the bridge builder
An Interview with kwame alexander
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Kwame Alexander is a Newbery Medalist and the New York Times bestselling author of The Crossover, Booked, Solo, and others. The first season of his show #bookish, which details "Kwame's books, fave authors, and the literary happenings of his entourage" wrapped in mid-December. He received the 2017 Inaugural Pat Conroy Legacy Award, and is the co-founder of LEAP for Ghana, an international literacy program. Follow him on Twitter at @kwamealexander and Facebook at @KwameAlexanderBooks. More information can be found at kwamealexander.com.
TMR: When speaking with NPR, you discussed how your love of literature was gone around fifth grade because your father had you read large, educational tomes and it seemed to suck all the fun out of reading for you. You said that a great deal of the reason why you came back to books was wrapped up in poetry, and it's a form that you celebrate for being able to say so much with so little. What was your first exposure to poetry, and how did you come to love the form?
KA: My first exposure with it was my mother reading it to me as a child. I discovered it in children's picture books: Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein; I had this exciting, engaging, and fun relationship with poetry as a three year-old.
By the time I was in middle school, I had been exposed to not only those books of poetry, but I had been taken to poetry readings in Brooklyn that my parents' friends were giving—sitting in the back and not really paying attention, not wanting to be there, but nonetheless being immersed in poetry and in literature.
In middle school, when my father had me read his dissertations and historical tomes, I certainly wasn't interested. I just wanted to be outside with my friends. The books were in our garage, and I'd sit on a crate and read. What I found is that I would put his "boring" books down, and I'd find these slim volumes, 20-30 page, saddle-stitch books of poetry written by a bunch of different poets from the Harlem Renaissance, or the Black Arts movement. I'd read these poems and they were five, ten, fifteen lines.They were powerful, and funny. They were clever, full of wit, and I could finish a book in twenty minutes and understand most of it, and have gone through this range of emotions. I was just wowed by it.
The more poems I discovered, the more I found that maybe there's something fun and cool about reading. For me, it's poetry. It never left me.
TMR: Do you have any advice for writers that aim to be where you are?
KA: I've been doing exactly what I wanted since I started this thing. Have I always been making money doing it? No. Have I always had a line of three hundred people at a book signing? No. Have I always had publishers willing to publish my books? No. But I've been doing the exact same thing for twenty-four years. My point of view, my perspective, my mentality, my attitude towards this was always yes, I can do that, and I'm doing it.
At my first book signing, which was in Los Angeles, there were seven people in the audience, and five of them were friends and family. I approached that event the same way I approach events now, where it's standing room only.
I just stuck with it. And so the laws of the universe sort of demand that if you stick with something for twenty-four years, eventually you're going to have more than seven people in the room. Because if you stop, then you're not. The only advice I have is: You just gotta do it. You gotta do it if you're passionate about it. And if you're passionate about it, you gotta do it until you can't do it anymore.
You just gotta do it. You gotta do it if you're passionate about it. And if you're passionate about it, you gotta do it until you can't do it anymore.
If you love it, you'll do it. And the universe wants to see you succeed. You just have to do your part, and part of that is learning how to do what you do really well, and doing it—putting in the work, whether it's one year or twenty-four years. I can't tell you how many people say, "Oh Kwame, you're an overnight success." Yeah, I'm a twenty-four year overnight success.
TMR: The Crossover alone took you five years, right?
KA: It was five years of work. It was five years of working nine to five at a job, five years of getting laid off and my wife saying, "You have to find a job," five years of "I don't know if this writing thing is gonna work out," five years of getting the book rejected by every publisher on earth, five years of never doubting that it was the best thing I ever wrote.
Would I get disappointed when I would get a rejection? Heck yeah. Did I think maybe this would never be published? Pretty much. But I always knew it was the best thing I ever wrote. If it came down to it, I was going to publish it myself. You have to keep doing whatever you're doing.
My daughter was trying out for basketball. She's nine years old. She said "Dad, they raised the basket. It was ten feet tall." She's been practicing on a nine foot goal, because that's what her coach told her to do to develop her form, she said, "The goal was so high and I only made one out of five. I don't know if I'm gonna make the team." And I said, "When you didn't make a shot, did you stop or did you keep trying?" She said, "I just kept trying." I said, "You know what? If you stop trying to make the shot, you're never gonna make the team. If you keep trying to make the shot, you're gonna make the team. Because the coach is gonna see that you do not give up, and that's what's important." When you're a parent, and you make what you think is a profound statement, you kind of expect your child to be like, "Wow, thanks Dad." But no, my daughter was like, "Yeah, that's probably not gonna work out for me."
The thing about it is, she's really good. Of course she was going to make the team. You've gotta drill it in your head, over and over.
Which leads me to my point: nine out of the ten people who were writers in my circle back in the nineties are not writing now. They're all doing other jobs, and they were so passionate back then. It's a cruel and harsh world out there. And if you haven't gone through this life being told, being reminded, being shown that you gotta keep shooting, then eventually you're just going to walk off the court.
TMR: Right after the 2016 presidential election, The Atlantic did an interview with Poetry's editor Don Share about why poetry is so important. He stated that "what poetry does is it puts us in touch with people who are different from ourselves. And it does so in a way that isn't violent. It's a way of listening. When you're reading a poem, you're listening to what someone else is thinking and feeling and saying." As a poet, what has your experience been with this?
KA: I don't think just poetry does that. Music does it. Prose does it. I think the beauty of poetry is that it's so short—it's taking these really powerful things that are going on in the world and your life and distilling it into such few magical words that each are chosen for this particular revelation. It's immediate, that's what it is. It's the immediacy of poetry that allows us to become more human. It's not the only form of art that does all these things, but it's the most immediate.
It's the immediacy of poetry that allows us to become more human.
Which is why, I think, The Crossover and Solo and all these other books I'm writing are really connecting with young people, because it hooks them immediately. It's a bridge. It allows them to cross over into an appreciation of literature in an immediate way. Teachers, librarians, parents, we all love that because it does what we want to do. We want kids to want to read, and poetry does that.
TMR: What is most important about encouraging a love for reading in children?
KA: Let's not spend a whole lot of time trying to tell them why it's important, trying to use all these different ways of trying to convince them that they should read when we have the easiest tool: The idea of modeling, of just showing them, is a really great metaphor in terms of poetry—which is all about showing and not telling.
I'll do a speech at a conference for librarians and teachers, and the title might be something like "How Poetry Can Change Your Students' Lives" and the speech will just consist of me reading poetry that makes them laugh, that makes them reflect, that makes them upset, that makes them cry. Essentially, during the 45 minutes of the speech, the members of the audience will go through these emotions and will have these connecting moments and feel something that we hadn't felt. At the end of the speech, I'll say: "How you all felt today listening to some of these poems that I've shared is exactly how your students are gonna feel when you introduce poetry into the classroom." You have to ask yourself, is that something you're interested in doing? Because it works.
Read poetry to kids that's going to be exciting, that's going to be accessible. You don't have to do a whole lot. Poetry is out there, you just have to find it. Give it to them, and watch the magic unfold.
TMR: What is the appeal to writing poetry books about sports?
KA: My daughter is playing lacrosse and basketball and soccer, and I played basketball and baseball as a kid. Generally every kid in middle school has some connection or relationship with sports. Whether they're playing it, their siblings are playing it, or they're going to the games. Sports is a huge part of their life, and so that becomes a connection. It becomes a hook and the jump off point for us to then have a discussion around things I want to talk about: family, friendship, crushes. Ultimately, I want middle school kids and up to read this book. What's going to be a way that I can do it, and they're going to be able to connect with it immediately? The perception is that poetry isn't going to connect, because we're all afraid of it. Sports gives me that opportunity to let them walk through the door and feel okay.
The perception is that poetry isn't going to connect, because we're all afraid of it. Sports gives me that opportunity to let them walk through the door and feel okay.
And the next thing, the biggest thing, is it's a huge metaphor. Sports are a huge metaphor for our lives. The things I'm really writing about are not about sports. That's just a vehicle I use to travel on this journey to better understand who we are, who our friends are, what's important in our lives, and so forth.
TMR: Rebound, a prequel to The Crossover, is coming out on April 3. What has it been like, writing the book? Why did you decide to go back into that world, but into the past?
KA: I wasn't done with writing about JB and Josh's father. I wasn't done with the character, and many of the readers weren't done. They were begging me, almost demanding, that I continue the story, so I had to figure out the best way to tell the story in a way that was authentic for my storytelling interest. For me, it was me writing about their dad when he was twelve years old, and telling his story about how he became who he became, which gives some insight into how the boys became who they became. It was a great process. I started writing it about two years ago, and actually just finished it a few weeks ago.
TMR: When discussing Booked, you've said it's not an autobiography, but that there are elements of truth in it. Were there any autobiographical elements that you drew from while writing Solo?
KA: Ghana. I've been to Ghana seven times. I'm building a library in the eastern region of Ghana, so this novel gave me an opportunity to write about my love for that country and its people. In each book I try to pull from my experiences, things I've observed, and try to incorporate that into the book. Each book has a little bit of me, and Solo certainly is no different.
I think the whole goal of art is, as artists, to make our personal your business. If we can do that, then we accomplish something.
TMR: Do you think that art, particularly poetry, can make the world a better place?
KA: Absolutely. We can have this shared experience around a text, song, poem, film, or a book, and this shared experience that we have doesn't segregate us. It doesn't divide us. We all feel the same way. We laugh, we cry, we hope. We smile, we love. We do that, all of us. If you can find a piece of art that can bring that out in us, then that's a connection. And I think, to the degree that we can then allow that to carry over into our lives, that's pretty magical.
I recently did an event at the Savannah Children's Book Festival, and there were four hundred people in the audience, maybe. Three hundred were kids. And you've got people from all across the racial spectrum, various ethnic backgrounds, different genders, religions, and we're just having a blast. We're out there reciting poetry, doing a little call and response from some of the books, and they're responding. And there's this moment where I look out and I just see this big sea of beautiful, hopeful, loving faces. And in that moment, we're all one. We're all connected by these words that open a world of possible for each of us. Nobody's thinking about anything but that.
To the degree where we can make that our lives, that's my goal. To give you that kind of experience, and then to hopefully have you feel like, "This is what I like. This is what I want to do. This is who I want to be." Ultimately I think art in general, and poetry in particular, has this capacity to allow us to become more human.