Dr. Krystal Howard graced SDSU students and faculty on February 27th with a lecture discussing her current research interests. Titled “Form as Political Resistance,” her talk looked at verse novels for children and young readers that focus on the education of the young poet--specifically Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Kwame Alexander’s Booked, both of which “advocate for the value of stylistic imitation through the depiction of children who write influence or erasure poems.” She discussed how these novels “highlight model authors who emphasize racial tensions” and that “the influence of erasure poems within these novels reflects socio-cultural concerns and follows the long-standing tradition in children’s literature of using texts as pedagogical tools that model behavior, and, specifically in this case, writing behavior.”
Before beginning, she explained that she got into this area of focus by reading the verse novels Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson and Out of the Dusk by Karen Hesse in an undergrad creative writing poetry class and became interested in “the form of the book.” This interest lasted with her through her MFA, Master’s, and Ph.D. programs, where, in the latter, she focused on verse novels for young readers.
Underway with her lecture, Dr. Howard stated that Brown Girl Dreaming and Booked “focus on the artist coming of age” and that “each of these texts advocates for the value of stylistic imitation through the depiction of children who write influence or erasure poems.” Defined by an audience member, erasure poetry is “taking someone else’s text and whiting out/blacking out some of the words in order to say things that combine into your own work.”
Both these texts also “engage directly with the relationship between an artist’s creation and an artist’s environment” which “leads to emotional maturation for the characters within the text, while serving as evidence that learning to write poetry can be accessible to young readers situated outside of the text.” She also noted how both Brown Girl Dreaming and Booked “highlight model authors who emphasize racial tension,” with Brown Girl Dreaming looking at life growing up during the Civil Rights era and the influence of Langston Hughes on the young writer and Booked showing a contemporary young author erasing parts of Huckleberry Finn. As such, “the influence of erasure poems within these verse novels reflects socio-cultural concerns and follows the long-standing tradition in children’s literature of using texts as pedagogical tools that model behavior, and, specifically in this case, writing behavior.”
Dr. Howard emphasized that “the inclusion of fragments of the protagonist’s writing within the pages of the narrative underscores an emphasis on formal experimentation, collage, and the politics of form.” She defines collage--loosely--as “the layering and linking together of miscellany within a single work,” but, according to scholars such as Rona Cran and Rachael Fairbrother, collage in literary texts “moves beyond the assemblage of fragments, bringing ideas into conversation with one another, encouraging a sense of defamiliarization in the reader or viewer in order to fix attention on uneasy realities in contemporary culture, and, ultimately, emerging as a powerful site for political resistance.” Collage in the two focus texts, then, serves to “give voice to the difficulties experienced by the protagonists and to explore the issues of both confession and crisis.”
She focused specifically on the power of collage as a form of subversion and art, arguing that “in contemporary children’s and young adult literature, collage is used in order to unsettle the traditional artist coming of age narrative, and to make visible the political and social forces that help shape the writer’s developmental process” before moving on to discuss how “the verse novel is uniquely situated to address pain and healing because its form draws attention to itself as a created artifact.” An example of this is “the lyric’s emphasis on emotion, as well as poetry’s general use of space on the page, [that] invites the reader to linger over language, breaks in line and stanza in between poems,” which, considering that Woodson’s and Alexander’s verse novels contain poems within them written by young protagonists, “calls on the reader to hold space in the narrative and slow their pace further in order to consider the writing of the characters separately.”
She elaborated on what constitutes a verse novel, speaking of them as “a popular hybrid genre that engages with multiple genres, including poetry, prose, and drama” that “focuses on the emotional event and shows the reaction before and afterwards,” and is “characterized by hybrid construction.” She clarifies further that her definition of verse novels is “…a series of poems linked by a narrative thread” that involve fragmentation and white-space to make the reader pause to contemplate the “gaps created by a collage of line, language, poem, scene, and para-text” which “creates an intimacy between the reader and the speaker of the poem.” The importance of this is that, “by weaving together narrative and the confessional voice, the verse novel provides the structural space necessary for reader contemplation and becomes a mode in which young readers can actively participate in the making of meaning by putting together the fragments of someone else’s life and then parlaying those resulting insights into a deeper understanding of their own experience.”
Continuing, she moved on to discuss verse novels that focus on the growth of the young writer, and how they “are unique because they present the child writer learning aspects of craft through influence, both by revering and parodying various source texts.” She quotes Tom Hunley in how poets gain their individual voice by imitation of other poets and Harold Bloom’s argument about how “‘poetic history is held indistinguishable from poetic influence, and an individual becomes a poet when she first discovers or is discovered by the dialectic of influence, first discovers poetry as being both external and internal self.’” She adds to this Dr. Joseph T. Thomas Jr.’s ideas of how child poets are “influenced through reading official school poetry, the dominate mode of poetry in schools, the kind of poetry written by adults and taught to children in the classroom” and that “‘certainly there are children who strive to emulate the adult poets they encounter, but more common are those who specialize in the sometimes bawdy playground poetry. These child poets reveal that children have a poetic tradition all of their own. A carnivalesque tradition that signifies young adult culture.’” All of this, according to Dr. Howard, is apparent in Woodson’s and Alexander’s texts. She states “While Woodson relies on poets typically associated with official school poetry, with whom her child poet speaker forms an artistic connection, Alexander draws on the childhood tradition of found poetry in order to emphasize play and humor as well as his character’s general distaste for his educational environment as a catalyst for his protagonist’s poetic tact.”
Concluding her talk, Dr. Howard expressed that Woodson’s and Alexander’s verse novels “draw connections between the education of the poet and elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions, linking pedagogy in the classroom and narratives directed at young readers” while also noting that “the act of inserting a creative protagonist’s own poems into a narrative is inherently pedagogical as it models for young readers how a poet might begin his or her own writing practices” serves as a powerful rhetorical move on the behalf of the author. Additionally, their verse novels are groundbreaking due to the fact “they draw on various traditions in order to illuminate contemporary issues surrounding racism in artistic expression” as well as “put forward influence, imitation, and writing response as key developmental practices” with Woodson’s protagonist “employ[ing] a method of influence that utilizes source texts by imitating structure, line, and style and Alexander’s by “use[ing] the erasure poem as a form of play and subversion in the educational setting.” These practices instilled, therefore, are an imperative aspect in the development of the young writer, states Dr. Howard, and they “provide a map for, and a window through which, young readers can see themselves becoming poets through sustained close-reading of model poets, and a crafting of response poems that are inspired by the works of other writers that they read.”
After the talk, Dr. Howard answered a myriad of questions from faculty and students alike, and each left feeling they had learned something important about the nature of verse novels, whether that be in their construction or application. We at the NCSCL and the faculty of the English and Comparative Literature Department are grateful for Dr. Howard’s visit and look forward to seeing more of her research in the future.
For more info on that, check out Dr. Howard’s website and the next NCSCL blog for a follow up podcast conversation between her and our very own NCSCL Director Dr. Joseph Thomas Jr.!