“I believe in one day and someday and this perfect moment called Now.” Jacqueline Woodson
I was lucky enough to be in the audience at NCTE’s Annual Convention last November when Jacqueline Woodson read this passage from Brown Girl Dreaming, her award-winning memoir in verse. Woodson’s work has always had a place in my classroom, and I am thrilled that she has been named the next National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. This role will allow her to travel around the country sharing her message that “books can drive change and instill hope in young readers.” She summed up her vision as ambassador as “Reading = Hope x Change.” You can hear Woodson talk more about this vision in this NPR interview.
During her speech at NCTE, students from around the country asked questions via pre-recorded video. One student wondered why Woodson chose to write Brown Girl Dreaming and her recent novel Another Brooklyn in verse. Woodson’s brilliant response? “I wrote it in verse because that’s how memory comes to us.”
In “on paper,” from Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson shares this memory:
Woodson reminded the teachers at NCTE that “everybody has a story, and everyone has a right to tell that story. Encourage students to tell their stories.” It’s clear that Woodson’s work springs from her own story, her own memories. But her writing also shines with her love for her fellow humans. She urged her NCTE audience to remember that “community is so important. We need to know who we are going to walk through the world with.” I am happy I’m walking through the world with Jacqueline Woodson.
Please be sure to visit Jan Godown Annino at Bookseedstudio for the Poetry Friday Roundup.
Today I’m proud to feature a brave and beautiful new book by two dear poetry friends, Irene Latham and Charles Waters, Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship, published by Carolrhoda Books on January 1, 2018. With starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, this book deserves a place in every classroom. (A Teacher’s Guide is available here.)
Assigned to work together on a poetry project, Irene and Charles are ambivalent. Irene articulates this with the frank honesty of childhood: “Charles is black/and I am white.”
Overcoming their misgivings, they find common ground in the everyday worries of all kids, and begin by writing about shoes and hair. These subjects soon give way to more serious topics such as saying the wrong thing, racial tensions, police brutality, and fear of others because they look different.
They walk the tightrope of adolescent friendships when Irene’s request to join “the black girls/ play[ing] freeze dance” and Charles’s friends “play me dirty.” The poems reveal an unfolding friendship, which Sean Qualls and Selina Alko capture in their sensitive illustrations as heart-shaped flourishes erupting from their pens, mouths, and minds.
Throughout the collection, Irene and Charles make their alter egos come alive by honestly revealing pieces of vulnerability, as when Charles realizes he’s “a few shades too dark/to be allowed to call [a new classmate] by his nickname.” This is balanced by their courage to face fear and shame, as Irene does in “Apology.” When an African-American classmate’s family tree is “draped in chains,” she realizes that the words “I’m sorry…are so small/ for something/so big.”
Both poets use figurative language to bring a depth of feeling and wisdom that amplifies the emotional impact of their writing. We feel the “fury rising inside” Charles, as if he’s “a tidal wave about to crash on land,” as well as the joy they each feel as they “stand in line, cradling our books like newborn kittens,” as they wait to meet author Nikki Grimes.
Irene and Charles generously allowed me to share two of their poems with you today. Thank you so much!
“The Poem Project”
When our teacher says, Pick your partner, my body freezes
like a ship in ice.
I want Patty Jean,
has already looped
arms with her.
is the only one left.
How many poems?
someone asks. About what? Do they have to be true?
holds up her hand. Write about anything! It’s not black and white.
Mrs. Vandenberg wants us to write poems?
Finally, an easy project. Words fly off my pen
onto the paper, like writing is my superpower.
The rest of the time, my words are a curse. I open my mouth,
and people run away. Now I’m stuck with Irene?
She hardly says anything. Plus she’s white.
Her stringy, dishwater blond hair waves
back and forth as she stutter-steps toward me.
My stomach bottoms out. “Hello,” I say. “Hi,” she says.
I surprise myself by smiling at her–she smells like
a mix of perfume and soap. We stare at our sneakers
before I ask, “So, what do you want to
write about?” She shrugs. I say, “How about our shoes, hair?
Then we can write about school and church?”
She takes a deep breath. “Okay.”
I match it. “Let’s start there.”
In an interview with Megan Labrise on the podcast Fully Booked by Kirkus Reviews (starting at 32:40), Charles and Irene share the origin of Can I Touch Your Hair, as well as their hopes for their book. Irene states their wish is that “it will make it easier to have these really difficult conversations about race” and as we “talk about it, listen to each other, [we’ll] realize that we’re all human people, we have more in common than we have separate, different, and that the different parts are beautiful.” Because, as Irene and Charles so wisely point out in the book’s final poem, “Dear Mrs. Vandenberg”: “We are so much more than black and white!”
And now for the Roundup! Please join today’s celebration of poetry by sharing your link.
I was unsure about the final line of my haiku and undecided about sharing a post today, but after I stumbled upon this treasure from Maria Papova at Brain Pickings, my indecision was gone. I hope you enjoy this poetic celebration of “great scientists and scientific discoveries, and a protest against the silencing of science and the defunding of the arts.”
Here is one of my favorites from a stellar line up of poets.
WE ARE LISTENING
by Diane Ackerman
As our metal eyes wake to absolute night, where whispers fly from the beginning of time, we cup our ears to the heavens. We are listening
on the volcanic lips of Flagstaff and in the fields beyond Boston in a great array that blooms like coral from the desert floor, on highwire webs patrolled by computer spiders in Puerto Rico.
We are listening for a sound beyond us, beyond sound,
searching for a lighthouse in the breakwaters of our uncertainty, an electronic murmur a bright, fragile I am.
When Mary Lee Hahn invited us all to join her in writing a daily haiku during the month of December, I wasn’t sure I had the energy. The past year has been challenging in so many ways and I have often found it difficult to put my worries and frustrations aside and just write. But, like Mary Lee, I needed to find a way to “focus on moments and slows me down to a more livable pace.”
Writing a haiku each day has helped me shift into low gear and find the poetry in what Natalie Babbitt calls “those commonplace marvels which [the world] spreads so carelessly before us everyday.” For me, many of these marvels have arrived on the wings of birds, so it seems appropriate to end the year with a mini-collection of haiku inspired by my feathered friends.
a quartet of crows:
onyx adornments in oak’s
tracks in fresh snow: thank you notes from the birds
withered brown apple summer’s forgotten bounty blue jay’s surprise treat
like an eagle’s tail plumes of white clouds fan out over distant hills
Years ago, when my kids were busy teenagers playing sports, taking music lessons, and all the rest, I heard a report about the danger of velocitization. The idea is that driving too fast on the highway distorts your sense of speed, which can make you drive even faster. The story pointed out the related danger of continuing to drive fast once you were off the highway.
For some reason, I felt like my whole life was velocitized this week. It was an awful feeling.
What better antidote to this feeling than reading poetry? A member of my book club suggested we read a book of poetry, so our selection this month is Sailing Alone Around the Room, by Billy Collins. I read this book years ago, but I’m savoring each poem as I read them again (and again).
“The Brooklyn Museum of Art” is one of my favorites. It has reminded me to put on the brakes and let “birdsong…[halt] me in my tracks”.
“The Brooklyn Museum of Art” by Billy Collins
I will now step over the soft velvet rope and walk directly into this massive Hudson River painting and pick my way along the Palisades with this stick I snapped off a dead tree.
I will skirt the smoky, nestled towns and seek the path that leads always outward until I become lost, without a hope of ever finding the way back to the museum.
I will stand on the bluffs in nineteenth-century clothes, a dwarf among rock, hills, and flowing water, and I will fish from the banks in a straw hat which will feel like a brush stroke on my head.
And I will hide in the green covers of forests so no appreciator of Frederick Edwin Church, leaning over the soft velvet rope, will spot my tiny figure moving in the stillness and cry out, pointing for others to see,
and be thought mad and led away to a cell where there is no vaulting landscape to explore, none of this birdsong that halts me in my tracks, and no wide curving of this river that draws my steps toward the misty vanishing point.
Please be sure to visit Linda Baie at Teacher Dance for the Poetry Friday Roundup.