On April 6, 2005, poets Betsy Franco and Miriam Stone participated in a chat with Scholastic students and teachers.
When did you start writing and did you ever hate to write when you were a kid?
Stone: I started writing in high school, but I always liked writing when I was a kid. I started seriously in 9th or 10th grade.
Franco: I started 25 years ago when my first son was 1. I got ideas from him. When I was in high school, I was a good writer, but I didn't think that I was. But creatively I was into painting, so I didn't think of myself as a writer, but a painter.
How do you personally write poetry? Do you start a poem with a title? Or with an image? Do you ever start at the end of the poem?
Stone: I usually start wherever the idea happens, it might be an image, and it might be a line. Occasionally, it's a concept. Usually something just hits me. Sometimes what I start with ends up at the end. I just let it happen.
Franco: I get lots of ideas when I'm walking, so I always carry a pencil and paper. It will be something I see or overhear. I also wake up in the morning, and a memory will come back to me very strongly, and in that case it swirls around inside of me until I write about it. The endings of poems often come to me first. Or a rhythm will come to me, a line with a rhythm. I write it down immediately, or it will go away. I have to catch the ideas as they float through, or they might go away.
Who got you to start to write poetry?
Franco: You're not going to believe this. I was working on a Math textbook, and one of the authors said, “Why don't you write the opening as a poem?” I hesitated, but she encouraged. I started writing poems, and I never stopped, though they didn't use them in the book.
Stone: I don't know that there's a moment I started writing poetry. In 3rd grade we wrote a collaborative story, and the class said my line was really good. My teacher gave me a sticker that said I would be a writer someday. So, I guess you could say my 3rd grade teacher got me started.
What is your favorite type of poem?
Stone: I like free verse. I really like image-driven poetry and contemporary poetry. I like poems that take place in the mundane world, but have something important to say.
Franco: One main type of poetry that I look at a lot is visual poetry and avante guard poetry that a friend sends me online. I write math poetry. And a lot of my picture books are math poetry. So I feel an affinity with these visual poets. I'm very touched by poets who are saying something personal. Sometimes it makes me want to cry, but it makes feel like I'm OK and it's OK to feel what I feel. I like extreme honesty.
Stone: I agree. I like that too. It's like confessional poetry.
For Betsy Franco: Have you ever wanted to write a novel instead of poems?
Franco: (laughing) I am writing novels now, for young adults. It took me all this time to feel comfortable enough with myself and my feelings to try it. It sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable to go that deep. So I intersperse it with whimsical poems for children. I have a very deep shadow side, and I need to balance it. But I have a lot to say in these novels that I never knew I needed to say.
For Miriam: Do earn your living as a writer/poet?
Stone: No. Not yet. I work in publishing. I also work as a freelance writer and editor, but it's very difficult to do as a young writer. I also like the structure that having a job gives me.
Do you both go to poetry slams?
Stone: I used to go a lot. I haven't recently, but I really enjoy them. I've done some performance poetry — not slams — but events where I've performed in that style. (Slam poetry is part of a competition, but performance is the same style, but not a competition.)
Franco: I'm going to a poetry reading at a high school tomorrow night. I generally go to local high schools. I will be reading my poetry with a lot of the poets that I admire in May in San Antonio at the International Reading Convention.
How does having structure to your day help your poetry writing?
Stone: That's a hard question, because I'm writing a novel now and not poetry. It's a very different project. The structure helps me because I can set aside blocks of time. I'm under more pressure to set aside blocks of time and write. Poetry comes more as inspiration, but this requires more discipline and pressure. Having less time makes it easier.
Franco: I want to say that I make a living as a writer, and I'm the opposite, I don't like pressure. I am extremely self-disciplined. If I don't write every day I don't feel sane. I have figured out a way after all of these years to make a living at it.
What is your favorite poem that you have written?
Franco: I'm extremely proud of my book Mathematickles. But honestly, my favorite poem is usually the one I'm working on. I'm working on one about a girl that I was blood sisters with when I was young. I'm also working on a novel in informal verse called Metamorphoses and I'm really involved in that.
Stone: I don't think I have a favorite poem, because it changes a lot. I have favorite poems from periods of time, because those are the poems that most express me at that time. As time goes on, those tend to fade to the background.
What poets inspire you?
Stone: My favorite poet is Adrienne Riche. Reading her poetry has influenced my life and poems a lot. She's one of the first poets that got me into reading and writing poetry and she's remained my favorite since then.
Franco: Recently, I love Louise Gluck. I feel like she's talking right to me. She's helped me be more honest. There's also a guy Bob Grumman, from Florida. He's a long division poet, and he is so creative. He opens my mind to new ideas. I also like a lot of the young adult novelists who write in verse. I have been reading them lately, Karen Hesse, Sonya Sones, and Ron Koertge.
Stone: I have a poet to add too: Sharon Olds. That's the kind of personal, confessional poetry that I love. It roots itself in everyday experiences.
Franco: Yufusef Komunyakaa is another favorite poet.
Do you guys know each other? Have you ever considered writing a collaborative poem?
Stone: (laughing) We do know each other. We met because I went to the same high school as Betsy, long after she did. I submitted my poetry for her anthology because she'd talked to my English teachers.
Franco: Miriam has 3 poems in Things I Have to Tell You. And then Miriam sent me her draft of her memoir. And I loved it. I told my editor about it and she published it.
Stone: We haven't talked about writing a collaborative poem, but we're both now switching gears and writing novels, so we've been talking about that.
Franco: Now we're two writers who are helping each other write.
Stone: We were just talking about how we have transitioned from being a writer helping another get started to two colleagues.
Were you good friends?
Stone: Are we good friends? Yeah.
Franco: Absolutely. We see each other at conferences sometimes.
Stone: We stay in touch a lot. As a coincidence, my grandmother knows Betsy's mother.
Do you have critics? How do they help you write?
Franco: I have a critique group and I go to it once a month. There are 5 people and they give me feedback. If they are too critical and don't tell me anything good, it takes me much longer to hear what they are saying. I need them to tell me something positive first, and then tell me their suggestions, which I can take or not. The more I've listened to them over the years, the better my manuscripts have been.
Stone: One of my majors in college was creative writing, so I was in workshops. I love the critiquing process. It's hard when people only look at the negative. But I like when people tell me one positive and one negative. I'm also in a novel workshop at NYU and that's very helpful. I think when it's over, I'm going to try to get a group together. I think having a group of outside opinions is critical. You think you can see your own work, but you need others to help you. You have to trust that they are there to help you make your work better — not just to be mean.
Why do you choose to write poems when there are other jobs that you could do?
Franco: I guess, for some reason, I think economically, so poetry works for me. I simplify things rather than go on and on, so it's a good form for me. It does something for me that makes me feel sane. It helps me. I keep slipping back into poetry because it suits the way I think.
Stone: The fact that I've made money from writing is just a nice bonus. I write poetry because I love it. If I can ever make a living as a writer, it will be great, but this isn't why I write. If I wanted to make money I'd be in banking.
Franco: That's an interesting point. If I write to make money, it doesn't sell in the trade market. I have to write what I need to write and not think about who's going to buy it.
Where do you write most of your poems (at a desk, outside, etc.)?
Franco: I do spend a lot of time at my desk, but when I'm actually writing a poem, I'm usually somewhere else — a room, or on a walk. Or I'm just jotting on a scrap of paper. That's usually how it starts. I keep about 5 pencils in my purse.
Stone: Poetry usually starts on a scrap of paper, or a receipt in my wallet. After the initial two lines or whatever, I take it to the computer. All the fleshing it out and the writing takes place on the computer.
How long have you been writing poems?
Franco: For 25 years.
Stone: Since 9th grade. About 10 years.
How did your parents feel, when you decided to become a writer?
Franco: My family really supports creativity, and I support that in my 3 sons too. They are all artists, and it's something I'm proud to pass along. They were thrilled when I became an artist and then a writer. I think if you don't have a family to support it, you need to find someone who does. You need emotional support to do it.
Stone: Same for me. My family was very supportive. They continue to believe in me, and it means so much to me. Not just my family, but also my friends and boyfriend believe in me and it keeps me going. Literature was very important to my mother and I think she'd be thrilled that I'm continuing to write.
Do your kids write poetry too?
Franco: Yes. My middle son, Tom, had a number of poems in the anthology I did of teenage boys. My youngest son wrote poetry a lot in high school and now he writes screenplays. My oldest son, James, who is an actor, he writes screenplays and produces them.
What challenges did you have to overcome to be successful at writing poetry?
Stone: I think the biggest challenge is always you as a writer. Having the confidence to know you have something to say. I needed to block out the critical, editorial voices in my head. I also had to overcome the fear of writing about the personal stuff in my family. I was afraid of people reading it. I think I have to not think of any of that when I write.
Franco: I would say that I finally figured out that the voices in my head are part of the job and I need to deal with them professionally. It has nothing to do with whether I'm a good writer or not, they are just going to be there, and I have to acknowledge them. I also had to overcome rejection and learn to take it professionally and not personally. There's also statistics. People will tell you, “it's hard to make it as a poet.” Or “this year, people aren't buying poetry.” I just ignore that. You just have to be stubborn. Every generation has new writers, and why shouldn't it be me? I also had to learn how to revise. I didn't used to have the patience and now I do.
Stone: You have to know it might not come out perfectly the first time. Sometimes after 10 revisions it isn't perfect. Sometimes you just have to wait. Look at the big picture and don't get caught up in the frustrations.
Are there any poems that you did not show to anyone? Why?
Franco: I have poems that I wrote many years ago that I didn't show to anyone that I am now using in my young adult novels, because I suddenly feel OK about being that honest. When I showed my work to a high school class, something I was afraid of revealing, a student said that that happens all the time.
Stone: There are plenty of poems that I haven't wanted to publish. But I'm open, and when I'm proud of something, I want to share. My friends and family have seen anything that I'm proud of.
Do you ever have trouble writing?
Stone: Yes. I get writer's block. I just have to sit down and get something on the page, and that helps me get over those times.
Franco: I work on at least 4 things at once, so that if I can't think of ideas, I go onto something else. That way, I hardly feel writer's block. I feel like it's natural to come to a point where you don't have any ideas. So I like to move on to another project that is using a different part of me. Maybe that other part is tired.
Do you have any advice to kids who might want to become poets?
Franco: Each person has a story to tell or something important to say. Don't ever doubt it! You have it and you should tell your story in whatever form it comes out. Writing poetry can be one of the most important things you do, whether you make a living at it or not.
Stone: I agree with Betsy. I also think kids are scared off from poetry because they are reading older, lofty poetry. Once people realize poetry can be about the mundane, just like your life and your experiences, it can be interesting. Write about your life. It could be interesting for others.
Franco: I'm currently looking for poems and stories written by middle school and high school students, and you can submit your work to my email address: francoBe@aol.com