In conversation with Kwame Alexander
Newberry Prize-Winning children’s poet discusses process, praxis
Considering Kwame Alexander generously agreed to talk at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, it wouldn’t be unusual if his responses were a bit subdued. Yet somehow, even at that hour, he spoke with electricity and conviction about his poetry and the passions behind it.
Alexander’s poetry is — at its roots — an invitation. Though written from personal experiences with blackness, his book’s doors are open to any child who loves soccer, harbors a crush or just has a lot of questions. With 21 books under his belt, Alexander has honed his poetry to function as meaningful praxis.
Alexander tours extensively, discussing both his own work and the ways in which poetry can revitalize education. He will be coming to the Virginia Festival of the Book March 22.
Cavalier Daily: Have you been to Charlottesville in the past, and, if so, are you looking forward to returning?
Kwame Alexander: Yes, I’ve spent a lot of time at U.Va. when I was in college at Virginia Tech. I played on the tennis team and came down to parties. In my professional life, I participated in the Virginia Festival of the Book three times before, I believe. It’s always a great opportunity to see some of my writer friends and to meet the enthusiastic crowds that come to the festival. I am quite looking forward to it. Plus, my eight-year-old loves the buffet at the Omni.
CD: Given that this is being published in a college newspaper, I’m wondering — how would you describe your process for writing children’s literature? What are some things you’ve learned from trying to empathize with children? Has it affected how you think as an adult?
KA: You know, I took a children’s literature class in college and what I remember most is to write from your experience. Remember your childhood and build from there. When I write for kids, I try to be as authentic as possible. I write for me. I try to remember what it was like for me to experience — you know, a first crush. Or somebody steals your toy. Or your parents have an argument. And when I write from that experience, I’m being as honest as I can. I figure, if I like it, if I believe it, then there’s a really good chance that the reader is going to believe it and like it as well. So that’s my go-to for writing children’s literature. Be myself, be authentic, don’t try to talk down to them, don’t try to talk like them, just be me and hope that there’s some kind of connection that’s going to be made.
CD: Do you think that there are ways in which you try to challenge children in your poetry and written words to think more deeply?
KA: Certainly. I think I have some goals in mind. I feel that I have a huge responsibility as a writer to impact young readers in some significant ways. So, first and foremost, when I write a book for public consumption, I want young people to want to pick up another book after they finish mine — I want them to engage … I think, secondly, when I write a book, I want my young readers to be inspired in some way … I want them to be a little more inspired by the reading and the writing process. I think, thirdly, I really want young readers, when they finish a Kwame Alexander book, to feel empowered. I want them to feel like they have to know the rules to the world and perhaps they might want to break some of them … Especially in this time and age, where we find our country, that they have the power to resist … For me, it’s three things — how I make the reader engaged, inspired and empowered; to not only make the world a better place, but also to become more human.
CD: So, why poetry? In these days people are turning to songwriting traditions and rap music, specifically, for largely the same ends. How can poetry hold its own?
KA: It’s saying a whole lot in very few words. It’s allowing us to look at some of the more heavy and heady things that are happening around us and deal with them and cope with them and digest them. Poetry is so concise and so rhythmic and so figurative. I mean, we can handle it — it’s so sparse, we can take it. It’s small doses of electricity that we can handle. That’s the beauty and power of poetry, especially as [it] relates to young people — because they’re not intimidated by it. So few words on the page. Let’s use poetry as a bridge to get children not only entertained by the words on the page, but again, more engaged by the reading and writing process.
CD: What are some ends that could be achieved by making poetry more socioeconomically and racially diverse? You’ve talked about how poetry can help young people process their feelings — do you think that can have a larger social impact?
KA: Yeah, because when you talk about a nation, a nation is a bunch of communities. A community is a bunch of families. A family is a bunch of people. How do we make people become more empathetic? How do we make them feel more connected to each other, even if they may not look like each other, may not sound like each other [and] may not live in the same neighborhood? I think words have the power to do that. Books are mirrors … but they’re also windows — they allow us to look outside and see how other people who live in different [sorts] of worlds may exist. I think that allows us to be more connected to each other. So that’s where it starts — yeah, it’s a larger social impact, but it starts in ourselves. It starts in our hearts — it starts in our heads. Poems can allow us to travel to the places of possibility and connection and remembrance.
CD: That’s the extent of my questions. Are there any other points that you want to touch on?
KA: I’m excited to come to Charlottesville, to debut my book “Out of Wonder”, a book celebrating all the poets who’ve inspired me and many others — poets like Robert Frost and Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson and E.E. Cummings and Rumi and Maya Angelou. So I’m excited to be able to share this new book, which I hope is going to allow people to find their own wonder on the words on the page. I’m looking forward to it.