In some neighborhoods in our region — and near many schools — young people face the threat of gun violence on a daily basis.
Some of the first things we teach children are in verse.
From the ABCs to nursery rhymes and daily prayers, we surround young people with poetry to teach them about the world.
On today’s show, we review new selections of children’s poetry with two local book authors. And we explore the world of spoken word and the possibilities it opens up for young adults.
Produced by Ruth Tam
- Kwame Alexander Author, "The Undefeated"; @kwamealexander
- Eloise Greenfield Author, "Thinker: My Puppy Poet And Me"
- Ayinde Sekou D.C. Hip Hop Artist
Standout Spoken Word Performances
If you're not already a fan of spoken word, performances can be kind of hard to describe in just words. They're a combination of poetry, theater and...well, maybe you should just watch a couple videos to get a sense of what they offer. D.C. hip hop and spoken word artist Ayinde Sekou shared four of ...
Upcoming Poetry Events
Poem In Your Pocket
April 18th, 2019 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. Ages 3 and up.
Anacostia Library | 1801 Good Hope Road SE
Poetry Scavenger Hunt
The Cleveland Park Library is hosting a month long poetry month scavenger hunt which consists of a worksheet and clues hidden in the stacks. Kids can complete it any time they visit the children’s room during April.
Tenleytown Library | 4450 Wisconsin Ave. NW
In celebration of National Poetry Month, Tenley-Friendship Library is hosting a haiku Contest for children. Haiku is a poetry form that consists of three lines with syllables arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern. Kids ages 5-12 years old, we welcome your submissions from April 1 through April 21. So that everyone can appreciate your creations, we will display your haiku in the Children’s room and on our web site. Five lucky poets and their poems will be chosen randomly to win a DC Public Library water bottle.
Spoken Word Open Mics
Busboys and Poets’ Open Mic at various locations
Floetic Fridays at 14th Street and Eastern Market
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Some of the first things we teach children are in verse, from the ABCs, to nursery rhymes and lullabies. On today's show, we'll review new selections of children's poetry and explore the world of spoken word. Joining me now in studio is Kwame Alexander. He is the author of "The Undefeated." Kwame, thank you for joining us. Good to see you again.
KWAME ALEXANDERGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Eloise Greenfield. She's the author of "Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me." Eloise Greenfield was one of the people who mentored me when I first came to Washington, DC. I was at Drummond Spear Bookstore and Press, and we published her children's book, "Bubbles." And she introduced me to a community of African American women, children’s book writers in this city that I will never forget. So, thank you for that, and thank you for continuing to do what you do.
ELOISE GREENFIELDThank you, Kojo. It's wonderful to see you again.
NNAMDIGreat to see you, too. And also in studio is Ayinde Sekou. He is a hip-hop and spoken word artist. Ayinde, good to see you.
AYINDE SEKOUGood to see you, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIKwame, you are a prolific children's book writer, with at least 29 books to your name, published over the last three decades. Your most recent title, "The Undefeated," has been more than ten years in the making. What was the inspiration behind it?
ALEXANDERI wanted to write a poem for my daughter to introduce her to this notion that black people have not only strived, but we've thrived. Obama was elected in '08. My daughter was born in '08, and I wanted to show her how we got there, how we waded in the water, how we crossed the River Jordan. It didn't happen out of a vacuum. So, I wanted to write the history of our people. It's a love letter to America, to black America.
NNAMDI"The Undefeated" is a poem that highlights moments of American history that you say have, quoting here, "been forgotten." What history are you referring to, and how did you decide which moment and historical figures to feature?
ALEXANDERYou know, it's really interesting. I did not sort of name names in the book. The illustrator is Kadir Nelson. And so I wrote, you know, this poem about the unsung heroes, those that we know, those that we don't know. My great-great grandfather, who fought in the Civil War. LeBron James, who started a school in Akron, Ohio called I Promise. Like, how we sort of bridge that gap. I wanted to write about all those people, but Kadir, he decided who the faces would be in this book, who he would shine, you know, his light on. And I think he did a brilliant job.
NNAMDII was about to say, your collaboration with Kadir Nelson is definitely beautiful, beautiful portraits of black icons and everyday folks. How do you think his work matched your words?
ALEXANDERI think I tried to tell a story of how we got here, of how we came to America, and how we made it to this point, where my daughter, by default, like, the only president she knew, like for four years of her life, was a black man. Like, how we got there. And I wanted to tell that story. I think Kadir told a whole other story. I think he told -- like, a genius illustrator, Kojo, will not only illustrate what's in the text, but she or he will illustrate a whole other narrative. And I think Kadir did that.
ALEXANDERWhen you look at these paintings on this page, he's got this thing he does, where at the bottom of the illustration, the legs, or the bottom of the painting is in darkness. And as you rise through the artwork, you see the light. And he's showing, like, he has this magical way of showing the pain and the progress, the tragedy and the triumph, which I think is just -- you know, it's a beautiful truth.
NNAMDIKwame, there's this idea that children's books need to be, well, simple, with basic language, so kids can follow along. But your book is lyrical, with big words like righteous and audacious. (laugh) Why was it important for you to not compromise on language simply because "The Undefeated" appears to be for kids?
ALEXANDERWe don't want to talk down to our children. My dad made me read the dictionary and encyclopedia, as an eight-year-old. At 11 years old, I had to read “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” by Paulo Freire, "The Wretched of the Earth" by Frantz Fanon. Like, I think if we want our kids to be able to imagine a world, a better world, we've got to give them the tools to be able to do that. Where do you find those tools? I think you find them between the pages of a book. So, let's arm them. Let's arm them with intelligent entertainment, and I think it starts with words. Words have the power to transform our lives, to make children better human beings.
NNAMDIDid you tell your dad, it's an interesting story, the dictionary, but why do they stop to explain every word as you go? (laugh)
NNAMDIEloise, you are also a career children's book author, with 40 titles to your name. You actually go your start writing children's poetry while you were a federal employee in the U.S. patent office. How did that job motivate you to write?
GREENFIELDWell, I hate to say it, but it motivated me by boring me to death. (laugh)
GREENFIELDI was so bored, and I didn't know what I wanted to do next. And I just started writing, because I'd always been a reader. And eventually, after a few years, I settled into the method that you have to use in order to be a writer. Well, not everybody uses the same method, but there is a craft, and a lot of people think that it's just inborn and you don't have to learn anything. But there's both. There's your talent, which is inborn, and then there's a craft that you have to study and learn.
GREENFIELDMany people learn it by reading other writers. I was always reading, so that wasn't it. I had to read books on the craft of writing, specifically addressed to that purpose. Each book told me that there would be rejections, and they were right. I got many, many, many rejections. And through the years, I still sometimes get rejections. But it's all a part of the process. And it's work that I really love. I love to do it. And people sometimes ask me if it's -- isn't that fun, writing picture books for children? And I say, no, it's work, but it's very satisfying work. So, even though sometimes I'm trying to make the book funny, it's not funny work. It's work.
NNAMDIWho were you initially writing your books for? Who was your intended audience?
GREENFIELDMy intended audience was African American children. And the civil rights movement was in full swing at that time. This was the early '70s -- well, the early '60s, in the beginning. And I wanted to participate in that way, that I could do my writing, which would be my primary work. And it would still be a part of the movement. Now, the other part was that I was writing for myself, too -- not the subject matter, but the fact that I wanted to spend the hours of my life doing that. That was for me.
GREENFIELDAnd then I wanted to give children something -- and not just children, but adults, too, anybody who was interested in reading or who could become interested in reading. It was partly satisfying work for me, and then a gift that I wanted to make to children.
NNAMDIYour most recent release, "Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me," is told from the perspective of a family dog who feels like the world is telling him to act more like a pet rather than the poet that he really is. Where did the inspiration for this book of poems come from?
GREENFIELDThis book, in the beginning, it was because I had been reading reviews of free verse that said free verse was not really poetry. And I wanted to counteract that. And I thought of writing an article, and I didn't think it would get as much exposure, or I'd have to find a magazine who would print and a newspaper that would print it. And then I decided, okay, so I'll write a book that will include poems, different kinds of poems. My favorite kind of poetry to write is free verse.
GREENFIELDAnd sometimes I do also write haiku, or some other kind of poetry. But, for me, writing free verse gives me the opportunity to use the music that I hear in my head. And words are music. Words have syllables. Our voices go up and down when we talk, even when we're just making a regular conversation. And so I wanted to use the music that I hear. And that's the interesting thing about writing, is that every poet, every writer comes from a different perspective. And everybody brings something else to it. And, for me, it was the music of the language and the meaning of the words and what I could do as a gift to children and to adults.
NNAMDIWell, "Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me" is allegedly a children's book, but when I read the very first poem in the book, I was hooked. So, for the audience, would you do the same for me? Would you read that first poem in the book?
GREENFIELDOkay. Okay. Let me say right now that I may stumble some. I have lost a lot of my vision, and I'm going to do the best I can. But the first poem is called "Naming Me." They brought me from the neighbor's house, and put me on the floor. They talked about their love for me, and I thought, more, more, more. I kept my eyes from opening. I kept my voice on mute, until I heard somebody say, let's name him something cute. My eyes popped open, and I said, un-huh, no way, no way. I'm deep, and I'm a poet. No, a cute name's not okay.
GREENFIELDThe boy called Jace said, you're a poet? I'm a poet, too. We'll name you Thinker. Yes, I think that that's the name for you. They named me Thinker, and I knew this was the place for me. A place that called me Thinker was the perfect place for me.
NNAMDIAnd that was it. I was hooked. I'll read the full book. (laugh)
NNAMDII'll read the entire book after that. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll hear some of Ayinde Sekou's work. He's a hip-hop and spoken word artist, and continue our conversation with Kwame Alexander and Eloise Greenfield. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Eloise Greenfield. She's the author of "Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me." Kwame Alexander is the author of "The Undefeated." That, of course, just their latest books. They have both published dozens of children's books, before that point. And also joining us in studio is Ayinde Sekou. He is a hip-hop and spoken word artist, and, yes, I do have some history with him, too. His father, Herb Grimes, and I were colleagues at Howard University Television, for many years. I got to know his mom, Donna. I actually went to their wedding, so I actually knew you before you were born. And I'm so proud to see you here today.
NNAMDIFor older kids who enjoy communicating verbally, spoken word is a form of poetry that can be incredibly appealing. When were you first introduced to the art form, and why did spoken word appeal to you over other kinds of poetry?
SEKOUWell, I was first introduced when I was about 15 years old. A friend of mine, Eric Powell, aka ELPJ, was the ill'est MC in the city. He was on a DC Youth Slam Team at the time. This was, like, 2012, and I just went to support him. And I'd just never been to an environment that was, like, run by youth, where youth are, like, this is our space, and this is what the flavor's going to be like. And if you want to be in here, you've got to dip into this type of flavor.
SEKOUSo, we had to snap, give the artist the energy back. And it was kind of like a conversation. But, like, I wrote it, but it was like the artists would, like, write down their feelings, their opinions, right, and then share with the audience. But it was just different than, like, when you see, like, a concert, or a even like a reading or anything. It was just dependent on the crowd's reaction. And the crowd's investment in the artist really reflects, like, the artist's investment, like, in themselves. And that's how I got hip. You know what I mean? Just spoken word. It was just a beautiful spot, Bus Boys and Poets, 5th and K -- formerly 5th and K. Now, 450 K, whatever.
NNAMDIBut now you lead workshops for local students. What kinds of young people do you work with? What topics are they interested in exploring in spoken word?
SEKOUWell, I work with brilliant young people. I work with young people that teach me every day, talk about Paulo Freire, these three assumptions that I take: like, everybody can teach, everybody has knowledge to share, and everybody can learn. And so the young people that I'm dealing with, they be from DC Ward 8, Ward 7, primarily, with, like, Sasha Bruce Youthwork, or working with Kelly Miller, or, like, students in that area.
SEKOUAnd the type of stories that they want to talk about is consistent with what the message was earlier. Let's keep DC's culture integrity intact. And so young people talk about being displaced. Young people also talk about, like, what it's like to ride the Metro, what it's like to go to their first movie date. They also write about “Fortnite,” a bunch of video games. I can't lie. Shout out to all the athletes and stuff, but really, their stories that they have, and their stories range infinitely. And so I'm just always learning and learning. That's the beauty of the work.
NNAMDIWhat resources does DC have for young people interested in spoken word?
SEKOUWell, primarily, I would say Split This Rock is a tremendous resource, because that's the camp that I got introduced to spoken word through. And so if you're a young person who has original works of poetry or is enthusiastic about expression in any way, Split This Rock has a DC Youth Slam Team. The DC Youth Slam Team competes in Brave New Voices, which is an international spoken word competition, where teams from all over the country get together and just share their truth, express themselves. And it's, like I said, one of those beautiful conversations that, I mean, you can only get through the spoken word.
SEKOUSo, Split This Rock. And so, every third Saturday at Bus Boys and Poets, 450 K. That's the one around, like, the convention center, Gallery Place. From 5:00 to 7:00, you can come, if you're a young person, that the mic is livicated to people 20 years and younger. So, if you're on the mic, and you're 21, we've got to ask you to chill. You know what I mean? It's for the youth, the youth, the youth, the youth. Well, you still would be -- I mean, compared to, like, people, they still say you're -- till you're 24. But you know how we do.
NNAMDICan you do one of your poems for us?
SEKOUAwesome. All right. I am not a minority. Your slur of slick bigotry be too brittle to handle the history I house in my head. Whoever calls me a minority must not know the ancestors hold the keys to these locks. I grab the mic for (unintelligible), on the run from the devil with the hands of the father holding her revolutionary soul in secrecy, like she did. I want to escape the confines of colonial categorization. I love myself, so I don't have to rely on other people to do it for me. And my black loves deeper than the skin I'm living in.
SEKOUI have come to erase self-hate, because I am not a minority. I am more. I am native. I am Nubian. I am Zulu. I am less than no one, no one who's breathing the same air as me. My melanin-aided lungs pump breath into the word that became flesh. Colonizers, disguised as the world's first travelers, decided to study the scrolls scribed into the lineage of my people. My black flashes eternal like a comet, constellations connecting the dots to the sun lighting my black bloodstream.
SEKOUMy skin is brown, like the ground that we all come from. So, I urge you geneticists to get their math right. My black has been here for five-fifths of existence. I am not your minority. I am nobody's minority. And these words illustrate the beauty of liberation. Free feels like walking on new world water and dodging all danger, whether the danger be red, white and blue strangers sleeper-holding our teens, or corporate control over our food, our water and our identify. Remember, I am not a minority. You are not a minority. We are nobody's minorities. So, remember, when anybody comes at you and calls you minor, don't hesitate to let them know we are nobody's minority. Peace and blessings.
NNAMDIAyinde Sekou. He is a hip-hop and spoken word artist. Eloise Greenfield, you end your book, "Thinker," with a rap. It's got a different rhyme scheme than the rest of the book. Why did you decide to switch up your style, right at the end?
GREENFIELDWell, since I use free verse, I can do anything I want. That give me lots of freedom.
GREENFIELDThe way the book began is that I had been, I think I mentioned, reading a lot of criticism about free verse, and statements that it was not real poetry. And rap is also criticized in that same way. So, I wanted to use rap, because it's good poetry. That's one reason. That's the first reason, it has to go in the book because it's good. And then it's -- I mean, that style of poetry is wonderful. It's rhythmic. It has meaning. It has everything that a poem should have. And so I thought it would be a climax for the book. And especially for the puppy who loves rhythm, and all those things that go with literature. And so that's why I decided to do that.
GREENFIELDOne thing that I didn't mention is that the illustrator is Ehsan Abdollahi, and he is great. He's great. And this book came about because Tiny Owl Publishing in Britain followed me on Twitter.
GREENFIELDAnd so I thought -- I followed them back. I thought that maybe I'll send them a manuscript. So, I had this manuscript that had been rejected, and I sent it to them, and they loved it. And they engaged Ehsan Abdollahi to illustrate it. So, that's how that came about.
NNAMDIWow. Michelle from Silver Spring called to say: Eloise Greenfield is the Einstein of children's books. Einstein wrote the theory of relativity while working in the patent office.
NNAMDIAnd a Tweet from Mark says: Kwame, I got chills listening to you talk about the significance of the stories in your book. You not only write with passion and prowess. Your voice shares the power of what's on the page. How do you feel that power?
ALEXANDERHow do you feel that power? Wow.
NNAMDIBecause you've got to -- as Eloise said, you've got to engage in the craft of writing. You've got to work at it. You've got to -- it ultimately brings pleasure, but it's a lot of work.
NNAMDIBut I agree with the writer, there is a certain power that emerges from your writing that is clearly emotional.
ALEXANDERI guess, you know, first of all, thank you. That's a great compliment. I come out of a tradition of listening to poets, reading poets like Langston Hughes, studying with poets like Nikki Giovanni, growing up on the books of poets like Eloise Greenfield. When my mother told me at age three we were having another kid in the house, I was going to have a sister, I was, like, un-huh.
ALEXANDERAnd what did my mom do? She gave me a copy of "She Come Bringing Me That Baby Girl," by Eloise Greenfield.
ALEXANDERLike, how do we learn how to move through this world? I posit that it's through books. So, let me just interject, real quick, and say, Kojo, in addition to writing, I also run an imprint now called Versify. So, I'm publishing other authors. And if Eloise Greenfield ever submits a book, it's no question in my mind that we will accept it.
ALEXANDERThere will be no rejections. I guess I just -- to answer that question more succinctly, I take the power from those who came before me in that tradition. And I try to capture, and I try to put it down on paper, the best that I can. So, I'm honored by that question, because I appreciate the compliment.
NNAMDIAyinde, who were some of your favorite poets and writers when you were a child? And is there...
SEKOUWell, I would say James Baldwin is one of my favorite writers as, like, a young man. But growing up listening to music, I would say KRS-One, just how succinct he is, lyrically. And then Walter Dean Myers. When I was, like, 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, Walter Dean Myers had some dope books. Poetic influences, though, come from local cats Pages Matam, Amin “Drew” Law, Elizabeth Acevedo, some of my poet mentors.
SEKOUSo, yeah, what I would say is the -- I just want to echo what was at the top of the hour, when Kwame was talking about just, like, the power of words, and, like, putting your story out there and taking that leap of faith. That's what kind of, like, spoken word allows you to do, is just to, like, just take that leap of faith, yo. You know, this is your story, this is your experience, and this is your truth. And don't hide from the feelings that go into it.
SEKOUHip-hop music and my love for that helped me break down the walls of, you know, shyness and, oh, I want to be cool, but I don't want to say that, all that social anxiety stuff. Big ups to the Guru, big ups to KRS-One, big ups to MC Lyte and all the real MCs that influenced me. Yeah.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Ayinde Sekou is a hip-hop and spoken word artist. Thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
SEKOUI'm blessed and humbled. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIKwame Alexander is the author of "The Undefeated." Kwame, always a pleasure.
ALEXANDERSame here, Kojo.
NNAMDIEloise Greenfield is the author of "Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me." Eloise, as always, it was an honor speaking with you.
GREENFIELDThank you. For me, too.
NNAMDIFind a list of spoken word open mics on today's show page at kojoshow.org. There, you can also watch videos of Ayinde Sekou's favorite spoken word performances from other Washingtonians. Today's show on children's poetry and spoken word was produced by Ruth Tam. Our conversation on the debate over Metro PCS's go-go music was produced by Julie Depenbrock.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow on the Politics Hour, we review the end of Maryland's legislative session, and analyze what the results mean from Montgomery County residents with County Executive Marc Elrich. Plus, we sit down with Virginia Delegate Karrie Delaney to hear about what she learned as a freshman lawmaker during a tumultuous time for Virginia politics. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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