Poet, novelist, cool dude – those are some of the ways that visiting author Kwame Alexander describes himself. As part of SAS’s author-in-residence program, Alexander spent three weeks conducting in-class writing workshops and sharing his love of poetry with middle and high school audiences.
The Eye sat down with Kwame Alexander to find out more about his book “The Crossover,” favorite shoe brands, thoughts on Ferguson, and what it’s like to win a Newbery medal.
The Eye: What got you interested in writing?
KA: My parents were readers and writers, and as kids they forced us to read and write. So I grew up in a house, a very literary house. So I think I probably didn’t have a choice. Like, I tried to get away from writing when I went to college and decided to be a doctor. But I took organic chemistry and all that @!$#…so I found my way back to writing.
The Eye: As a kid, did you ever want to be anything other than a writer?
KA: Yeah! I wanted to be a fireman, and a doctor, and a basketball player, and a tennis star. I mean, I think, you know, as kids we all want to do this heroic things. And I wasn’t any different from any other kid. Well, I was different, in the sense that I lived in a Wal-Mart of books. [laughs] There were books everywhere in my house. They lined every wall. Sometimes I didn’t like it, and sometimes I loved it. So, I like to say that I didn’t decide to be a writer, sort of…writing decided for me. Or my parents decided.
The Eye: Do you make your kids read?
KA: Heck yeah. [nods] I make ’em read. I try to do it in a creative and a fun way. I told my daughter, “You can watch TV, but you gotta earn minutes.” So for every chapter in a book you read, you can watch 30 minutes of TV. So it becomes a sort of game, this trick. My other kid, we read together. We act out the stuff. Do reader’s theater. I try to do creative things. My dad would just say, “Sit down and read.” I’m just trying to be a little bit more fun with it.
The Eye: What sorts of challenges have you run into, in general?
KA: Not feeling like the work is good enough. Not getting into a rhythm – it takes a while to get into a rhythm when you’re working on a book. Getting it published is tough, getting a publisher to accept your manuscript. There’s a lot more rejection than there is acceptance. And you have to have thick skin, figuring out a way to deal with the rejection. So yeah, I mean, there are challenges with pretty much every job you could have in this world. I think writing is no different. I think as writers and artists, we’re very sensitive and very emotional, and so it hits us really hard when we get that, when we face those challenges.
The Eye: Where do you get your inspiration?
KA: I get my inspiration from my family…from love. I’m in love with love. I just see it everywhere, and I feel the joy and love. So I get inspiration everywhere. I get it from the sound of a car horn, I get it from a leaf falling from a tree, I get it from a kid smiling, I get it from a kiss, I get it from a good book, I get it from…I get inspiration everywhere. In fact, I’m inspired right now.
The Eye: Do you ever run into “writer’s block”?
KA: Do you run into writer’s block? Well, it’s sort of like this: take “writer’s” out of it. Would you ever run into a block?
Uh, no. Because when you see the block, what do you do? You dodge it! You move out of the way. Whenever I think I’m faced with writer’s block, I move on to another book. I put that book aside. When I feel like a block’s coming, I go into another project. Blocks are there. That’s what life is. The challenges? [They] happen. Can’t figure out the right word, or you don’t know where the story’s going, or it’s not working? Move on to something else. You eventually come back to it. Dodge and weave.
The Eye: According to you, “The Crossover” is a book that encourages boys – among others – to read poetry. As a kid you loved reading and poems, but did you know any other people at your age who shared that appreciation for poetry?
KA: No. No one. And that’s what I find out today, that a lot of teachers and kids will say, “Yeah, we’re not really into poetry.” And my thing is, I think people aren’t, quote, “into it” because they don’t know how cool it is. It’s my job to show the world how cool poetry is. That’s why I’m here. It’s one of the reasons why I’m here. And I feel like I’m the guy to do it.
The Eye: One thing I find really striking about “The Crossover” is the relationship between Josh and JB. They’re twin brothers, they tease each other and get into fights, but they still have a lot of trust and I feel like they’re always working in sync, on or off the court. I was just wondering, do you have any siblings yourself?
KA: Yeah, two sisters and a brother. I’m the oldest. And we were pretty much in sync, growing up. Our parents made sure of that. We were all pretty tight. So I borrowed some of that idea, that notion, from my own experience, and tried to infuse it in the book.
The Eye: Did you guys get into fights?
KA: All the time. I actually [used to] do this thing where they’d be in a bathtub before bedtime at night, and I’d hear them finishing up, drying off. And I’d go get in their room and hide in the closet and cut the lights out. So when they came in and got in bed, I’d jump out the closet and scream! [laughs] And they’d get so terrified! And they hated me for that!
So yeah, we fought. We argued. We did the things that kids, siblings do. But we had mad love for each other too.
The Eye: What is it like being a Newbery-award-winning author? How did you find out?
KA: I got a call at 7:16 am in the morning on February 2nd, while I was in bed asleep. And it was – it’s still kind of surreal. People say it, like you just said it, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, I did win!” It’s totally freaking me out. Like, really? This happened to me? Wow. I don’t know. I mean, it definitely changed my life in a lot of ways. But I can’t think about it too much, ‘cause it freaks me out! Am I really here right now? Are we talking about this? I don’t know. I guess so. I mean, pinch me. Yeah, I guess I’m here.
I’m excited, I’m happy, I’m over the moon. I’m really word-bound. I don’t have a lot of words for it. I’m just…wow. Wow.
The Eye: How did your family react?
KA: My wife was screaming around the house, she was happy. My [seven-year-old] daughter was like, “Oh that’s cool. Can you go make my French toast now?” She was like, “Yeah, whatever.” But she’s happy. Everybody’s pretty happy.
The Eye: Do you travel a lot?
KA: Yes, about four days a week.
The Eye: What is your favorite place, if you have one?
KA: Favorite place I’ve been to? No, I don’t. I love them all for different reasons. Singapore, Tuscany, Brazil, Ghana, I love them all. I don’t have a favorite place yet.
The Eye: Is there someplace where you’d love to go?
KA: I’d like to go back to Paris, that’d be kinda cool. Um…Australia, I’d love to do that. If you’re listening, Australia International American School, I’d love to go to Australia.
Where would I like to go? Um, Hawaii. I’d like to go to Hawaii. Never been there. I’m going to Thailand this weekend. I don’t know why I told you that, but [my family and I are] going to Thailand this weekend.
The Eye: What’s your favorite shoe brand?
KA: Converse. Converse! Chuck Taylor’s. I also like Polo, Polo’s cool.
The Eye: Polo shoes?
KA: Yeah. Though when I was wearing them the other day, that’s when the kid came up to me, he was like, “WHAT ARE THOSE?” What does that mean? You don’t know either? Kids. Kids will be kids.
The Eye: Advice for writers – do you have any? Students, teachers, otherwise?
KA: Read. Pretty much read everything you can get your hands on.
The Eye: And I just wanted to ask…in the past year, the issue of race and discrimination has been brought into the spotlight with incidents like Ferguson in the US. What role do you think literature and poetry can play in resolving this issue?
KA: I think one thing is, as it relates to me as a writer, I can try to write things that are going to inform people like you, people of your generation. They’re going to help you all imagine and reimagine a world in a different and much more beautiful way, that are going to inspire you all to be better. I’ve almost given up on the adults. I think we’re just crazy. But if we want a better world, you all are gonna have to do it. So I try to write stuff that’s gonna help you do it. It’s gonna help you realize that it’s not right to take the life of a young black man away. You see it happening over and over in the United States and it’s scary.
So my job as a writer is to write mirrors and windows for you all to see yourselves, and to look out and see others. To realize that we’re all human beings. That’s my job, and if I can do that, to heck with the adults. Because they apparently don’t get it.
The Eye: Do you have anything else you want to say to readers of The Eye?
KA: Readers of The Eye, make sure you read this newspaper every week, or whenever it comes out. It’s got a lot of inspiration, a lot of information. I am a huge fan of it. I’ve never read it before but I’m a huge fan. And remember, do the right thing. W-R-I-T-E!