Dear Poetry Friday friends,
My heart is broken. My dear friend and collaborator, the poet Michael Rothenberg, passed away on November 21.
Michael and I were already close friends when, in January of 2020, the art therapy he was doing took a whimsical turn. Instead of the usual abstract image, Michael created an adorable blue monster blowing green bubbles. I wrote Michael a monster poem, hoping to bring a smile to his face. He was delighted. And then he sent me another monster.
Almost immediately, we started thinking about doing a book together. A concept began to take shape. The poems described children interacting with Michael’s monsters, most of whom represented an emotion or state of being: fear, curiosity, self-love, sadness, isolation. “I like the idea of encouraging readers to sit with a feeling and then let it evolve,” I told Michael, writing about the poem “When I Cry.” “Not to brush the sadness away or deny it, but to see it as part of the whole range of emotions.”
He likened our process to performing his poetry accompanied by live music. “It’s all about my relationship with [the] musicians,” Michael said. “We’re in it together.” I told Michael, “I just let the ideas come. No judgement.” He replied, “It is the only way for me. The imagination stays flowing that way.”
Welcome to Monsterville will be published this May (Apprentice House Press). Michael was enormously proud to be the illustrator of a children’s book, especially one that might help families cope with grief. My own grief is compounded by the knowledge that Michael won’t be here to celebrate the book and enjoy seeing children reading it.
He was an incredibly generous person, an social justice activist and mentor to poets around the globe. If you have time today, please read about this amazing human being.
When I Cry
from Welcome to Monsterville, by Laura Shovan
illustrated by Michael Rothenberg
There is a monster in me called Sadness.
Its arms and legs ache.
It is weary, as if it spent all night
walking across steep mountains.
There is a monster in me whose hair
stretches from its head in tangled rivers,
flowing fast—like the thoughts
that keep me awake.
When I cry, Monster weeps.
Tears crawl on fuzzy legs down its cheeks.
They tickle! Monster laughs
until its teeth turn pink.
Can I laugh too, even though
I am sad? Yes, Monster says.
You’re a weary, silly, laughing,
weeping, wonderful creature.
Thank you to Tabatha Yeatts-Lonske, who first published this poem in Imperfect II: poems about perspective: an anthology for middle schoolers.
Laura, I am so sorry for your loss. I love this poem and the whole idea of your collaboration. What is better than poetry with art? I will present this poem to my students tomorrow. I will add that the poem is expressing grief in a safe way and how making monsters that speak for us may help us express our own inner monster. Thanks for all you do. Hugs.
Margaret, thank you. It’s hard to believe that just a few days after our NCTE presentation — including this poem — Michael was gone. I love your note that poems can express grief in a safe way. Can’t wait to hear how the workshop went with your students. Love you!
What a beautiful concept! Love the Monster illustration and this poem is wonderful. It is heartbreaking that Michael will not be here to celebrate the book.
Thank you for reading, Menka. Michael’s illustrations are so charming and we had many long conversations about them and the poems. I will miss him forever.
Sending you hugs, Laura. Thank you for sharing your poem and the accompanying monster. Michael was a tremendous talent. I look forward to enjoying “Welcome to Monsterville” when it is released.
Thank you, Bridget. Yes, he was a talented poet and also had a remarkable talent for connecting people, and staying connected with friends. I’ll keep you posted about the book.
What a great sadness his loss is for the world and for you in particular. I’m so sorry he won’t get to see Welcome to Monsterville launched, but grateful the two of you created this work of love for child grievers together.
Oh, Tabatha. I’m so sad. My heart is just heavy these days. But it’s a gift to me that we did this book together.
So sorry, Laura, and such a loss for the entire children’s poetry community and children. What a beautiful monster, showing its sadness so openly and truthfully, hair flowing “in tangled rivers.” Can’t wait to see this book.
Thanks, Janice. Isn’t this image raw and powerful, but also somehow safe?
I am sorry for this terrible loss, Laura, for you and all the world. There was a piece I heard on NPR yesterday about the differences between adult and children’s grieving. Your poems with Michael’s monsters sounds as if it will fit a need for many.
Thank you, Linda. I am going to look for that NPR piece. Michael and I believed that children and families would resonate with this book. I would love for that to be true — that his illustrations and the response poems I wrote speak to a deep need in kids and their grown-ups.
Sorry for your heartbreaking loss, Laura. Inspiring and serendipitous that you and Michael found this unique way to collaborate on this wonderful project. Grief and other emotions can be tricky/ hard things to talk about with kids, and the two of you seem to have found a great way of doing it. I’m sure this book will be appreciated by many.
Thank you, Jama. I hope that this book will be a safe space and a conversation starter for children and their adults.
Even reading your sorrow, I can tell Michael brought you great joy, Laura. I hope that part of him will remain with you, and that you will sit with both the grief and the joy in his honor. Thank you for sharing more about him. I will look forward to reading more of your collaborative work in May.
He did! Thank you for saying that. I am so looking forward to sharing this book. Doing my best to breathe through my emotions right now.
Sharing your grief over losing a great light in the world, who (as you described to me) brought his fully attentive self to each relationship. May this book be a celebration of Michael’s life wherever you take it, Laura!
That’s so true, Heidi. So many people felt a special connection with Michael. That was one of his great, human gifts.
What a loss, but what a gift he was to you and to the world. His legacy lives on.
Thank you, Mary Lee. I hope Michael and Terri’s 100 TPC organization and his “Read a Poem to a Child” initiative continue for many years to come.
I am so sorry for your loss. Devastating. How lucky you were to collaborate with him. How lucky are we to be waiting for this collaborative book.
Thank you, Jone. It was such a joy to work on this book with Michael, especially during the most difficult days of the pandemic.
I am so sorry about the loss of your dear friend. His monster is a ” a weary, silly, laughing,/
weeping, wonderful creature,” as I suspect Michael was. I’m looking forward to reading more of your poems inspired by his lovable monsters.
Thanks, Catherine. I just got our publication date: April 25.
Laura, while I am late to respond, I want you to know that condolences are being sent for a wonderful man. I am sorry that he will not be here when the book is published. May his memories always light up your life. Your poem is a way to brighten anyone’s day, especially those who are grieving.
Thank you for your kind words, Carol. I hope this book helps children and their adults find some light when things feel heavy.