tracie vaughn zimmer’s poetic pachyderms

#14 in the Poetry Potluck Series, celebrating National Poetry Month 2011.

Take off your berets and put on your party hats!

It’s Tracie Vaughn Zimmer’s birthday! 

Len brought me these elephants from Kenya.

What is it about April? So many cool poets have birthdays this month. Yesterday was April Halprin Wayland’s birthday, and Kelly Fineman’s was on the First. They all just happen to be in very good company: Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Gary Soto, Seamus Heaney, Lee Bennett Hopkins. And while we’re celebrating notable events, let’s tip our hats to Tracie for the recent release of Cousins of Clouds: Elephant Poems (Clarion, 2011), which is absolutely gorgeous!

Like Tracie, I love elephants. Her poems examine their enormous size, affectionate parenting, loyalty to one another, complex relationship with humans, anatomy, voracious appetite, place in art and history, and are paired with fascinating sidebars. The poems vary in form (free verse, cinquain, sonnet, haiku, letter poems) as well as sentiment, and will definitely make you appreciate elephants in a whole new way.

I asked Tracie why she chose to write about elephants and to tell us a little about her process:

Tracie: I saw a program about urban elephants on PBS (of that title, I believe) and really fell in love with their majesty and plight. From there I just started reading everything I could get my hands on about them. When I first tried to start writing about them in poems they were heavy and clunky, because I was trying to stuff WAY too much information into each poem. When I finally found the non-fiction sidebar format (THANK YOU, Joyce Sidman) then it seemed to fall together. This, of course, after dozens of revisions. Children seemed so much more connected to animals than most adults (my daughter, especially) and I’m thrilled to share this collection with young readers (and like-minded adults, too).

by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

The elephants line up
like kindergartners
before recess:
trunk to tail,
twelve in a row, waiting for the ringmaster’s cue
to begin the parade
around the ring.

The first elephant carries
a woman in a beaded costume,
perched on a silk-embroidered saddle
thrown over the crisscrossed
map of its skin.

After discovering a popcorn bucket
with a few stray kernels inside,
the elephant squashes it —
making the giant bracelet of bells
around its ankle.

The jewels around the elephant’s face
flash in the colored lights,
but the ginger jewel of her eye
haunts me,
even in sleep.

© 2011 Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. All rights reserved.

I don’t think we ever outgrow the wonder of seeing a grand parade of elephants entering the big top — so majestic! What do you see in an elephant’s eye? 



Completely divine,
muddy chocolate sublime
splattered onto my skin —
better yet, I’ll dive in.

© 2011 Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. All rights reserved.

It’s such fun watching elephants bathe. How they love water and mud! Sheer bliss! The “muddy chocolate sublime” is especially wonderful, is it not? Actually, I’m not surprised Tracie used that reference, since she’s a certified chocoholic. Seems she has a penchant for Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Caramel squares! ☺

Now, I’m as hungry as an elephant and so happy Tracie brought along some down home, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food. We thank her for sharing her family’s favorite casserole. Yum!

Tracie: It started as a recipe for stuffed shells but honestly, as a teacher and mom I just don’t have time for the extra step. I throw all the ingredients together and use a smaller pasta. It has the exact same flavor and it’s a lot less work. We call it CHEATIN’ SHELLS since it cheats on the original recipe (and the work)! I just made a triple batch for all the cousins for my mom’s birthday a few weeks ago.


Bag (or box) of preferred dressing/stuffing mix, prepared
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup
2 cups shredded, cooked chicken
1 box small shell pasta, cooked and drained
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 to 1 cup chicken broth (save from cooked chicken)
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Combine all ingredients and pat into a casserole dish. Heat on 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Add cheese to top in last five minutes. Easy to double (or triple) for guests!

All I can say is that Tracie must have a lot of cousins if she made a triple recipe. This is a good sized recipe as is. Or maybe her family is especially voracious. Judging by the utter deliciousness of this casserole, it’s easy to see why. Cousins of Clouds → Cousins with Shells. ☺


Tracie Vaughn Zimmer is a critically acclaimed author, poet, teacher, and literacy specialist. She’s published two thematic poetry collections, a historical novel, and three verse novels for middle grade readers. Reaching for Sun (Bloomsbury, 2007), about a seventh grade girl with cerebral palsy, received the Schneider Family Book Award. Tracie is also known far and wide for the hundreds of children’s and young adult’s Teacher’s Guides she’s created, which are available for free on her blog, Wild Geese Guides. She has presented at NCTE, ALA, and IRA, as well as other conferences and schools across the country.

Besides Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Caramel squares, Tracie loves chicken and dumplings, Oregon vanilla chai tea, Mary Oliver’s poetry and men on moors (Heathcliff! Oh, Heathcliff!). All very drool worthy, but we love Tracie’s books best of all. Find out more at her official website. Do not miss the fantastic Teacher’s Guide she wrote for Cousins of Clouds. There’s an interview, oodles of questions for discussion, mini-lesson ideas for each poem, and tips on writing narrative poetry.


♥ Tracie’s poem, “Fantasy,” was recently featured at GottaBook’s 30 Poets/30 Days. The title poem from the book, “Cousins of Clouds,” was featured there in 2010. Absolutely stunning!

♥ Tracie also has a poem in the newly released PoetryTagTime e-anthology compiled by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong.

“Elephants are useful friends: they have handles on both ends.” ~ Ogden Nash

*Spreads posted by permission, text copyright © 2011 Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, illustrations © Megan Halsey and Sean Addy, published by Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved. 

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