Arnold Adoff is a poet’s poet. His latest volume, Roots and Blues: A Celebration, explores the African-American experience and how the blues evolved out of it, but it can also be viewed as an autobiographical portrait of the vital importance that music and African-American culture have played in Adoff’s genesis as a writer. As he writes in “Chained,” “Always: this melody of words is journey home.”

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Combined with illustrator R. Gregory Christie’s arresting acrylics, Adoff’s sonorous, spatially oriented poems powerfully depict the roots of this essential American genre in this book that we called an “incandescent, important work.” With nearly 40 volumes under his belt, the 75-year-old Adoff is happy to talk about his own poetic development.

What was in you first, music or poetry?

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Well, for me personally, I discovered girls and poetry about the same time. And I was about 10 or 11, so I was always in love, and I was a really serious reader—Shakespeare’s love sonnets, for example, at a pre-pubertal age you know was just a crazy thing, but my house was full of books, and that was one of the things that I grabbed a hold of. Frankly, it was a time when there were one-sided shellacked phonograph records, mostly classical music, but even Scott Joplin’s stuff that my grandmother, who lived in the same apartment building in the Bronx, collected.

But the radio was my opening to the world because it was not the rigid format that it is today. The DJ would play anything from one extreme to the other, from any and every genre. And listening to New York City radio stations at a young age, when I was up late at night studying for an exam or getting away from studying, all of a sudden I would be down in Mississippi with the Five Blind Boys, listening to gospel. Kids and adults don’t get that anymore today. But the whole world was open to me...

At a very young age, I fell in love with jazz. There was a jazz bassist composer, a genius named Charles Mingus, who I met when I was an undergraduate at City College in the early 1950s. He tolerated me, and he became in my life really a second or third father. I’ve had three fathers: my own father, who was a pharmacist; a wonderful Filipino-American poet named José Garcia Villa, who was a professor at The New School and who I studied with intensely back in the early ’60s; and then Mingus—in fact, I met my wife [the late Virginia Hamilton] and the whole jazz world through him back in the late ’50s, so my evolution was at once recognizing the universals, and then highlighting the differences and developing my own voice, as the cliché goes.

Elizabeth Bishop said her favorite example of iambic pentameter was “I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down.”

Oh, that’s sweet. I never heard that. I used to be a fan of hers when I started.

How influential do you think the blues has been in American poetry?

That’s the hardest question you’ve asked me. I think from my perspective, as somebody who’s a white kid, who’s also been married to a black woman and lived in black culture and has two biracial kids, I always see the hole rather than the doughnut, or the glass half empty. That’s part of my nature, and maybe that’s the way poets should be. So I always see a separateness of African-American and Eurocentric cultural particulars.

I really think if you’re a writer and you’re listening to something or reading something that you say is recreational, it isn’t really just recreational. If I go back to William Blake and to Whitman, to Cummings and Dylan Thomas, I’m happy to put them—from my conscious perspective—alongside Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, and then go back to Big Bill Broonzy, as I was getting radicalized as a young teen.