Kenn Nesbitt loves his job. As a poet for kids, he travels the country to visit schools and give interactive workshops and assemblies about poetry. The children’s poet has already visited more than 60 schools around the country this year. “It’s a blast!” Nesbitt told TIME over the phone, as he was on his way to visit another elementary school. “There’s nothing more fun than actually getting to perform my work and write with a couple hundred third-graders.”
That passion is one reason that Nesbitt, 51, was named this week as the children’s poet laureate of the United States by the Poetry Foundation, an organization based in Chicago, Illinois. So what exactly does a children’s poet laureate do? Nesbitt laughs when presented with the frequently asked question. His primary duty, he explains, is to crisscross the U.S. as the top cheerleader for poetry among youth. He will give several public readings for his young readers and their families, as well as advise the Poetry Foundation about children’s literature. He will serve in the role for a two-year term.
“Poetry does have a tremendous impact on kids,” says Nesbitt, a true believer in the potential of rollicking rhymes. “It has a power with kids that other kinds of writing might not. A poem can pack a lot of emotional punch in just a few lines. Children’s poetry is typically not more than one page or two pages long. And yet, within that one or two pages, kids can get a really strong positive emotional response that encourages them to want to read another poem.”
A Poet’s Life
Nesbitt wasn’t always a professional poet. He began his fulltime writing career after 20 years in the computer industry. Nesbitt, who grew up in Fresno and San Diego, California, now lives in Spokane, Washington, with his wife and their two teenaged children. He says that he “loved poetry as a kid, but we didn’t study it in school. I don’t remember ever reading a poem in school, and I certainly didn’t write it.”
So Nesbitt pursued another passion. “When I was in high school, I absolutely fell in love with computers,” he says. “I taught myself how to program.” He went to National University in San Diego and majored in computer science. He then worked in the computer industry from ages 25 to 42, working at Microsoft for two years and owning his own software company.
The multi-talented programmer started writing humorous children’s poetry as a hobby, after hearing a recording of Shel Silverstein reciting his poem, “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout.” After his first book of children’s poetry was published, it grew into a second career, and Nesbitt’s life as a children’s author was launched.
The playful poet’s work (see a sample of his poetry below) now includes numerous books of poetry for kids, including The Tighty-Whitey Spider, My Hippo Has the Hiccups and Revenge of the Lunch Ladies. It can also be found in hundreds of magazines, textbooks, and anthologies internationally and on his website, poetry4kids.com.
Who does Nesbitt himself read when he’s not writing or traveling or entertaining rooms of excited young poetry converts? Adult poets like W.B. Yeats or W.H. Auden? Nah. “I don’t really read adult poetry,” Nesbitt says. “I write children’s poetry, honestly, because I like to read children’s poetry.” So bring on Nesbitt’s hilarious verse. A classroom of kids is waiting.
I HAVE AN AMOEBA
I have an amoeba I keep as a pet.
Today is his birthday; I didn’t forget.
I baked him a cake so incredibly small,
a microscope’s needed to see it at all.
This miniscule morsel’s so meager and scant,
it wouldn’t suffice as a snack for an ant.
There isn’t a flea this confection would feed;
this particle pastry is paltry indeed.
It’s infinitesimal, barely a speck.
I managed to frost it with less than a fleck.
I topped it with candles of miniature size,
to give my amoeba his birthday surprise.
At last it was ready; the cake was all set,
And just the right size for my single-celled pet.
The candles were lit. It was perfectly frosted.
I set the cake down, and I instantly lost it.
© 2009 Kenn Nesbitt. Published in The Tighty Whitey Spider by Sourcebooks. All Rights Reserved.
For the past five years, Kenn Nesbitt has judged the TFK Poetry Contest. Click here to read the most recent winning rhymes. Click here to watch Nesbitt read a poem from his latest book of poetry, The Armpit of Doom.