Laura Shovan is poetry editor for Little Patuxent Review. Her newest book The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, her novel-in-verse for children, debuts in April 2016 (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House).
Laura’s chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone (CityLit Press 2010), won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. She edited Maryland Writers’ Association’s Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems (MWA Books, 2011) and co-edited Voices Fly: An Anthology of Exercises and Poems from the Maryland State Arts Council Artists-in-Residence Program (CityLit Press, 2012), for which she is a longtime teacher. Laura spoke at the 2015 100 Thousand Poets for Change World Conference in Salerno, Italy. She is a Rita Dove Poetry Award finalist and winner of a Gettysburg Review Conference for Writers scholarship. A member of the Poetry Friday blogging community, Laura has judged for several literary contests, including the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards (CYBILS).
After graduating from NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program and receiving a Master of Arts in Teaching from Montclair State University, Laura taught high school, worked for the Dodge Poetry Festival and as a freelance journalist, and now coaches teens with learning differences.
Jan: Thanks for the interview. Your new book coming out in April 2016, is described as a whimsical novel-in-verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House). What inspired you to write this book and how did you arrive at the decision to use this particular poetry form?
Laura: The idea for THE LAST FIFTH GRADE came from an intersection of two things. The first thing was my admiration for the classic American verse novel Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. Spoon River is a collection of interwoven persona poems, all spoken in the voices of one town’s citizens. Together, the poems create a complex picture of what small town life was like during the turn of the century. The second point of inspiration was my work with students as a Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Education. I became interested in the classroom as a small community. Why not create a version of Spoon River, set in a modern fifth grade classroom?
Jan: What do you love about this book and will there be a sequel?
Laura: After working on this book for seven years, I am quite attached to the characters. Each one has his or her distinct personality and voice. To me, they are a fun group of kids to spend time with. I am working on a second, stand-alone children’s novel with my editor, Wendy Lamb, but we may be seeing more of Ms. Hill’s students in the future.
Jan: I was intrigued to discover that your book is travelling around America on a book field trip. Is this a new approach to marketing? Tell me more about this project.
Laura: It’s not a new approach! In fact, I’ve read books that were out on ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) tours too. The tours are sometimes called book vines. Bloggers or readers – in my case, members of my 2016 debut author group – sign up to read the ARC and write a review or blog about the book. The book travels from reader-to-reader. The Sweet 16s group has authors all over the country, so my ARC has gone from coast-to-coast as it travels between the members of that group.
Jan: You have taught high school students, worked for the Dodge Poetry Festival, and now coach teens with learning differences. You mentioned a quote from Mary Jo Bang that Poetry is a shared social space. How does this connect to your personal philosophy as a poet and how has that influenced the way that you write poetry with children? What touches you most about teaching poetry to children?
Laura: What touches me most about writing poetry with children is how humanizing it is. When I visit a classroom, the students can briefly forget about grades, rubrics, and standardized tests. I am there to write poetry with them. That’s it! This gives them the freedom to write about their lives: their likes and dislikes, family traditions, and favorite memories. In the process of sharing their poems, the students begin to learn new things about one another and to see each other as full, interesting human beings. Often, children who struggle with writing for academic tests have the opportunity to shine as poets.
Jan: In your work with the Maryland State Arts Council artist-in-residence, you are described as a poetic master chef. What ingredients are essential as you prepare tasty morsels of words that even reluctant readers and writers will enjoy?
Laura: Ha! At the time, I was teaching an introduction to poetry course for CityLit Project called “Poetry Café.” After years of teaching, and reading so many wonderful poems by young writers, I have come to believe that children (and adults) already have the essential ingredients of poetry in our pantries. Much of my work is showing children that they already know how to create similes. Who hasn’t looked at the sky and seen a cloud that looks like an animal? They are adept at using onomatopoeia and hyperbole in their everyday speech. My job is to show them how to take what they already know and make a space for it on the page.
Jan: Tell me about your experience with the 2015 Thousand Poets for Change World Conference in Salerno, Italy this year. How did you become a participant? What amazed you the most about this conference?
Laura: It’s a long story. The short version is that I have been a 100TPC event organizer since the program’s inception in 2011. Every year, Michael Rothenberg, a California poet, invites people from around the world to host poetry events in their own communities during the last weekend in September. The events are streamed, photographed, and uploaded on YouTube for everyone to view and share.
Michael and his partner Terri Carrion invited me to attend the first gathering of 100TPC organizers this June. What amazed me most goes back to the Mary Jo Bang quote you shared. Despite our differences in culture and language, more than 60 poets from around the world came together to talk about poetry activism in our home communities. That was our common ground, something all of us were passionate about. I formed friendships with many remarkable people at that conference. I love waking up in the morning and seeing a Facebook message from a 100TPC friend in Malaysia, Israel, or India.
Jan: Someone told me you have story and advice for anyone involved in Pitch Wars. What is the story and what do you know now as a result of your experience?
Laura: I participated in the Pitch Wars author-to-author mentor program right before I signed with my agent. You can read the full story here: http://www.brenda-drake.com/2014/07/another-pitch-wars-alum-success-story-laura-shovan-joy-mccullough-carranza/
Online pitch contests aren’t always the best venue for quieter books. A flashy logline or premise tends to catch the agents’ eyes. But I’d encourage any submitting author to give Pitch Wars a try. Having an author who coaches you through an intense revision is invaluable. So is the sense of camaraderie among the Pitch Warriors. There’s a real feeling of “we’re all in this together.” When alumni of the program sign with agents or sell books, the whole community is there to cheer them on.
Jan: In your work as an editor of Little Patuxent Review what useful things have you learned that continue to enrich your current work as a poet?
Laura: Being on the editorial staff of Little Patuxent Review for the past five years has taught me countless things. Reading the submissions stretches me to think past my own poetic style and subject matter, because I want readers to stretch in the same way. When they open an issue of LPR, it’s because they are willing to try new things and be surprised by a poem, essay, or story. Editing the journal was also on-the-job training in the art of putting a full-length manuscript together.
Jan: What advice can you offer to a budding poet that would encourage him or her? What should you know if you want to be a poet?
Laura: Staying engaged with the literary community is the best piece of advice I have for any writer. Writing friends will be your beta readers and sounding boards. They offer a shoulder when you think you can’t handle one more rejection, and they are the people you’ll celebrate with when a poem is accepted or when you sell a book. Perseverance is important too, but a supportive literary community can help a writer find the stamina to keep working on his or her craft.
Jan: And finally, would you say a bit about your work this year with Howard County’s high school students through the HoCoPoLitSo writers-in-residence program?
Laura: HoCoPoLitSo’s long-running education program has brought many wonderful poets, people whose work I admire like Michael Glaser, Lucille Clifton, Derrick Weston Brown, and Joseph Ross, into our local schools. I am very excited about working with Howard County’s high school students this year. It is an honor to be part of that tradition.
Jan: How can people find your books, website, and blog?
Laura: Here are some links that should help. My new website should be up soon. It will be www.laurashovan.com.
My blog will be moving to that site. For now, it is “Author Amok”: http://authoramok.blogspot.com/
My books are available on Amazon:
LIFE IN ME LIKE GRASS ON FIRE: LOVE POEMS: http://www.amazon.com/Life-Me-Like-Grass-Fire/dp/0982003218/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1443043310&sr=8-3&keywords=shovan
(Also available through Maryland Writers Association: https://marylandwriters.starchapter.com/catalog.php)
MOUNTAIN, LOG, SALT, AND STONE:
THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY (pre-order):
All three are also listed on my Goodreads author page: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3564024.Laura_Shovan
About Jan Bowman
Jan’s upcoming story collection, Flight Path & Other Stories will be published by Evening Street Press, October 2015.
Brief Biography for Jan Bowman
Jan Bowman is winner of the Roanoke Review Fiction Award. Her stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, a Pen/O’Henry award. Her fiction has appeared in Evening Street Review, Uncertain Promise: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Creative Nonfiction, Roanoke Review, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, and others. Glimmer Train named a story as Honorable Mention for Short Story Awards for New Writers. Jan’s stories have been finalists or short- listed for the Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, The Phoebe Fiction Contest and So-to-Speak fiction contest. She is working on a new story collection, working title, Life Boat Drills for Children. She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory, and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a regular blog on her website on the writing life and interviews writers and publishers. Visit her website: www.janbowmanwriter.com or send her an email: firstname.lastname@example.org