When Kenn Nesbitt was kid, car rides didn’t include a Nintendo 3DS and an iPad.
“I have two brothers, and we would fight a lot in the car,” said Nesbitt, who’s 51. His dad learned pretty quickly what would get their attention, he said.
“He would just start reciting ‘Casey at the Bat,’ ” Nesbitt said of the baseball poem that was written 125 years ago.
That poem and many others fascinated Nesbitt as a child, but he said he didn’t think that poetry could be a career. He is now the author of 11 poetry collections, and this week the Poetry Foundation named him children’s poet laureate.
“I never, never intended to be an author,” Nesbitt said from Spokane, Washington, where he lives with his wife and two teenage kids. “Even through college, I hated writing.”
He studied computer science in college and worked as a software developer.
But as an adult, he discovered the poetry of Shel Silverstein, who wrote the popular “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”
Nesbitt liked Silverstein’s work, but he said the inspiration to write his own poetry came from a 4-year-old.
He was out with friends and noticed how their little girl refused to eat her dinner. Later that night, while listening to a Silverstein recording of “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take the Garbage Out),” he had an aha moment.
“I thought, ‘I could write a poem about a girl who wouldn’t eat her dinner,’ ” he said.
His poem, “Scrawny Tawny Skinner,” got a positive reaction from friends, so he wrote another and then another.
“After 50 or 60 poems, I thought, ‘Gosh, I should send them to a publisher,’ ” Nesbitt said.
He soon had three poems published in an anthology, which is a collection of several poets’ works. Nesbitt’s first book of poetry, “The Aliens Have Landed,” appeared in bookstores in 2001. Two years later he gave up software to write full time.
Nesbitt said he has a simple goal in writing poetry for kids.
“I just want them to laugh,” he said. “I’m not trying to deliver a message. . . . I want to give them something so funny that they can’t not read it.”
His themes are familiar — school, games, pets and family — with a slightly wacky twist. A recent one, called “Xbox, Xbox,” is a love poem to a video game platform.
Nesbitt posts many poems on his Web site, Poetry4kids.com. Visitors to the site can vote for their favorites. He said online ratings keep him humble.
“If I read a poem to a bunch of kids, they’ll all tell me they like it,” he said. “But if I post it on the Web site, they’ll tell me what they really think.”
In addition to writing, Nesbitt visits lots of U.S. schools to talk to kids about poetry. Next year he will include stops in China, South Korea and Egypt.
As poet laureate, Nesbitt has a few duties: He will hold two poetry readings over the next two years and choose a poetry book each month to highlight on the Poetry Foundation’s Web site.
But he has a bigger vision.
“I would like to see if I can find a way to convince schools or teachers that they should take one minute out of their day to read a poem,” he said.
“It doesn’t take long before the kids have to have poetry.”