Award-winning poet Kwame Alexander talks about Black writers who inspired him
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Kwame Alexander is an award-winning poet, a bestselling author of 38 books, most recently of "Why Fathers Cry At Night," and now he has curated a new collection of poems by other contemporary poets, his peers. It is called "This Is The Honey," and I'm just going to let him tell you about it. Kwame Alexander, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.
KWAME ALEXANDER: It's so good to be here, to be with you, Michel.
MARTIN: You describe this book in various ways, and they're all true. I mean, it's - you called it the in-between. You called it a gathering space for Black poets to honor and celebrate. And you called it an unbridled selfie. So say more about what you had in mind when you put this together.
ALEXANDER: You know, when I was 12, we were living in Virginia, and I - my job was to clean out the garage every weekend. And my garage was a library. There were about 100 crates filled with books. And I discovered this one book called "BlackSpirits," edited by Woodie King, a festival of Black poets in America. I read this book and couldn't put it down. There was this one particular poem in there - I got up this morning feeling good and Black, thinking Black thoughts, did Black things like played all my Black records and minded my own Black business. Put on my best Black clothes, walked out my Black door, and, Lord have mercy, white snow.
ALEXANDER: I was so fascinated by...
MARTIN: Can I just - for those who can't see us, you are reciting. You are not reading. You are reciting from memory.
ALEXANDER: That's how much the poem and that book of poems meant to me. And it inspired my imagination. It elevated my imagination, the power of language. I've always wanted to do an anthology of poets who are living, contemporary poets, and I thought this was the right time.
MARTIN: You say this at the very beginning, in the introduction, where you say so much of the time Black writers are expected to write about the whoa. We are called to explore, explain and expose those things and people and circumstances that make every attempt to arrest our community's development. And you said a literature that fights back, a poetry that revives, that resists, but you wanted to do something different.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. Whether you're looking at the poets from the Harlem Renaissance - Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, what is Africa to me? Copper sun or scarlet sea - or you're looking at the Black Arts Movement poets - Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez - these were poets who had to write for their right to be Black, to be free, to be a human being. Their testimonies were loud cries. They were screams that Black is beautiful, that we matter. And that is so valuable. When I look at my 15-year-old kid, I want her to know that's valuable, and I also want her to know to smile. I want her to find the joy. And I feel like there's so many times that Black writers feel like we are responsible for addressing racism, that we are responsible for addressing social injustice. And while that's true, can we also address love? Can we also address Sunday dinner? Can we also address our families and friendships and hopes and joys?
MARTIN: I do want to point out that there are a lot of laughs in this anthology, especially if you just go by the title. Some of the titles are deeply hilarious - for example, "Owed To The Plastic On Your Grandmother's Couch." And there's another one - "Before I Fire Her, The Therapist Asks, What IS It Like To Be A Black Woman HERE" and "Why I Can Dance Down A Soul-Train Line In Public And Still Be Muslim." So it gives you the flavor...
MARTIN: ...Of some of the poems that are extremely funny, as well as very moving. Why don't we start with the poem that gave you the title for the collection, "This Is The Honey"?
ALEXANDER: By Mahogany Browne, who is the poet in residence at Lincoln Center. And these first two stanzas, I think, really tell you what - the mood that this book is going to hopefully bring to your space.
(Reading) There is no room on this planet for anything less than a miracle. We gather here today to revel in the rebellion of a silent tongue. Every day we lean forward into the light of our brightest designs and cherish the sun, praise our hands and throats, each incantation a jubilee of a people dreaming wildly despite the dirt beneath our feet or the wind pushing against our greatest efforts. Soil creates things. Art births change. This is the honey. And doesn't it taste like a promise where your heart is an accordion and our laughter is the soundtrack? Friend, dance to this good song. Look how it holds our names.
MARTIN: That is delicious.
MARTIN: That is delicious.
ALEXANDER: And it's sweet.
MARTIN: It is. Why was this the poem that gave the title to you?
ALEXANDER: There's an old Negro spiritual. And, you know, Langston Hughes talked about this idea of laughing to keep from crying. And I think there's a history and a tradition of Americans in general, but Black Americans in particular, finding some levity in the midst of troubled times. And I like to be funny, and I wanted to try to find as many pieces that talked about really heavy things but did it in a way that made it digestible and accessible and ultimately hopeful for us because that's what I want readers to leave this book with - some hope, some love and some grace.
MARTIN: Our editor, Reena Advani, wanted to pick one because she gets to do that, and she liked "A Twice Named Family" by Traci Dant. And would you mind reading that for us?
ALEXANDER: (Reading) I come from a family that twice names its own - one name for the world, one name for home. Lydi, Joely, Door, Bud, Bobby, Bea, Puddin, Cluster, Lindy, Money, Duddy, Vess. Yes, we are a two-named family 'cause somebody way back knew you needed a name to cook chitlins in, a name to put your feet up in, a name that couldn't be fired, a name that couldn't be denied a loan, a name that couldn't be asked to go through anyone's back door. Somebody way back knew we needed names to be loved in.
MARTIN: How about that?
ALEXANDER: The power of being able to tell a complete story in 30 lines or less, to be able to identify a sociocultural problem, something that has been tragic and harmful for Black people in America, and to be able to do it in such a concise, rhythmic and a beautiful way, it's - the poetry is that - it's that thing that reaches your heart. I always say, Michel, if you want people to change the way they act, change the way they think. You want to change the way they think, change the way they feel. What better way to reach them than through the lines of a poem?
MARTIN: That is Kwame Alexander speaking to us about "This Is The Honey: An Anthology Of Contemporary Black Poets." It is out next week. Kwame Alexander, thank you so much for stopping by.
ALEXANDER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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