Transcript from an interview with Kwame Alexander

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Kwame Alexander. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Over the moon about writing

My name is Kwame Alexander. I’ve written 21 books and I love my job. I tell people all the time just the idea of being able to share your ideas and your thoughts and your feelings about the world and about your place in it with young people is the best job in the world, and to get paid to do it, it’s just — I’m over the moon. I love it.

Love poems

Why do I write for children and young adults? Well, I guess it started with my seven-year-old. I had written quite a few books of love poems. I found it very difficult to get dates as it were in college. Like I wasn’t very cool. I didn’t get cool ’til recently. So, I would write poems and that’s how I would communicate with these girls in college that I liked.

So I spent the first 10 years of my writerly life writing love poems and sort of learning how to write love poems, reading Pablo Nerudo and then, you know, as it happens, I got married and had a daughter and  my daughter wanted to be read to and I wanted to read to her. And we found ourselves reading three to four books a night and I became immersed in children’s literature.

And so I found that some of the poems that I began writing were now love poems to my daughter. And so children’s literature became something that, you know, my daughter is ultimately responsible for why I write it now, and I think it was sort of the best career move I could have made and certainly the most rewarding part of my writing career that I’ve had.

Becoming a poet

Wow. You know, what led me to become a poet and a writer? There’s a big story there in the sense that my parents are writers. My father wrote 16 books, these huge educational tomes that I just loathed having to read as a kid. My mother was an English teacher who — and they both studied children’s literature in grad school. And so from the time that I can remember, I was immersed in Eric Carle and Lucille Clifton and Eloise Greenfield and Shel Silverstein and Lee Bennett Hopkins and Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes and the list goes on and on.

And so I knew poetry like the back of my hand. And so what’s funny to me is that, you know, when I got to Virginia Tech and I ended up studying with Nikki Giovanni and having three, you know, dynamic, tense, incredibly academically challenging years with her, I knew I wanted to be a writer. In particular I knew I wanted to write poetry now. She was sort of my model for how to live, how to be a poet.

And so I come home after college and tell my dad and my mom, who were writers, that I want to be a poet. That’s going to be my job. And of course my dad laughed. He said that will never work. And my mother was very supportive, as mothers are. And I think that, you know, my father tells me now that he only said that to see if I was really serious, if I was really going to stick to it. And of course I did. And so I think if you can be trained or nurtured or natured or groomed to be a poet, I think I was. I think it was my parents.

Form before story

I love that. I love the question how do you know what form to write in because yes, I write in a lot of different forms. For me, the form comes before the story. Before I sit down to sort of, you know, tell this story of two boys who play basketball, I know that the story is going to be told in verse.

Before I sit down to write a book about — I was in Tuscany and I’m walking up this gravel road and on my right is this farm and on the farm are these chickens and the chickens are sort of playing and they’re — and I sort of say to myself wow, these chickens, are they having a party and if so, what kind of music are they listening to? Well, of course it’s going to be jazz music. I was in Tuscany. And if there’s jazz music, then who’s playing it? Well, of course it’s going to be — if it’s on a farm, it’s going to be Mules Davis and then we’re going to bring in the rooster’s cousin, Duck Ellington.

And so those kind of things happened my second week in Tuscany. The first week I knew I wanted to write a children’s picture book. So, I knew the format. I knew the genre. And then sort of the thing happened that inspired what that genre was going to — what story was going to be told. So, for me, I sort of because I have a 7-year-old, because I have a 24-year-old, because I go into middle schools and high schools and as a writer I like to be observant of what’s going on around me constantly, I sort of know what I want — how I want to write. And I have to be inspired to sort of figure out what idea I’m going to write about. So the form comes first.

Finding time to write

Sure. I mean in terms of my relationship with my editors, and I have quite a few of them, as long as they all know that I’m always right [laughs], then we’re good. Now, when I wake up from that dream — so, my process of writing is very, very different than when I lived 20 years ago in Arlington, Virginia on Columbia Pike and was trying to sort of find my place in the writerly world and I wrote whenever I was inspired. I wrote on the bus to work.

I wrote during lunch breaks. And so that was then, but now with deadlines and contracts and sort of plans, I write five hours a day. I start fairly early, maybe about five or six. I get a couple of hours in and when I’m at home, I walk my daughter to school and then I get a couple more hours.

And that’s generally when I’m under deadline. But I don’t necessarily stick to that process. There’s another process. I have a writing group and sometimes we write together. So, maybe after my daughter goes to school, we’ll all meet at this wonderful café and we write for about five hours together and we spend about an hour and a half talking.

And then the final sort of way I write is when I’m on the road, and this year I’ve been on the road quite a bit. And so I find myself writing on planes and in hotels and in airports, and there’s no rhyme or reason.

The human soul distilled

Poetry is like the human soul entire distilled into very few words and they’re power packed. You can get a whole beginning, middle, and end in 10 lines. Poetry, because of the language we choose, because of the metaphors we use, we can make the reader feel something pretty powerful in those few words.

Maybe Toni Morrison and Edwidge Danticat, they do it I’m sure with their prose, but you take sort of the average prose and you look at a paragraph or a chapter, you don’t get that full emotional power-packed movement and energy and that complete beginning, middle, and end, not to say one is better than the other.

But I will say this, I took a poetry — I took a playwriting class back when I was in college and it was a master class and it was taught by Cicely Tyson, Douglas Turner Ward, and Charles Fuller. And Charles Fuller had written A Soldier’s Play that Denzel starred in, which that turned into this movie, A Soldier’s Story.

And so I remember Charles Fuller was teaching us about playwriting and he asked us did we know how to write poetry, and most of the students said no, we write plays, and he was like learn how to write a poem. It’s the basic building block of all forms of writing. And I believe that with my heart and soul.

Finding the universal in poetry

You know, I grew up, you know, in terms of my — in terms of the sort of accessibility of the prose and the poetry that I try to write, I remember reading Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni and Hakeem and all these amazing poets and learning so much from them; being informed but also being inspired in so many ways by their words.

And that inspiration came from the feeling that their words gave me, but it also came from a place of I was able to understand what they were saying. I was able to get it and relate it to my own life. I’ve tried to write like that. I’ve tried to make my poems and my prose, which are very personal, I’ve tried to make it your business, and I believe that’s so important, especially when we talk about getting young people engaged with reading.

I went through a phase in middle school where I did not like reading. In fact, I loathed it because I was being forced to do it. And I think that books are like amusement parks, and sometimes we have to let the kids choose the rides. And I wasn’t being given that opportunity to ride, to find my groove. And I think I try to write from that vantage point.

I try to write from a vantage point of making sure the work is accessible, commercial, literary. I don’t want to be put in one box, but I need to do all these things that I’ve grown up learning how to do, and I guess inevitably it’s my style, it’s my swag, it’s sort of how I dance on the page, and it works for me. And I think that is the key that I learned from Nikki is that it has to work for you first and you stand a much better chance of it working for the rest of us.

Visual poetry in The Crossover

So, with The Crossover, maybe there are four, five, or six or seven different forms of poetry, and I knew going in that I wanted to do different forms of poetry. And so the subject matter of each poem, I found that it lent itself to a certain type of poem. For instance, in the story Josh, the main character’s mother, sent some text messages.

I thought well, text messages are — they’re really short. I mean what are they, 160 characters before it goes onto the one of two and two of two before it continues? And so I thought well, how cool would it be for text messages to be a short form of verse, maybe a haiku. I thought it lent itself to that form.

There are some poems in the book where there are conversations between brothers or conversations between parent and child. And conversations are I say something, you say something, I say something, you say something. I say something a little bit longer, you listen, you say something. I thought how cool would it be for those poems to be in couplets or tercets, which are two-line stanzas or three-line stanzas to really show it.

I was really trying to make sure that the poems on the page visually looked like I wanted them to sound and like they would be heard. And so there were some poems where the main character is sort of trash talking or bragging, which was something I used to do on the tennis court. I wasn’t very good in my first two years of playing tennis in high school, but I was tall and I had — I wore corduroy shorts and I wore a yellow tank top and red high-top Chuck Taylors and so I had this visual look and I talked trash.

And I won. I won a lot of my games by getting inside their heads. And I thought when writing The Crossover, how cool would it be to have this trash talker and for us to see his trash talking on the page and so I made the words do different things in those poems. And some of the words are diagonal and some of the, you know, some of the words are — they get bigger. And so I think the subject matter of each poem dictated the form of poetry that I would use and I hope it worked.

A metaphor for life

So, yes, I use a lot of basketball rules in the book. Ultimately this is a book about basketball, but it’s really about so much more. It’s about family and brotherhood and friendship and crossing over from boyhood into manhood. Basketball was just sort of a — it was a frame. It was a way to sort of get boys to pick up this book. It was a way to get girls excited about this book. It was what I remembered liking when I was 12 years old and would have loved to have had a book that dealt with this subject.

So, growing up, my father used to say things to me like — my father was a basketball player in the Air Force and in college. He was a star. They called him the Big Al. I didn’t know him during that time. I wish I had because by the time I came along, my father was a PhD from Columbia. So he was an academic.

And so but my dad used to say things to me like you can’t know what you don’t know. Never hang — he used to say never hang around with people who have less to lose than you do. My dad used to drop these things on me nonstop going to school in the morning or when I made a mistake. Half of them I didn’t understand. The book, The Crossover, is sort of a song for my father, an ode to my father as it were.

I mean my father was nothing like Da Man. I guess in ways I wish my father was a little bit more funnier. I tried to write the character in a way that okay, well, maybe Da Man, Chuck “Da Man” Bell, the father in The Crossover, was the father that I didn’t know, you know, because again I got the academic, but prior to that this is who I imagine he would have been.

And so as it relates to the basketball rules, that was sort of his thing. I knew how the book was going to end and I needed there to be something that the boys would have to sort of hold onto to help guide them, sort of that fatherly advice, that same advice and guidance that I got and didn’t understand. And I think they kind of view it the same way, at least some of them. As they mature, they begin to understand what some of those things mean. And what did Larry Bird say?

You miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take. Is that not like the best metaphor for life? Yes. Some kid in a school just a couple weeks ago told me that well, your book could have been about baseball or football or soccer. And in a certain way, yeah, sports is a great metaphor for our lives and how we live them. So, for me for The Crossover, basketball was the best way for me to tell this particular story.

Alexander reads an excerpt from The Crossover

So, The Crossover. It is always hard to figure out what to read from this book, but there’s also some beauty in the fact that there are 200 poems here so you have a lot of choices, which I guess is probably part of the challenge, what to read to really represent. So, I’ll share this with you. I was  writing this book and needed a word that meant pretty and didn’t want to use just pretty or, you know, gorgeous. I wanted to use a word, something cool, something different.

And so I looked in my thesaurus and sort of played around with it and finally came up with something that I thought would work. While Vandi [ph.] and JB debate whether the new girl is a knockout or just beautiful, a hottie or a cutie, a layup or a dunk, I finish my vocabulary homework and my brother’s vocabulary homework, which I don’t mind since English is my favorite subject and he did the dishes for me last week, but it’s hard to concentrate in the lunchroom with the girls’ step team practicing in one corner, a rap group performing in the other, and Vandi and JB waxing poetic about love and basketball.

So when they ask, “What do you think, Filthy?” I tell them she’s pulchritudinous, which is just the coolest word ever, but of course when I wrote that word, I said well, what middle school kid is going to know what pulchritudinous means? And so I said well, I should write another poem or at least give a definition, but then I wanted to keep the momentum of the story going so I figured maybe I should write a poem that includes the definition and still moves the story along.

Pulchritudinous, having great physical beauty and appeal as in every guy in the lunchroom is trying to flirt with the new girl because she’s so pulchritudinous; as in I’ve never had a girlfriend, but if I did, you better believe she’d be pulchritudinous; as in wait a minute, why is the pulchritudinous new girl now talking to my brother?

So, every time I go into a school to read The Crossover, kids will ask me, “What happened? What happened after the last shot? Did they make it? Are you writing a sequel?” And for the life of me I cannot figure out what that sequel would be, and I feel like I left it where it needs to be. However, I am writing a prequel about the father when he was 12, and I’m so excited. I’m so excited.

Booked

Booked is about a 12-year-old soccer player named Nick Hall who loves soccer, who likes a girl, and who loathes words because his father is a linguistic anthropologist and he’s written a dictionary of weird and wonderful words and he makes his son read it every day.

So, this book is about so many different ways to be booked. As we know, “booked” is a soccer term. When you get a red card, you get booked. So you get taken out of the game. So, I’m really excited about this book. I tried to do some different things with it, and I’m excited because it’s a different sport and hopefully kids will enjoy it.

And so I was trying to sort of introduce how he feels about his dad and to introduce sort of his dad’s influence on him via words. Why couldn’t your dad be a musician like Jimmy Leon’s dad or own an oil company like Coby’s? Better yet, why couldn’t he be a cool detective driving a sleek silver convertible sports car like Will Smith in Bad Boys?

Instead your dad’s a linguistics professor with chronic verbal mania, as evidenced by the fact that he actually wrote a dictionary called Weird and Wonderful Words with, get this, footnotes. And then there’s a footnote, and it says verbal mania, noun, a crazed obsession for words. Every freakin’ day I have to read his dictionary, which has freakin’ footnotes. That’s absurd to me, kind of like ordering a glass of chocolate milk, then asking for chocolate syrup on the side. Seriously, who does that?

So, I’m really excited about this book because it also shows what happens when his whole life sort of flips and the things he loved are no longer there and the things he didn’t think he liked are now important to him.

Acoustic Rooster

My first children’s picture book, Acoustic Rooster, and I wrote this in Tuscany on a writing fellowship. Yeah. It brings back memories. Acoustic Rooster sat outside strumming his bass guitar. He practiced jazz all summer long so he could be a star.

Now every year about this time farmer announced his plan to hold a barnyard talent show and find the farm’s best band. You know, in the original illustrations there was a farmer here and I told him — I said we should take it out. This is a book of animals. I want no humans in the book. Acoustic Rooster asked to join Thelonius Monkey’s crew, but farmer’s rules prevented that because they lived at the zoo.

I still get a big kick out of this book. This is like six years old. Mules Davis led an orchestra that featured three cool cats. Ella Fitzgerald had a trio, but Rooster couldn’t scat. Rooster was feeling kind of blue, then he heard a baby grand. I have a great idea he said. I’ll state my own jazz band. And so here’s the idea of saying yes to yourself or trying to figure out how to sort of live your passion. I guess this book is sort of a metaphor on my life. Yeah. And you’ll have to read the rest of it to find out what happens in the talent show.

Surf’s Up

So, the picture book, oh, that was so much fun to write. It is about two frogs, Bro and Dude. And the book is called Surf’s Up. And Bro and Dude are on their way to the beach to go surfing and hanging out, but Bro can’t seem to get up from his comfy living room chair because the book that he’s reading is un-put-downable. It’s a book that you may be familiar with. It’s called Moby Dick. So, the book is about the joy of reading and summer.

Be authentic

Well, I think number one, and I tell my students this when I do writing workshops, be intentional. If it’s your intention, if it’s the character’s intention, if it’s your intention as the writer to use profanity, then you got to be authentic. We’re not just throwing around words for the sake of being cool or for acceptance and applause and appreciation; we’re doing it because of authentication.

It’s authentic. And for me, you know, this story was as authentic as it could be, and there was no need to add things to make it more acceptable in terms of whether it was edgy or more urban fiction. It just is what it is, you know. I mean there’s Neruda in the book. There’s Gene Sharp in the book. There’s Dr. King in the book.

And yes, there’s Jay Z and Lil Wayne in the book, you know, because it’s real. And how do I know it’s real? Because it’s me, you know. So, that’s important. And so just to sort of add one more little note about being authentic, because I’m a poet, there were some scenes in there where I wanted to write some real love, flowery and my editor sent me a note saying you can’t do that. This is not that book.

This is not how you set up that book and so you can’t now go from this sort of mood, this tone, and now give me some tonight I write the saddest lines. You can’t do that, Kwame. And so she was right because what she was saying is that’s not being authentic.

You want to be a better writer? Read.

The best piece of advice that I was given, you know, and I was given this by my parents over the years, for any writer that is looking to capture their experiences, their imagination and put it down on the page, I would say three things. I’d say, one, read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Don’t just read in the genre that you’re writing in. Read.

Inform yourself. Enhance your worldview. The second thing I would say, and you’re probably not going to like hearing this, I would say read. I would say read, you know, read something fun. You know, I’d say read something that you’re interested in. Go to the bookstore. Go to the library, you know. Check out a great book, you know. You may not like the first book you read, but there’s so many more. And the last piece of advice — I’ve never shared this with anyone. Read. You want to be a better writer? Read.

Book-in-a-Day

So, Book-in-a-Day is a program that I created in 2006. And I had been invited to a high school in Detroit, Michigan to help a group of students publish a book. Their English teacher had collected all of their poems and essays and articles over the year and she wanted to reward them with a book, and she knew that I had owned a publishing company and we were friends so I agreed to do it.

And what began as you have one week in the class transitioned to well, we only have time for one day. Can you come for one day? And here’s the catch, I don’t want you to do any of the publishing work. I want my students to do it. So, can you train them? She wanted me to train them on the job in one day. That’s impossible. And my answer to her was yes because I’m a say-yes person.

I love walking through doors, figuring out what’s on the other side, and making it work. And the first class at 8:30 came up with a title for the book and they designed the cover. The second class proofread the entire manuscript. The third class ordered a barcode and contacted a printer. By the end of the day these students had a PDF file that was pretty much complete and ready to be sent to a printer.

Three weeks later their paperback books came back and they had a big book signing. And I had this idea this is interesting. Maybe I should offer this to other schools. And so Book-in-a-Day was born, and over the course of the next nine years I got a call from a middle school maybe four years later and the middle school said, “Kwame, can you do it with my seventh-graders?” And of course I had only been doing it with high-schoolers. That’s impossible. And my answer was yes because I’m a say-yes person.

And these seventh-graders at Herndon Middle School called their book Winter Coat because they felt like poems comfort them and keep them warm. And so fast-forward about three years and I get a call from an elementary school in Canada, in Burlington, Canada. And the teacher’s like, “I teach fourth grade. Would you be interested in doing Book-in-a-Day?” And I said that will never work for elementary school students. Sorry. Yes.

And so over the course of nine years we did the program in 76 schools and we created probably about 7,000 student authors, 76 different books, paperback books. And so the idea was yeah, you get students excited about reading and writing by allowing them to take ownership of not only the writerly process but the publication process.

And then the other piece of it, which gets lost on people is that this notion that you can publish a book in a day. That’s the ultimate say-yes moment. If you can do that, then you need to think about the other things you want to do in this world, in this life. They are possible. They are possible. The program, Book-in-a-Day, is no longer.

However, we are partnering with Scholastic and the program is now turning into a kit, a system that more schools will have access to. It will be more affordable and it’s called Kwame Alexander’s Page-to-Stage Writing Workshop. And I love the first two words in the title.

The Page-to-Stage Writing Workshop

So, the Page-to-Stage writing workshop is a kit. There’s a book, a manual, sort of a teacher’s guide. There are 20 videos of me sort of sharing with teachers and students how to go about some of the activities and sharing some of the tools that I’ve learned and picked up along the way.

The Scholastic program is geared towards students K-8. That’s the way — because that’s sort of their market, but it works for high school. I mean I did the first 40 schools in high school. Yes. So, the way we did it with K-3 is that we trained the teachers how to teach the writing and the publishing workshop. And the kids were writing borrowed poems where, you know, you take a poem like a William Carlos Williams.

This is just to say I’ve eaten the plums that were in the refrigerator, which you were probably saving for dessert. They were so — you know, that poem. And so the kids substitute their words. This is just to say I have eaten the oranges that were in the cupboard. You know, so K and one and two, they write borrowed poems or they write community poems where they write a poem together.

The publishing portion, the students love brainstorming titles, coming up with titles for their book. They may not be able to design a cover, but they can certainly have input in the cover concepts and they can sketch it out. And so teachers end up doing a little bit more work for the lower grades, but I’ve seen it work.

"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase