- Published: 19 September 2017 19 September 2017
As the winner of the inaugural Conroy Legacy Award, it's not surprising to learn that even as a two-year-old, Kwame Alexander intimidated others with his words. When a pre-school classmate knocked over his carefully constructed tower of blocks, Alexander expressed his understandable anger not with shoves, but with rhymes repurposed from Dr. Seuss's Fox in Socks.
Now the poet/novelist/speaker draws on a lifetime reading and writing books and poetry not to intimidate with his words, but to connect, encourage, and inspire. In a thoughtful interview at the #SIBA17 Discovery Show in New Orleans with Erica Merrell, SIBA board member and owner of Wild Iris Books in Gainesville, Alexander shared his love of literature, the power of poetry to tame the rowdy tween, the importance of family, and his deep admiration of Pat Conroy. And like Conroy, or any true master of words, he wove each strand into a compelling whole.
Growing up in a book centered family--his parents wrote, taught, sold books--Alexander had to be lovingly persuaded to share his parents' enthusiasm. "I hated books. I hated them because I was immersed in them," he said.
However, early encounters with activism and social justice led him to discover the power of his own voice. When his father took him to march on the Brooklyn Bridge to protest police violence, Alexander felt his initial fear subside as his connection to the crowd and its message grew. "I began to find my voice. I began to raise my voice. I'm an activist, because I'm a human being."
When asked about the impact Pat Conroy had on his writing and life, Alexander recalls reading Conroy's cookbook and feeling drawn to the author's expansive, inclusive view of friends, family, and the writing community. "I want to live that life," he said, laughing. "I want to make shrimp and grits for my friends."
Alexander also noted Conroy's tireless work on behalf of other writers, and commitment to building the literary community. But perhaps most of all, Alexander valued Conroy's bone-deep authenticity, and the way his voice informed all of his writing. After quoting passages from the poet Pablo Neruda, Alexander commented about both the poet and Conroy, "You cannot read either writer and how they make the words dance on the page, and not know them."
In his book-centered family, he found plenty to read that fired his imagination and focused his voice, particulary in poetry. As a student at Virginia Tech University, Alexander studied with Nikki Giovanni. Though he wryly described their relationship as complex, Giovanni deeply informed his work, first as a challenging teacher and then powerful mentor, and finally as a friend. In his youthful quest to follow in Langston Hughes's footsteps after the publication of The Weary Blues in 1926, Alexander self-published his own poetry collection and criss-crossed the country to read and sell his work.
But soon, Alexander's poetry expanded into prose, and just as he found his voice when lifting it in protest, his work found new purpose as it spoke directly to young people--especially young people whose own voices and experiences were often ignored or rejected. Since the publication of his Newbery award-winning novel, The Crossover, in 2014, Alexander has made hundreds of school appearances. Follow-up books for children, middle-grade readers, and young adults (his novel-in-verse Solo came out August 2017) embody his belief that the best way to connect to and inspire young people is with literature, especially those who seem the hardest to reach.
"Find a way to keep them in the room," he said. "Books are doing the work to reach them--find kids where they are, make literature available." When asked how to reach young boys in particular, Alexander immediately recommended poetry. "It's concise, it's action oriented, it's easy to connect to excitement."
Alexander was also quick to highlight the role of independent bookstores in creating and sustaining an accessible community of writers, readers, young people, and adults. "Bookstores bridge the gap between community and commerce," he said. "Bookstores mean community and home--the spirit of community and home."
Family, home, community, books, and making the words dance on the page: the things that Kwame Alexander brings to his work and his world.