INTERVIEW: Liz Steinglass converses with Cynthia Grady

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PACYA member Liz Steinglass lives and writes in Washington, DC. Her poems have appeared in Babybug and Ladybug magazines. She regularly posts original poetry on her blog Growing Wild at www.LizSteinglass.com.

Cynthia Grady is a school librarian living in Washington, DC. Grady wrote the poems in her first published book, I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers; 2011; illustrated by Michele Wood), while planning and sewing her own patchwork quilt. She loves quilts of all kinds, from traditional patchworks to contemporary art quilts.

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LS: In the forward to I Lay My Stitches Down, you write about some of the connections between quilting and poetry and you describe the unique poetic form you have used throughout the book. In your note at the end, you describe receiving the first three poems “as a gift” while you were preparing to teach a quilting class. What do you think happened in that moment?

CG: That is such a good question. I’ve been thinking about it for years now. I had been doing a lot of writing (for me) the previous summer—writing four to six hours a day, every day—and also, I had been researching the history of the writing of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” You may know its history—the lyrics were written by a former sailor on a slave ship. So I think all the reading, writing, and pondering, combined with the stillness that comes when we immerse ourselves in work that is quietly productive, yield something altogether new and unique. I’ve since heard other writers talk about a “zone” they get into, or a meditation state that is particularly fruitful. I find the creative process in all its forms to be endlessly fascinating.

In addition to the poem and image on each spread, you also include text explaining factual information related to the poem. Can you describe your process of researching the book?

For the most part, I did my research as I was writing the poems in a very piecemeal sort of way. For instance, “Underground Railroad” was the first poem I wrote. I knew as I was writing it that I wanted to compare a bounty hunter to an animal—a predator—that was not very skilled. So, I looked for books on predators and learned that hyenas are “unspecialized” as hunters and are sometimes outwitted by their prey. I liked that because in this poem the slave is much smarter than his pursuer.

So—once I had a poem going, I would research a technical detail that I needed. That said, I had some lovely research surprises. I knew early on that I wanted a blacksmith poem to go with the anvil quilt block, one of my favorites. It was during my research on blacksmithing that I learned about horse racing during slavery times. So the poem that eventually became “Rail Fence” was an unexpected one. Only after I had four or five poems completed did I decide to do more comprehensive research on slavery in America.

Many of the poems are written from the point of view of the slaves. What enabled you to imagine that point of view so richly? What enabled you to speak so authentically in the voices of slaves?

This is just where I was going next with your research question. After I decided to make a go of this whole project, I listened to taped interviews of former slaves that were recorded in the 1930s. Those interviews gave me a feel for the sound I needed. I also listened to a lot of music—mainly Gospel and blues. And finally, during the ten months I worked on the manuscript, I only read works written by Africans and African Americans. I read fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—contemporary writers and writers from the past, including several memoirs written by slaves and former slaves.

Do you have a favorite poem in the collection? If so, which one and why?

Some poems came more easily than others, and some poems gave me trouble. But I suppose if I had to choose one, it would be “Anvil.” I like the two characters in that one—the relationship they have, and I like the onomatopoeia and other sound tricks in the poem.

How do you imagine teachers might use the book?

I expect many teachers will use Stitches when teaching slavery in their social studies classes or perhaps some will use it during Black History Month and/or in April during National Poetry Month, but I would love to see it used by all kinds of teachers in all kinds of ways!

I wrote a teaching guide to go with the book, which can be found by clicking here. It contains lots of different ways to think about the book while working with students. One of my favorite activities is the first one. Readers are asked to use any one of the poem titles as a metaphor for something happening in their lives. For example, “Kaleidoscope” might remind you of your first amusement park ride, where everything you saw seemed like small bits and pieces flying around.

I was struck when reading the book that the beauty of the words is enriched by the stunning illustrations by Michele Wood. What were your reactions when you first saw them?

Astonished! Thrilled! Michele Wood is brilliant!

Artist Michele Wood and poet Cynthia Grady

In addition to quilting and writing poetry, you also work as a middle school librarian. How does your work as a librarian influence your writing?

I don’t know if I would have thought to add the explanatory notes for each poem if I did not work in a school setting. I’ve seen other writers do it—Joyce Sidman and Laura Amy Schlitz, to name two—but working with students and their teachers has really helped me see the value in adding some context notes to this book.

In general, though, as a school librarian, I am privy to what students want to read right now and what teachers need to supplement their curricula. I get paid to read what reviewers and critics are saying about everything that gets published for children. I can’t think of a better work environment for a writer.

I know you are very busy during the school year and do most of your writing during the summer. Do you have any writing ideas in mind for this summer?

Yes! I am at different stages in several projects—a picture book biography, another picture book collection of poems, and a novel. I hope, hope, hope to finish the final draft of the biography and complete a first draft of the new poetry collection. As for the novel, I want to have more of an idea of its story. I know the characters and setting, and part of the story, but it hasn’t come together yet. I will need to be much more disciplined than I have been in past summers to accomplish this much in eight short weeks.

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Log Cabin

The finds of archeologists beneath
dilapidated cabins down the hill:
some chicken bones, the skins and skulls of coons
and squirrels — hard remains of suppers stalked
by moonlight, faith, starvation. Caches, too,
of divination: sea shells, broken beads,
and bundled roots suggest how slaves survived
a knotted life of cornmeal, cruelty, death.
The dig won’t yield the stolen, lost, withheld:
shoes, safety, drums, dignity, daughters, sons.

[From I Lay My Stitches Down by Cynthia Grady; ©2012 Cynthia Grady]

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3 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: Liz Steinglass converses with Cynthia Grady

  1. I just saw this book reviewed by a blogger friend, & am thrilled to see an interview with Cynthia Grady, too. What a thorough interview that tells so much background about this book. It is gorgeous, & the few words I’ve been able to read tell stories that seem so accessible to all students. Thank you! I too hope that teachers use the book in a variety of ways, not just to teach history or in March. It a beautiful text example of capturing story, of which there are many kinds in history.

  2. (Catching up on some Poetry Month posts!) Thank you all for sharing this. The featured poem literally gave me chills. I appreciated all the “bits and pieces” of research coming together to form this collection, like a quilt itself. I’ll be seeking out this gorgeous book.

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