I had added the date to my calendar months ago. The Potency of Poetry: a webinar. It popped up as a reminder yesterday but in the busyness of my day, I ignored it. By the time I had navigated miles of twisty Vermont roads and turned into my own drive, I had a plan: pajamas, tea, bed. I have been nursing a horrible cold. It had been a long day.
I greeted the dogs, fed the horses, and ate dinner. By the time I finished responding to a few critical emails from school I was already in my PJs. But just before I logged out, an email notice popped up: Here are your Webinar login instructions. Sigh. I had signed up so long ago I couldn’t even remember what the webinar was about. My tired achy body shouted its vote: Ignore it! Go to bed! But my writer’s heart considered: there was a reason I had signed up. It wouldn’t hurt to check in and then decide. Boy am I glad I did.
Last night Scholastic and ASCD collaborated to present an hour with Kwame Alexander, hosted by Donalyn Miller.
There is something very powerful hearing the words of our mentors in their own voices. Last night I was treated to Donalyn’s wry Texas drawl trading time with Kwame’s poetry slam passion.
Here are the choice tidbits:
With a writer father and English teacher mother, reading was a family expectation. But like many pre-teens, Kwame also hit a reading slump. Pressure to read someone else’s texts of choice caused him to “fall out of love” with reading. The book that brought him back? The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali. “Ali was a poet in the ring and with his words,” Kwame added.
“I wrote The Crossover reaching back to my twelve year old self. Here’s a book you will LOVE to read, Kwame.”
He also found poetry: Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Pablo Neruda.
“Poetry transformed both how I write poetry, and how I love.”
For a long time he did not understand his father. He disliked the reading tasks his father assigned which included reading the dictionary, and his father’s dissertation! But now he understands why his father did those things. He is currently writing a new book he referred to as a love letter to his father.
“My father showed me I could be a writer. He gave me a road map.”
On The Crossover:
Kwame was in love with the idea of the story for The Crossover for quite some time, but did not know exactly how or where it would go. Then his editor, the incomparable writer, Andrea Davis Pinkney, sent him a couple mentor texts. One was Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust. Reading Karen’s book was pivotal for him in writing The Crossover.
“I learned you can tell a life-giving story through verse.”
When asked if he had a sense The Crossover was something special he replied:
“I wrote 17 books before The Crossover. I have a special relationship with all my books. Because of that, I think they are all “The Cat’s Pajamas”, but he said “I don’t mean that in an egotistical way.” His family are early readers of his manuscripts. But when he sent his dad an advance copy of The Crossover, “He called me as soon as he had received the advance copy.” This happened over and over. He could tell readers were having a different reaction.
The Crossover was mostly written at his local Panera Bread bakery, sitting in same seat, over the course of 6 years. Once the word was out, he had to find a new location (sorry top secret!) to write.
He is working on a prequel to The Crossover that will be about the father as a 12 year old.
On Writing Poetry:
Kwame loves that Kobe Bryant recently announced his retirement from basketball in a poem. He doesn’t have a favorite type of poetry. He is glad for all the diverse forms as he believes they help poetry appeal to a wide variety of people. His cure for teachers who are non-poetry believers? “Have them read Naomi Shihab Nye’s Amaze Me, or Jaqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, (or The Crossover),” he laughed.
“Reading and writing poetry gives us white space in a world that doesn’t.”
“Poetry builds your brain. It helps you understand words in a more profound way. It is a bridge to getting students engaged in books and writing.”
“Poetry transforms our writing life-and LIFE.”
Such inspiring words. I can’t wait to share them with The Crossover fans amongst my colleagues and their students. And to think, I almost missed it.
Having a writing life makes us better teachers of writing. The lovely folks at TwoWritingTeachers have understood this for a long time. Each Tuesday they host a place for educators from around the country to share and read each other’s writing. Look for the Slice of Life! Come join us!