MISSION ACCOMPLISHED GIVING POETRY A PUSH

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Author and educator Nikia "Niki" Leopold stands before a window in her spacious country kitchen. Surrounded by barn-wood walls upon which hang an extended family of skillets, she grinds fresh coffee beans, brews a pot and pours two steaming mugs.

There's time for coffee and conversation on a midwinter Friday afternoon, a pause during another day of writing, sketching and reflecting for one of Baltimore's more multidimensional talents. After receiving her undergraduate degree in art history from Smith College and a master's from Columbia, she studied seven years at Johns Hopkins University for her Ph.D., only to follow other muses. "I liked the library part of art history," she says, "and I liked the visual part. What I did not like is the pressure part, the pressure to publish."

Yet, publish she would. She earned another degree in 1986, this time a master's of fine arts in poetry from the vaunted Writing Seminars at Hopkins. When she applied for a position to run workshops for the Maryland State Arts Council's Poets in the Schools program, she was required to have poetry published. And so, her delicate and thoughtful lines found their way onto the pages of journals, quarterlies and the popular press.

In her early-morning hours, she climbs a narrow staircase to her loft above the garage, where she writes verse and illustrates her growing library of picture books. Her first published volume, "Sandcastle Seahorses" (Galileo Press, Ltd.), is an enchanting volume of prose -- accompanied by black-and-white sketches -- about a family of seahorses. She calls it a "gentle adventure" about learning to leave the safety of home.

Seven other storybooks have made the journey from the post office to the desks of publishers. An eighth volume, an alphabet book, will make the rounds, too. It is entitled "A is for August: A Beach ABC," and it is a whimsical recounting of a day at the beach.

As a teacher, Ms. Leopold conducts poetry "mini-workshops" for elementary students for the Maryland State Arts Council's Poets in the Schools program. She also describes herself as "informal faculty" for the Hopkins School of Continuing Studies, encouraging adults to find poetry within themselves. This semester, she also is teaching a continuing studies course in the creation of picture books.

She shares her thoughts and life with her husband of 24 years, Dr. Bruce Leopold, a psychiatrist at Sheppard Pratt Hospital. The Leopold home in Ruxton abounds with books, framed photographs and the couple's own artworks. It is a home where ideas propagate.

Q: When do you get your best ideas?

A: Sometimes before falling asleep. The idea for the border of the "H" page of the alphabet book came to me then. "H" is for hot, and there's a big sun on that page. The idea came to make the border an arrangement of little melting ice cream cones.

Q: I'd describe your drawing style as realistic. When you draw children, do they resemble children you've known in your life?

A: Oh, yes. For "Sandcastle Seahorses" I took pictures of kids in the neighborhood and made drawings from the pictures. I also went to Rehoboth that summer and walked up and down the beach. When I saw cute kids sitting on the sand I asked their mothers if I could take some pictures.

Q: Has the fact that "Sandcastle Seahorses" was published increased the chances for your other books?

A: Not that I can tell. (She laughs.) When I contact publishers now, I always write this of "Sandcastle Seahorses": Now in its second printing!

Q: Is there such a thing as a "good" rejection letter?

A: Yes. I got into the Writing Seminars at Hopkins on the poetry I had written plus I sent along my best rejection letters. They served as recommendations.

Q: What would a "good" rejection letter say?

A: We appreciate your submission and have given everyone a chance to recommend it. We think your writing is strong. We would be receptive to seeing a re-edit and a resubmission, and we would certainly enjoy seeing more of your work.

Q: Have you learned from rejection?

A: Yes. I've taken some of the suggestions seriously and benefited. Rejection can be thought of as free professional advice.

Q: With seven manuscripts "out there" as you say, how do you keep track of them?

A: Oh boy. That's a really Byzantine, labyrinthian process. I have a folder for each story. I chart when a story goes out and when it comes back, and the circumstances under which it comes back. Was it a note or was it a form letter?

Q: Why don't we see more poetry being published in the popular press?

A: People are afraid of poetry. They think they aren't going to understand it. They're intimidated. And that's one of the reasons I like teaching poetry in the schools. When I first go in, I always ask the children "Do any of you hate poetry?" And sometimes I will get hands up and groans. But by the end, it's a wonderful feeling to have a class leaning forward, waving hands, answering questions. Poetry is a part of their education that gets slighted.

Q: How do you unlock the space in a child's mind where poetry lies?

A: I ask them questions, like, "What do the stars sound like?" The most amazing answers come back. The answer, according to one child, is "little ice cubes clinking in a glass." Another said "crickets on a summer night."

Q: What is good poetry?

A: It's something that helps you see things in an entirely different way. It helps you discover something you might have felt but couldn't articulate. . . . It's a way of bringing in touch . . . a way of taking yourself seriously.

Q: What do you get from teaching poetry to adults that you don't get from children?

A: Actually, the themes are not so different. Some of the children can write very effectively about difficult things: sorrow, anger, divorce. All sorts of troubling things. I think the children have more raw imagination, more ability to swing a simile. Adults are more self-conscious, and they're serious about this work. To the children, it's more of a game. Their poetry is more playful.

Q: When you're at a party and someone asks what you do, do you describe yourself as a poet?

A: Well, no. That still sounds sort of strange to me.

Q: How do people respond when they learn you write for children?

A: Everyone seems to enjoy that, and everyone seems to have an idea for a children's book tucked away.

Q: As a writer-illustrator, what comes first and easiest: words or pictures?

A: The words come first. And they're so often descriptive that pictures come soon afterward.

Q: It must be great fun to walk into a bookstore and see "Sandcastle Seahorses" on a shelf.

A: I can't always walk into a bookstore and find it, because Galileo [in Sparks, Md.] is a small publishing house and the book hasn't been distributed everywhere. But I went to a library last summer, and found it, with a little white strip on the back cover. I was so pleased someone had taken it out, and I told the librarian so. She told me we could get a printout of how many people had read it, and it turned out the book had been taken out 400 times. Oh! I shed some tears over that.

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