Darren Sardelli knows what response he’ll get before he even poses the question. “How many people don’t like poetry?” he asks the fifth- and sixth-graders at an assembly at the Rushmore Avenue School in Carle Place.
A galaxy of hands shoots up.
Then the 38-year-old from Long Beach confesses that he was once just like them. “I thought poetry was dull. I thought it was boring. I thought poetry was just for girls.”
The kids laugh, liking this cool guy in the jeans and untucked button-down shirt, who looks like he’s 25 and is as animated as a talk-show host. He tells them about when lightning struck — when, in college, he read “The Cat in the Hat” in his dorm room. “This book made me laugh so hard I fell off my chair and almost banged my head on my desk,” he says.
Now, he writes poetry all the time — funny poems about school and childhood and other kid-friendly subjects that have been published in books such as “I Hope I Don’t Strike Out! And Other Funny Sports Poems” and “My Teacher’s in Detention: Kids’ Favorite Funny School Poems.” He’s also published his own book of poems called “Galaxy Pizza and Meteor Pie,” and is coming out with a second book this year called “A Bridge to the Moon” with 100 more funny poems in it.
Sardelli travels to schools on Long Island and beyond — he’s been to eight states, the farthest being Texas — with a shtick called “Laugh-A-Lot Poetry” that is part performance art, part motivational speaking. And now, he’s offering poetry-writing workshops for kids at the Long Island Writers House in Huntington. The next sessions are at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Sardelli grew up in Smithtown. He graduated from St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington in 1995 and then Loyola University in Baltimore with a degree in business management. But rather than becoming a titan of industry, Sardelli says he’d rather follow the path blazed by Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. “I was fascinated by how they made everything rhyme and made everything funny, too. I wanted to try writing in that style,” he says.
Sardelli will often write a poem that’s like a riddle; kids have to listen to figure out by the end what he’s talking about. Many of his poems have a punchline meant to make readers laugh, he says. “Some of my poems have twists. I love to trick the reader,” he says.
Here’s an example of a short poem with a surprise ending, called “A Call from Principal Schaefer.”
Principal Schaefer took my gum
and brought me to the office.
As we were walking down the hall,
I felt a little nauseous.
She called my mom at work and said,
“Your daughter broke a rule.
Although she is a teacher here
she can’t chew gum in school.”
Sardelli reads his poems to the kids at the Rushmore Avenue School assembly in his trademark way, adding gestures, leaping, spinning. After reading “If I Were a Door,” in which he bestows on the door human characteristics, he explains to the kids, “I like to take ordinary objects and try to make them exciting and fun in my poetry. There’s always a way to spice things up.”
He asks the kids to use their imaginations to guess why he has a poem entitled “Our Grandma Kissed a Pumpkin.” He runs through the audience with his microphone. Kids guess, “Grandma didn’t have her glasses on and thought it was Grandpa,” or “She was making a new recipe and it required kissing a pumpkin.” It turns out her grandson was dressed as pumpkin for Halloween.
Then there’s the motivational segment of Sardelli’s work.
“How many of you have ever had a great idea?” he asks the schoolchildren. Hands go up again. “How many of us forget our ideas?” More hands. Sardelli holds up a black-and-white marble composition book. “This is one of my idea books,” he says, telling them he has more than 100 in which he writes down ideas that strike him for poems, short stories, inventions.
“One idea can change my life and change the world,” he says. Then he makes the kids repeat. “One idea can change my life and change the world,” they say.
“If you don’t have one, go out and get an idea book and a pencil,” Sardelli says. “One day, when you’re ready, do something special with your ideas. You can do anything you set your mind to. On the count of three, let’s all say, ‘Work hard and never give up.’ ”
Kids seem to get Sardelli’s message.
“It was pretty inspiring how he told his story of how he became a writer,” says sixth-grader Ava Lopes. “I liked the personification. He made some things that were really plain very interesting. Like the door. I think he really inspired a lot of kids here to write.”