#26: Kwame Alexander and Nate Marshall 2018
The Powerful Voice of Poetry, October 17, 2018
In this episode, Billy Mark, Kwame Alexander and Nate Marshall engage in a conversation about the power of poetry for children and young adults. Because of particular systemic and social issues within the literary communities, it can be difficult for some kids to gain access to books they want to read. They suggest poetry, as a form of activism today, can forefront voices that are normally not heard at the publishing “dinner table.” From spoken word, to vocabulary lessons, to balling on the court, Kwame and Nate explore what it means to dream differently as a “yes” person in this difficult, but ever transforming world.
- Rebecca Gonzales
- Rainatoga Meijer, Smiles and Sisters and Drama
- Alice Walker
- A. Van Jordan, Macnolia
- Jamila Woods
Ale Crevier (host): [00:00:00] Hey listeners! Welcome to season 2 of Rewrite Radio. We’re back with more treasures from the Festival of Faith & Writing’s archive, and some exciting changes, too. I’m Ale Crevier, and while I’m not the new host of Rewrite Radio, I’m today’s host. In fact, this season we want to highlight the many voices involved in every Festival, so each episode will be hosted by a different person. We’ve got some amazing recordings this season, and we wanted to get out of their way, so there won’t be any preliminary interviews, just simple introductions to the Festival session you’ll hear.
And now, Season Two of Rewrite Radio.
Ale: Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
Up today: creating cultural sanctuaries for young people, the power of words and the art of improvisation and revision.
I’m Ale Crevier, and I’m a student fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
On today’s episode, you’ll hear the poet and performance artist Billy Mark engage Nate Marshall and Kwame Alexander in both poetry and in a conversation about how art shapes communities and amplifies story and beauty in order to empower young people.
Nate Marshall is the director of national programs for the Louder than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival. He has won the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award, and his first book, Wild Hundreds, won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Poetry Foundation, and the University of Michigan.
Marshall has also released a rap album, Grown and edited The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. A poetry editor for Kinsfolk Quarterly, Marshall’s own work has appeared in journals including Poetry, Indiana Review, and the New Republic. Marshall has worked with organizations such as Young Chicago Authors, InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit, and Southern Word in Nashville. He is the founder of the Lost Count Scholarship Fund and a founding member of the poetry collective Dark Noise.
Kwame Alexander is a educator and author of 24 books, including the 2015 Newbery award winning novel The Crossover. In 2017, he earned a nomination for the NAACP Image Award for his young adult novel Solo and became the inaugural recipient of the Pat Conroy Legacy Award. Alexander has also received the Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor, the NCTE Charlotte Huck Honor, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and the Paterson Poetry Prize. His other works include The Playbook: 52 Rules to Help You Aim, Shoot, and Score in This Game of Life; Animal Ark, Booked, He Said She Said, and Rebound, the forthcoming prequel to The Crossover.
And now, Billy Mark talking with Kwame Alexander and Nate Marshall at the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Billy Mark: [00:03:50] [applause] So we were just about to walk up and come out here, and Kwame had a great idea, said maybe we should—we’re all poets here—maybe we should [pauses] do some poetry, some poetry. Does that sound like a good idea to you guys? [Audience laughs].
You guys wanna do this?
Kwame: I mean since it was my idea I should go last. [laughs]
Nate Marshall: Is that how it works? [laughs] Cool.
Billy: I did my part.
Kwame: So we’re all basically having a mini poetry slam.
Kwame: ...And you all will decide who the winner is.
Nate: Oh no, golly, I quit.
Nate: Ah, it’s not about the points.
Billy: It’s not about the points, it’s not about the points. It’s about the poetry.
Nate: True. Alright.
Billy: You're the judge.
Nate: Alright, I’ll read this. This poem is called “Finna.” Finna is my favorite word and I’m finna read you this poem:
So this one time I was finna say finna in a academic context and a voice in my head said, “Shouldn’t you be worried about using a word that ain’t a word? And I was like...word.”
[Audience laughs] And for a long time that was how I let my life happen. I let my mind tell me a million nos that the world had implanted in me before I even formed questions. I let my power be dulled by mah fear of fitting. But I [pause] remember a million finnas I avoided to get here. Like the day them dudes jumped me off the bus and I was finna get stomped out like a loose square. Or [pause] the day they got to shooting at the park, and I was finna catch one like an alleyoop. Or, [pause] the day my grandma died and my grades dropped and I was finna not finish high school, except I had a praying momma and good teachers and poems to write. I’m thankful for all these finnas that never were, and when I remind myself of who I’ve always been, I remember why my finna is so necessary.
Finna [pauses] comes from the southern phrase, “fixing to.” Like I come from my southern grandmothers. And finna is this word that reminds me about everything next, even when I’ve been a broken boy, I know Im fixing to get fixed. I’m finna be better. Every dream I have is a finna away from achievement. Each knew love I uncover is a finna I unfold. Every challenge I choose to meet and not let defeat me is a finna I fight for. My hope is like my language is like my people. It’s black and its brown and it’s alive and it’s laughing and it’s growing, and it’s alive. And it’s learning and it’s alive, and it’s fighting, and it’s alive, and it’s finna [pause] take on this wide world with a whole slang for optimism. Coo.
Kwame: [00:07:13] So the deal is with that poem, is that is a clear [pauses] representation of why poetry works and why it matters. You’re talking about maybe two hundred, three hundred words and you get a feeling for who this guy is, and what he’s made of and where he’s come from. But you also have a connection that you're able to make maybe through one of those words, or one of those scenes or one of the lines. And that’s what brings us all together, it’s what makes us more human because it connects us. Whether you agree with someone and their politics and who they are, you feel something, and you can’t get a better way to become more human without feeling something. So kudos to you on that poem.
Billy: So did you say you were going last or...
Nate: Well I’m done.
Billy: So I’ll go. I don't have many written down. So if you could help me out, we could be a little bit of a community here. I will say some words and then we’ll kind of go back and forth. Can we do this? Can we do this? [laughs] Alright. Ok so you guys start with a word.
Audience member: Next.
Billy: What is next is third. It’s first second and third. It’s a silver bangled star, shining from around my neck, a second place. It is not about the points, it is about the hang of the silver as it pulls my neck toward something more specific.
Audience member: Job.
Billy: The job and the love and the life is to hear. Is to use the ears, the ears on the side of the skull made of flesh and the ears inside of the heart that are carried by other hearts of sound that can reverberate through the written word and through the spoken word as they meld together.
Billy: And the dots of all of us, our eyes, small globes inside of our head looking at each other. From the distance we also feel and hear inside of us, constellations of our interior worlds that it only takes 300 words or less, and I think I’m at twenty-seven, twenty, thirty, I’m not good at math. Two hundred eighty nine, two hundred ninety, the stars continue to move from the roof to our minds to our hearts carried by each other. Three-hundred. Thanks. [Applause]
Kwame: [00:10:13] So what happened there… [Audience laughs] Is you have this whole improvisation taking place, which is what jazz is. It’s riffing off these things that matter to you. And poetry is about taking my personal and making it your business. And if I can do that, I’ve accomplished something.
Wow. I have a daughter—two daughters. One is nine, one is twenty-seven. When the twenty-seven year old was fifteen she wanted to go on a date. I said maybe when you’re thirty. My wife said do the thing that you do when you're trying to do when you're trying to understand the woes of the world. “Ten Reasons Why Fathers Cry At Night.”
[00:11:12] “One: Because fifteen year olds dont like park swings or long walks unless you're in the mall. Two:Because holding her hand is forbidden and kisses are lethal. Three: Because school was fine, her day was fine, and yes she's fine, so why is she weeping? Four: Because you want to help but you can’t read minds Five: Because she's in love and thats cute until you find his note asking her to prove it.”
Kwame: Six: Because she didn't prove it. Seven:Because next week she's in love again y’all and this time it’s real, and she says her heart is heavy. Eight: Because she yearns to take long walks in the park with him. Nine: Because you remember the myriad of whims and woes of desire. And ten: Because with trepidation and thrill, you watch your teenage daughter who suddenly wants to swing all by herself.
Billy: Well what a great place to start. Thank you for the idea to start here. So I hear in the poem that you read, “Finna.” I’m finna. And the tension between that being a word and that not being a word. And, and you know we talked about how you both have grown up surrounded by books. There is nothing new and foreign about the page and writing as a form of expression. But also growing around, hip hop and jazz and oral culture as well and things being passed this way. Where some words are not words and some are words. What’s been your relationship as people who've grown up surrounded by both of how you navigate the relationship between those two. Between the word—the spoken word and the page?
Kwame: So I grew up in a place called Brooklyn NY. And as a child, my parents would take me to poetry readings. And inevitably at these poetry readings there was a couple things happening. These poetry readings didn't start till 10 o'clock at night. The clubs were usually like these jazz clubs where there was a lot a smoke and a lot a ssss—questionable stuff going on. And the poets were people like Sona Sanchez, Aqui Mara Bui, Amiri Baraka and I’m think four and five year old kid in the back of the club listening to this poetry, listening to this jazz. And so I was able to sort of feel the energy and the rhythm of the music and the words, and sort of see the power of it. It was almost like going to church in a way. It was like going to church, and you felt—you felt something, and it was really powerful. And even as a child I couldn't articulate what that feeling was, but I could see how my parents were reacting and responding, and I could feel a little some of it. And I think that over the years, that has certainly impacted how I try to share my voice on the page and on the stage, in that type of—I guess—creating words, that sort of churchify, in that sort of environment; a call and response.
Nate: Yeah. I mean I think for me like, growing up, I sort of spent most of my time in two places when I wasn't in school. It was either downstairs in the basement where my grandma kept all her books and just sort of like digging through those books. Um, or on the basketball court, right? And I think both places for me were like just such sights of explosive language.
[00:15:30] And so in many ways the project of my life up to this point has been like one of listening to the language of both of those spaces and seeing where they intersect and seeing where they don’t, and just being kind of fascinated by it—just trying to understand, understand something of that, right? Yeah.
Billy: Yeah. I think about like when an MC says something really ridiculous, this face —mm— the stink face. How does this experience, something that is said out loud, how do you translate these types of experiences onto the page. Like at the beginning of your book through typography, would be one way. Are there other techniques you guys have as far as cadences or any other ways that you use to get these experiences that you feel in this churchified, oral experience onto the page?
Kwame: Yeah I don’t even know if I can articulate it, really, because my goal is—I’m writing for children—so my goal is to get children to want to read the books. I don't want to get them to have to read the books. I want them to want to read the books. So that requires me to say, well, what am I doing to ensure that this child is gonna be engaged in my story. So I gotta go back to what I was like at age 11 and 12. What would I have wanted to have read? Certainly not my father’s dissertations which I had to read. But I’ve gotta figure out some different ways to play with the language, to use the language. And certainly I’m not the first—like I don't have to reinvent or invent anything because it’s been done before.
So if you read the poetry of Langston Hughes, you will get the blues, you will get the jazz you will get the rhyme. Folks I’m telling you “birthing is hard, and dying is mean so why not get yourself a little loving in between.” [audience laughter]
Like if you read E.E Cummings, you will see the playful way he puts the language on the page and messing the words together and using the punctuation where typically we wouldn't expect it to be used. And having word slant. Like those are all kinds of things that I like to do that I’ve studied, and I would have liked to have seen as opposed to Tuck Everlasting in eighth grade.
[Audience laughs] I’m just saying. Like I ain’t judging Tuck Everlasting, y’all. But I’m saying I would have loved to have been given that book before Tuck Everlasting. Like make me want to read the next book. And so I wrote this one poem in The Crossover that is probably about twenty seven words. Tell me if you ever seen a poem like this. Cuz I borrowed it from someone. It’s a poem you can read four different ways. So you can read it diagonal or you can read it straight down and left column, or you can read it in the right column, or you can read backwards. I’m a genius. But I just straight bored that from Rebecca Gonzales a poet in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It took me seven days to write that poem. I’m assuming other people have done this.
And the last thing I’ll say is in The Cross Over, there are these vocabulary poems. I introduce these words like “pulchritudinous” that no fourth grader is gonna know and calamity. And the way I figured out that I was going to allow—let the children, readers know what it meant, was I wrote these poems. They're called “as in” poems.
“An unexpected, undesirable often physically injurious event. As in if my brother JV hadn't been acting so silly, he would have cut one lock instead of five and avoided this calamity. As in the huge ball patch on the side of my head is a calamity. And then after my game my mom almost has a fit when she sees my hair. ‘What a calamity,’ she says, shaking her head and telling my dad to take me to the barber shop on a Saturday to have the rest of it cut off.”
So we got a couple things happening there. We got a vocabulary lesson. We got a dictionary poem. I straight stole that from Van Jorden who did Macnolia.
Kwame: In Macnolia. So it’s nothing that um, it’s nothing new.
Nate: Yeah I mean similarly, right? So, one of the things that, one of the parts of my poetic education that I don’t really talk about in that people wouldn't know, was when I was like in middle school, two things: Number one, one of the first places where I started writing raps regularly was actually in my English class and it was because we’d do these vocabulary tests, and we had this long-term substitute named Mr. Mohammed and Mr. Mohammad would give us extra credit if we wrote a rap using our vocab words. And I got very into it—like way too into it. I was telling all my friends, “Alright y'all we finna all write these raps.” And no one else was really that excited, but I was very hype.
So that was one thing, but the other thing was around the same time I was becoming interested in hip hop and all these things, and sort of looking for community. And so, in that I’ve had the internet, and so I found these like hip hop forums online. And one of things that was happening in those is that people would like have like battles and post rhymes and do all this stuff, but it was all text. Right? But, in some ways that was the best poetic educations I could have had, was because what it made me do, is I had to—it was the first time I ever really thought about the rhyme. Line. Right? It was the first time I ever thought about, how does rhyme at the level of sight, at the level of the page, get translated into something oral. Or how kinda what you said, how do I recreate or proximate this experience that is largely an oral performative one, into one that can perform on a page. So those are the two deeply nerdy things about me, that like have shaped my thinking.
Billy: So there are forums out there where people are battling.
Billy: Yeah. Mhm, So you mentioned, so you play basketball as well. What position?
Nate: Aw man, I was like a two short forward, and a guard with ah, like no offensive skills. [Audience laughs] You know. But it’s all good. I was a very good defender.
Nate: Also had good grades which is important. So they—they were like well just put him on the team cuz he just raises the cumulative GPA.
Billy: So my question for you was, why basketball? Because after all of these now that you got from all of these different publishers saying, this is a book about basketball, like no thank you. No, I don’t wanna read it. Why did you say yes to a book about basketball?
Kwame: Well, for a couple reasons. One is you gotta, as a writer, I believe, that I gotta be able to write what I like, what I wanna write about. You know? Like that’s the first rules. Be authentic. Um, and I wanted to write about basketball. Why did I wanna write about basketball? Well, most young people have some relationship with basketball, or know someone who plays it, they know of it. And so I knew I wanted to tell a story about family and friendship and loss and love. And I knew I wanted sports to be the metaphor or the hook. And so it just made sense. And I love basketball. I can’t play, like I’m not that good. I could probably beat Nate. [Audience laughs]. Nah, I’m not that good.
Nate: Defensive game.
Kwame: Truly a struggle. But I liked basketball enough. I know it. I played it in eighth grade, so I know it. [Audience laughs]. So yeah that’s why.
Billy: So both of you, your works and your books, are directed toward middle schoolers. And you have worked in and with Louder Than A Bomb as a participant and then coming back as a director. I guess first the general question would be, what’s the connection between your personal work and this sense of community building and culture shaping, if you like see all these young people being influenced by your work. Um, could you just tell us a little bit about where personal expression meets thinking about how the future is shaped?
Nate: [00:25:33] I think for me, I was—I came into poetry and came into literature as a young person right? Like, I’m in many, the analogue of the students that I work with now. I’m, you know, their forebearer in that respect. And so, for me like, it like I don't really make a distinction between those two, between those things as projects because I think my art making has always been connected to like spaces that are build to empower young people, give young people—offer young people platforms, and offer young people space to be creative and odd and find other like creative, odd, interesting young people who are interested in being kind of like civically engaged or artistically engaged. So yeah. I don't know. In many ways I just don't even know what my art making looks like divorced from those spaces.
Kwame: [00:26:41] I was in Singapore talking to a group of students. Seventh graders. And I talked about saying yes to life. And was reading poetry. And it was a great connection we were having. And I shared this story about getting rejected and all of this. And so, when I got back to my hotel, a teacher sent me a note saying, “Go, check your facebook page.” So I checked my facebook page and there was the principal of the school who posted a note that said: “My son came home and this is the note he wrote, and so she took a picture of the note.” And the note said from a seventh grader : “For my entire life, I have been a say ‘no’ person. My mom says clean your room. I say, no. She says, do your homework. I don’t want to. I just don’t generally like to participate in anything. In life.” And he said, “And then I listened to Kwame’s speech today, and all the struggles and the challenges he went through and how he said yes. I came right home and read The Crossover.” I think I wanna be a say yes person, right?
I think writing for children in particular, like I’ve made that realization, I’ve come to that realization that this is activist work. We’re not just about entertainment. This is intelligent entertainment. Like, we really have in the palms of our hands the capacity to mold and shape these kids into something beautiful or not. Like it’s in our hands as teachers as educators and parents and adults. And so I take that responsibility seriously. And I mean, that doesn't mean I’m trying to be didactic and I want to teach. Like I want to create texts that are going to illuminate and make possible the dreams of young people that imagine a better world. And I believe it’s possible to do that. And I find that to be a very, you know—that’s my way of being an activist.
Billy: Right. And thank you for that story too. Is there a story that you have of a specific young person who has come up under you, and that you have walled with that you say in your mind, “Yes this is why I work with young people”?
Nate: Yeah, I mean. I think, one sort of stands out probably because like he’s like aggravating me in my phone right now. There’s this kid named Jaylen who’s a young person in Chicago. He goes to my old high school and he’s sort like, has been—he came into our programming when he was in eighth grade. So we both sort of have that in common that we both came into the program when were super young. And has been on fire—And I got the chance to work with him sort of starting then up until now. And then this past year—he’s a junior in high school now so he’s like looking at colleges and thinking of what he wants to do. And he’s become very infatuated with like, Vanderbilt University where I went to school.
[00:29:57] Which is super—which is very funny, and I like talked to his parents about it. And they’re like, “Nate he just wants to be you but he just won’t say it.” Which like he shouldn't be me, he should be like—he is far better already, and will continue that path unless something goes terribly wrong. So I’ll keep you posted. But I had an opportunity to do a reading at Vanderbilt this February, and I had the chance to take him. And I said, “Yo come down with me” and go to sort of walk him through the campus where I spent this really important time in my life and introduce him to all of my old professors and my old provost and all of these people. And there was something about that moment where, that makes me think about like, for the students who go through our program and matriculate to college, and even the ones that won’t like, there’s a way that I think that some of the work that we do, hopefully enables young people to begin to see pathways for themselves, and then begin to be able to craft those futures that they want to live in. And I’m always excited about you know whatever part I can play and help him facilitate that, is an honor.
Kwame: And so the deal is with that, is this is why we were talking and I was like, you gotta write for kids. Because books can do exactly what you just said. Books have the capacity to allow kids to find their pathways. You know? And so, all the kids need to have an opportunity to not only see themselves in the book, and see what’s possible, but they also need to be able to see the other kid in the book. And see what that kid is made of. Like all the kids have to have the opportunity to read the books. This idea of segregating books. I’m sorry I’m not gonna—
Nate: Do your thing. Yeah. […]
Billy: So I have a question for you then. So as you transition from, um, one Kwame going on a bus on thirty different stops with your books, twenty-five books, and reaching young people that you do right now to now transition into working with the imprint. What does this transition look like for you, what is your vision for this, to move from one person connecting, but also starting to work with and find other authors to connect with?
Kwame: That’s a great question. So I think, for the past hundred plus years of publishing, I kind of view publishing as having been this dinner party. And great food is served, they got drinks, but maybe like four of the chairs at the dinner party are empty. I just want to bring more people to the table to fill in those chairs. Like I wanna be in an audience and see someone like Nate, and be able to look past what generally is our limited view of humanity. I ain’t judging us, this is just how we’ve been raised. I want to be able to look on the stage and see Nate and say, “Wow, this is what it looks like for somebody to have an impact on a child’s life where the child wants to become them.”
This is what the power of language and literature is. I want to be that guy to say, “Hey, you got a book? Holler at me.” I want to bring more people to the table.
Billy: Thank you. So you were a participant in Louder Than A Bomb, went away, did your thing, came back. And now, can you tell us about your role there and your vision for that?
Nate: Yeah. So I’m the Director of National Programs. I say that because like anyone who’s ever worked in nonprofit knows that you have a title, and then there’s the job that you actually do. Which is really like whatever needs to be done. And so sometimes I’m the professional taker out of trash and, like, locker up of space after open mic are over.
[00:35:30] But in that role specifically, a lot of what I do is correspond and travel with our partners across the country and beyond. So we have some partners in Canada and Trinidad and a couple other spots internationally. And I help those people sort of plan and imagine what is possible in terms of building capacity for the kind of work that we do for literary engagement and performance work and all that. What is possible for that for young people where they live who are potential partners. And then I also help build curricular tools. And yeah, and all that. So.
Billy: You had mentioned, you want kids to want to read books and not just dissertations and this idea of access is a part of that. And like, for, we had talked about, there could be a great open mic. It’s a fantastic place, where, when somebody invites somebody else to this open mic, the other person—I’ve seen this before—is like, “Thank you for bringing me to this place.” And it gives them access to a whole new way of expressing themselves that they may not have known they could do. And the same thing happens with books. Speaking with Louder Than A Bomb, what does it look like for—to create spaces where there’s access to those spaces because some people can’t access those venues, geographically?
Nate: Yeah, well it’s making those venues robust and available where they already exist. But then also thinking broadly about how to do that. I think very much about how to sort of build a network within the context of a city or a region, how to build a network of cultural sanctuaries where young people can come and share and be together. And build these sort of literary cultures, right? And often that can be a school. Like I’ve seen that happen in really wonderful ways in schools. Like we have schools where I think that the culture in those space has begun to shift to where the kids who are a part of the spoken word club have a similar sort of social cache to the football team or the basketball team. And that’s incredible.
And that’s sort of so unimaginable to me as like a young person who when I came into high school and started playing basketball for half the season I lied to my teammates. One of them asked me, “I heard you write poems.” I was like, “I don't write no poems.” [Audience laughs] That’s crazy. I can’t even spell poetry. And so to see that sort of cultural sift is incredible.
And I think imagining what are the spaces where that can take place, be it a school or be it a community center, or be in a store front, or a for profit business, a restaurant or whatever. Thinking broadly about how we can have sort of multiple sights of education and they can be both formal and informal educational spaces.
Billy: Yeah, I just love this network and this expanding of access through that network, and also with what you talk about with that imprint, this expanding and opening of different authors and different people being able to access.
Kwame: Cuz the books are also a network, right? And the access is much wider. Whether you can afford to buy the book or not, there are these things called libraries. But your librarians have got to understand that all the kids deserve all the books. You know what I mean by that?
Let me be clearer. [Audience laughs] I wrote a book about two frogs who were going to the beach. One frog is reading Moby Dick and cant put it down. The other frog is upset because he wants to go surfing. It’s called “Surf’s Up.” Their names are Bro and Dude. Right? [Audience laughs] So the book came out. It’s a picture book, and I was doing a signing in Minneapolis. Librarians are in line, this librarian comes up. And she’s like, “Hey youre book is really good. Um, I’ve got some black kids in my library and some white kids. And I need to know who I’m gonna share the book with, so can you tell me what color the frogs are?”
[00:40:39] [Audience laughs] What? Uh, aight. And people in line were, like...looking like. And so I said, “Look, your question is much more interesting than any answer I could ever give you.” [Audience laughs].
Billy: Oh that’s fantastic.
Kwame: The books are already there, they will do the work, they will give the messages we need whether its Mo Willems, or Jacqueline Woodson or Alice Walker or Nuruda or Naomi Shihab Nye. The books will do the work for you, but you gotta be opened-minded enough to realize that all the kids deserve all the books. I’m excited to be able to now publish books that represent the kind of world we claim we want, and the one that we live in. So yeah, I wanna publish novels. I’m not just interested in poetry. I love poetry. I want to publish novels, I want to publish poetry, I want to publish non-fiction, I want to publish middle grade YA. I want to publish good books by good writers. Right? That ultimately understand that we’re in the business of helping children imagine a better world.
And so, I have this thing that I believe, that books are like amusement parks and kids gotta be able to choose the rides. And so I say this a lot in my speeches. So my daughter was in the audience one time. And she was like, “That was a cool quote.” And so we were on a flight to Dubai. And it was maybe eleven hours. And I was like you’re not gonna be watching the screen the whole time. So you gotta read for four hours and then you can watch the screen for the rest of the time, which was really generous. That’s seven hours of games and movies. And I was like you gotta read for four hours. So she immediately pulled out Rainatoga Meijer’s graphic novels, Smiles and Sisters and Drama. And I was like no you can’t read graphic novels, that’s not gonna work, you not reading no comics. You gotta read Brown Girl A Dreamin’.
Billy: Some lit-ra-ture.
Kwame: You gotta read some lit-ra-ture. Exactly. I need to see some words on the page. I want thirty, forty thousand words minimally. So she looked at my wife and she said, “Daddy doesn’t believe the things he says in speeches. [Audience laughs] I thought books were amusement parks.” And so I ended up letting her read the graphic novels. I have no idea how that story began.
Billy: So I think we have a few minutes for some questions or comments from the audience. I think there’s a microphone right here. So, do I? We have a hand right back up there…
Audience Member 1: Thank you. This is for Kwame. I appreciate so much you sharing your story. Obviously a literary house, the experience you had in words early on. You became a, I believe, in myself personally, and I believe its shared by everyone on the platform there—But how did you know that God was saying yes to your vocational choice as well as you saying yes. Especially when there were so many names out there that could have been speaking to God and forcing you to make a hard choice.
Kwame: The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. Cuz of faith. That’s really all you got.
Nate: Hebrews 11.
Kwame: That’s it. I mean, if you believe in yourself, and whether you believe in God or a higher power or the Creator. And you believe in yourself and you believe there’s someone that believes in you, that’s it. Like that’s the point? If you are gonna sort of falter at that belief or at that faith, it’s really not faith. I’m not saying it’s not hard or there are sometimes you doubt or you weary or you’re upset. But ultimately you gotta come back to that thing that you believe in. Does that answer the question?
Kwame: Yes it did. My mother my father my first grade teacher Miss Wilson made me read a hundred books and gave me a t-shirt that said, you read a hundred books. I mean Nikki Giovanni. Thank you for that question.
Billy: Do we have another question. I see people pointing at somebody else so I’m not seeing...there.
Audience Member 2: Question for Nate. I just finished reading BreakBeat Poets and was presenting it on it a couple months ago in my grad program and I was just wondering if you would talk about what the process of curating that collection was like, working with two other guys. And finding kind of okay how do we, for better or worse, how do we define this genre in a collection.
Nate: [00:45:27] Yeah, it was crazy. It was crazy. So yeah, I edited this anthology with two colleagues of mine, two homies of mine. It, number one, it took a long time. Like we probably started and set out with the idea around 2009 and the book came out 2015. So it was really like a five year process. Sort of from inception to execution. It was really like in many ways a trial of endurance.
Especially for me, this was very much a process that I think I was flying the plane, as I was building the plane as I was learning how to build the plane and fly the plane. Because when we, again, when we started this project I was an undergrad. And had these ideas and had these notions and had these sort of like fights with my main poetry professor that produced some of my intellectual thought about this stuff. I think it was such an interesting process because as we were building that collection I was growing a tremendous amount as a poet and as a person. And in many ways, a lot of the people who make up that collection, especially the younger folks from that collection, are very much—they were sort of growing into themselves as the thing was coming together. And probably at least a dozen poets in that book, since the book came out have like released a first collection or have won a major award or have been nominated for a major award. So it was cool. It’s very strange now to see it as a sort of...Because for so long in my life, it was this thing that was so new that it didn’t actually exist yet. And now it is like a past project. And it’s sort of becoming dated that’s very beautiful, but I still find deeply odd.
Kwame: Can you tell us what the books about?
Nate: Right. Fair. Good point. Right. So the book is called The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. And it’s a collection of about eighty poets ranging from folks born in like the sixties all the way up to people who are about college age now. And I think what it kind of attempts to do is sort of document poetry, and contemporary poetry and how that has been sort of shaped as a conversation, as an art form by the genre and the culture of hip-hop. So you know there are a ton of poems and a bunch of essays in there sort of about craft.
Billy: I think we got about five minutes left, am I right on that, too? So, somebody right there.
Audience Member 3: I’d like to ask, since it was a concern about young women from publishers reading your basketball books or books that have basketball in it—great lover of basketball here—so I kind of awed at that statement. But now I’m curious, so how has it gone over with the young women.
Kwame: So thank you for that question. I think for the most part publishers lack vision.
Nate: Sorry for any publishers in the room. [audience laughter]
Kwame: I said for the most part. All the people here have vision or they wouldn’t be here. So I think publishers, like I talked about the dining room table, the dinner party. It’s been the same dinner party for a hundred years. Which is not a judgement, it just, it is what it is. That’s how we’ve been nurtured and developed. And it’s sort of the same pipeline.
[00:50:04] It’s time to sort of free it up, open it up a little bit. You know? Let it breathe, mold it, shape it into something sweet, something new. And so, I think maybe that was just an excuse given, because nobody could wrap their hands around a basketball novel in verse for middle school kids with boys with the characters written by a six foot four black man.
Maybe it was just whatever they were dealing with and that was one of their excuses. Because I felt and knew differently, and the proof is in the pudding that probably more girls have read the book than boys. Because girls are smarter than boys and generally it takes a little bit longer like Gary talked about earlier? He had to think about reading The Crossover. But I think a lot of girls have read the book. Including my nine-year old.
Nate: Both my older sisters are better basketball players than me. Now I’m just reflecting on that.
Billy: Right? Some research for the girls too, I mean if it’s a story about boys and the way they think. Know your enemy.
Audience Member 4: I was wondering if you could each give one quick prompt, help, idea. I work with young moms on the West Side of Chicago. And part of their culture is no books in the home, no books in the library. It’s very hard to get them to read to their children, and they feel inadequate with words and books. But we try some literary things. But I want to just jot down some helpful things to bring back.
Kwame: To the parents or to the children?
Audience Member 4: To The moms. So we’re talking twenty-four and younger with an average reading ability of fourth and fifth grade.
Kwame: Well I’ll start first. I’m gonna sound like a broken record. But I think poetry is an answer, I don’t know if its the answer, but I know it’s an answer. From my twenty five years of experience, I have seen that the white space is very non-intimidating to ESL readers, to kids with dyslexia, to kids who aren’t interested. Like all that white space says, “Ok, I can get through that page, I have some think time.” I posit that poetry may be an answer. I think because it’s dealing with these heavy emotionally weighty sort of topics, but it’s doing it in a way that you can actually get through it, that you are going to perhaps connect with the message. Maybe we can find a book of poems, and there are so many poets out there. There are eighty poets in Nate’s poetry book alone.
Nate: And we missed poets.
Kwame: I mean there’s just tons of poets. And so what the poem does I believe is A, it triggers a voice. B, you get through that poem or that page or that book or that ten pages and you’ve built confidence. I think poetry can be a bridge. I think it can allow young people, it can allow any of us to crossover. See what I did there? [audience laughter] It can allow us to cross over into an appreciation of language and literature.
Nate: I like how the product placement was immaculate. [Audience laughs]. I think I agree deeply. I would also say, that one of the really interesting things about the moment we’re in in contemporary poetry, there’s a number of poets who are excellent performers or readers of their own work. And there’s other visual materials being produced around poetry. And those poems are published and on the page. And so, I would think about like, youtube videos of poets like Patricia Smith or Damez Smith or Jamila Woods or whomever of them reading their work and also getting that work also on the page. That might almost as a kind of modeling—you know if part of what you’re trying to make happen is them read to their children, almost like model that for them via that kind of engagement. I think like finding ways they can engage and finding literature that’s engaging for them. And poetry’s a really good way to do that.
Billy: Well thank you guys so much for your time and thank you for your work.
Ale: [00:55:04] Huge thanks to Kwame Alexander, Nate Marshall, and Billy Mark.
Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.
Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
You can find more information about the Center and its signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at ccfw.calvin.edu and festival.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes—and leave us review to help others find this podcast. Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more from the Festival archives.