a rural road, and city teens whose schools can’t afford an honorarium.
I started writing poetry as a small child whose life alternated between urban northeast Los Angeles and a farm at the end of a muddy dirt road in a remote corner of Cuba. As an adult, I studied agronomy and botany, then changed directions after taking a creative writing seminar from Tomás Rivera. At first, I was dizzy with joy every time one of my haiku was accepted by an obscure literary journal, or one of my opinion columns was published by Hispanic Link News Service. When I wrote novels for grownups, one reviewer accused my fiction of being too poetic. It was intended as criticism, but it felt like praise. Writing is an adventure. I needed to explore. I returned to my poetic roots, eventually discovering young adult verse novels.
After writing The Poet Slave of Cuba, I never returned to prose. In fact, at this point in my life, I only veer away from poetry when I’m asked to do a guest blog or interview, and even then, I find myself wishing I could answer prose questions in verse.
Why? Because poetry makes me happy. I could say that I choose verse in order to offer a welcoming expanse of white space to reluctant readers, and that would be true. I could add the fact that verse novels allow me to distill complex historical situations down to their emotional essence, and that would also be true. Some people might want to know about various awards, a Newbery Honor, multiple Pura Belpré Medals, Américas Awards, a Golden Kite, the Charlotte Zolotow Medal. Yes, it’s true, all those highlights of my writing life were received by verse novels, a verse memoir, and a poetic picture book, and as much as I treasure them, they are not my reason for devoting my life to poetry. I choose verse because no matter how much rage and resistance is encompassed by my stories of social justice, I feel peaceful whenever I have
a chance to communicate with young readers in rhythmic language, trying to offer them the beauty and hope they deserve, because they are adventurers, eager to explore.
Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award recipient. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.
Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She lives in central California with her husband, and continues to visit Cuba as often as she can. Her newest verse novel about the island is Forest World. Visit Margarita at her website.
Kantor, Emma. (2017, May 16). Margarita Engle Named Young People’s Poet Laureate. Retrieved from: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/73621-margarita-engle-named-young-people-s-poet-laureate.html.