Poetry Friday Roundup and Can I Touch Your Hair: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship

Happy New Year! Welcome to the first Poetry Friday Roundup of 2018! If you’re new to Poetry Friday, you can learn more from Renée LaTulippe at No Water River.

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. 

With Charles and Irene at NCTE in St. Louis last November.

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,
but Madison
has already looped
arms with her.

Within seconds,
you-never-know-what-
he’s-going-to-say-Charles
is the only one left.

How many poems?
someone asks.
About what?
Do they have to be true?

Mrs. Vandenberg
holds up her hand.
Write about anything!
It’s not black and white.

But it is.
Charles is black,
and I’m white.

© Irene Latham, 2018

“Writing Partner”

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.”

© Charles Waters, 2018

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.

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