WHAT THE HEART KNOWS: A Conversation with Joyce Sidman

Congratulations on your new book, WHAT THE HEART KNOWS, Chants, Charms and Blessings.  It’s a beautiful collection of poetry for young people, and one that should find its way into countless classrooms.  There’s so much here for readers, writers, and teachers.  Did you have that in mind when you wrote the book? 

Thanks so much, Sheila!  I sincerely hope that WHAT THE HEART KNOWS will find its way into classrooms.  As a poet-in-the-schools, I am always thinking of teaching when working on a book.  I’m always hoping to connect with those young poets: to inspire them to write, and to plant more poetry in their classrooms.

What was your inspiration for the collection? 

Chants have always entranced me, especially those (Inuit, Navajo, Dinka) that use words to call forth the beauty and power of nature.  I love the "Apache Dawn Song" that Kenneth Koch uses as a teaching model in his book Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? and have always by fascinated by the thought of “chanting” things into being.

The book opens with an epigraph by Mary Oliver: “If you say it right it helps the heart to bear it.”  Could you talk a little bit what that means to you as a writer? 

This phrase, for me, sums up the whole reason we write: that if we can only find the right words, we might be able to understand, endure, and even love this world.  The right words might capture the essence, the truth of life as we know it.

What are the challenges in writing poetry for young people? 

For WHAT THE HEART KNOWS, the challenge was to keep the focus on the mindset of a young adult.  The book became deeper and more serious as I was writing it.  I originally envisioned it for younger reader—a bit more light-hearted and magical.  But its themes became my themes, and I had to make sure, as I progressed, that I kept the focus on teens instead of 50-somethings.

So many of the poems in this book speak to the truth of young people’s experience, but they aren’t exclusive to the young—for example your poems about illness, or moving, or deep attachments and loss.  At the same time, the book feels intimate and personal—there’s a real sense of the poet on the page.   How much of your own experience did you bring to the poems?  Do you have an awareness of the book speaking to readers of all ages? 

I wasn’t intending for the book to be so personal, but it became a revisiting of past and present challenges: wrestling with bravery and body image and emotional fallout.  Some poems sprang from specific memories: places I loved, jobs I’d had, people who influenced my life.   In other poems, I had to reach outside myself.  For "Illness: A Conversation", I went to Minneapolis Children’s Hospital and interviewed Child Life specialists there to make sure I knew what teens worry about when they face serious illness.

One of my favorite poems in the book is TEACHER.  It’s an exquisitely written tribute to the power of a teacher in a young person’s life, and made me think immediately of the teachers I had loved, but also of the many teachers whose classrooms I’ve share over the last twenty years.  Was that poem inspired by your work in the schools or by a teacher in your own life?  

Both, I think.  As a child, I LOVED my teachers.  They meant SO much to me—opened worlds for me, taught me to think and feel, validated my yearnings.  I especially loved my English teachers, but there was one math teacher who really, really tried with me even though I hated math.  He almost got me believing I could do it!  In addition, as a visiting poet, I've been in the classrooms of some superbly dedicated teachers: teachers who hold their students in their hearts, every day.  And I remember being in your poetry classroom, Sheila, when I was just starting out--you were so wonderful with those young writers, so inspiring!

You’ve given us a wealth of wonderful poetry, Joyce.  Is there a reason you continue to return to the form?  What possibilities does poetry offer? 

I love the brevity and power of poetry, and the way, through metaphor, it connects everything to everything else. I love the way it can celebrate the humble things, the odd or overlooked things, and make them fresh and amazing.  I love the way it captures those moments of epiphany: when we suddenly realize something deep and powerful.  It's been my natural mode of expression since I was a teen, and I think at this point, it's the way I look at the world.

What do you hope for this book? 

I guess what one hopes for any book: that it delights, inspires, and comforts its readers.  That it makes those readers feel they are not alone.  That it somehow unlocks their hearts and lets them feel deep, important things to help them on their journey.

ABOUT JOYCE: Joyce Sidman is the winner of the 2013 NCTE Award for Excellence in Children's Poetry, which is given every two years to a living American poet in recognition of his or her aggregate work.  She is the author of many award-winning children’s poetry books, including the Newbery Honor-winning Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, and two Caldecott Honor books: Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems (also a Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award winner) and Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors (which won the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award).  She teaches poetry writing to school children and participates in many national poetry events.  Her recent book, Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature, has been critically acclaimed and is a Junior Library Guild Selection.  Joyce lives with her husband and dog near a large woodland in Wayzata, Minnesota.  http://www.joycesidman.com/




  1. Thanks Sheila, I really enjoyed this interview and getting to know Joyce through her poetry.

  2. Lovely! Can't wait to check out this book...

  3. Thanks to you both. Joyce is such a major talent, and she has such a keen sense of what speaks to young people.

  4. Can't wait to read this book...and the cover is beautiful!


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