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'Out Of Wonder' Aims To Inspire A New Generation Of Poets

Mar 17, 2017

Kwame Alexander believes that wonder lies between the lines of poems.

His new book Out of Wonder, is a collection of original poems for children written in the style of some of the world's most famous poets — Rumi, Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou. The poems were written by Alexander, Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth and illustrated by Ekua Holmes.

There are three aims for the book — to encourage kids to read poetry, to introduce them to great poets, and to inspire them to write poems of their own.

"It's a lofty goal, but I think that's a metaphor for what poetry is," Alexander says.


Interview Highlights

On the pressure for poetry to be 'perfect'

It doesn't. ... [One poem in the collection, "How to Write a Poem"] was celebrating Naomi Shihab Nye. And she writes such accessible, such wise, such warm words ... and that's what most of us feel when we're trying to ask the questions about our lives — I think poetry is a way of helping us at least begin to understand ourselves better, and eventually, each other.

On how they hope to inspire kids

We tackled this book, this poetry collection, with this notion that we could inspire kids to want to perhaps mimic the rhyme and the rhythm of a Langston Hughes poem, or to be inspired by the environmental action of Judith Wright. My kid is ... a part of her recycling team at school, and so being able to make real-life connections through the poetry, I think will get kids excited. Not to mention that the poets that we're paying tribute to are just really cool people.

On making tough choices about which poets would be featured in the book

Those decisions were like arguments. Chris and Marjory and I were in Charleston, S.C., ... and we were there for about four days deciding — out of about 50 poets — which 20 we were going to choose. There was a lot of shrimp and grits, there was some sweet tea, and there was some discussion, and debate, and argument. And it really came down to: Which poets were we passionate about? ...

Certainly it meant that some poets weren't going to make it, but that didn't mean they weren't worthy. But also what that meant ... was that there were poets that I wouldn't have chosen that I ended up falling in love with ... like Chief Dan George. I was a fan of Mary Oliver, but not until ... we had her in the book that I understood the power that Mary Oliver has in her writing. ... She's one of my favorites now.

On what inspires him

Kids always ask me in school what inspires me ... and I tell them I'm in love with love. I am a hopeful romantic on so many levels. ... I have two daughters ... and they are so much alike and so different.

One of the ways they are so alike is that they both would say random things to me to sort of get on my good side like, "Daddy, I like your hat," "Daddy, I like your shoes." ... And that was so endearing to me. ... This is a tribute to e. e. cummings. It's called "I Like Your."

On writing poetry with first graders

There was this group of first graders in Manassas, Va., that a friend of mine teaches ... and they were wrestling with trying to understand what's going on in our world right now. And she has them sort of discuss it, but then she had them write poems about it.

All of their poems ... were about peace, were about trying to figure out how to make the world better. I think that's what poetry does. I don't know if it necessarily is that poetry can change the world, but I believe that poetry can change us — and who can change the world but us?

OUT OF WONDER. Text copyright © 2017 by Kwame Alexander. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Ekua Holmes. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Radio editor Shannon Rhoades, radio producers Danny Hajek and Camilo Garzon, web producer Beth Novey and web intern Kelli Wessinger contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin. Our next guest pretty much lives on poetry. Kwame Alexander's children's book, written in verse, won the Newbery Medal. He spends a good chunk of time on the road, empowering school kids to write poetry. And in his new book, he offers this - a poem has the power to reach inside you, ignite something and change you in ways you could never imagine.

That book is called "Out Of Wonder." And it's a collection by Alexander and two collaborators of original poems for children written in the style of some of the world's most famous poets - Rumi, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes. And Kwame Alexander is in our studio to share some poetry with us this morning. Thanks so much for coming in.

KWAME ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: We could all use some poetry, more poetry in our lives.

ALEXANDER: Always. It keeps us grounded.

MARTIN: So let's kick off with a poem. The very first one in the book captures the essence of really what this is about. This is called "How To Write A Poem." You mind reading this one?

ALEXANDER: (Reading) Hush. Grab a pencil, some paper, spunk. Let loose your heart. Raise your voice. What if I have many voices? Let them dance together, twist and turn like best friends in a maze till you find your way to that one true word - or two.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So this reminded me of when I was in college. And I don't know what was happening in my life, but I felt like I needed to write a poem. And I'd never done that before. And I felt in that moment dismayed that I hadn't written, like, a great work. And I think a lot of us deal with that - right? - like kids who are experimenting in poetry, it somehow has to be this big, perfect thing.

ALEXANDER: And it doesn't.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ALEXANDER: I mean, that particular poem was celebrating Naomi Shihab Nye. And she writes such accessible, such wise, such warm words. And I think that's what you were feeling. And that's what most of us feel when we're trying to ask the questions about our lives. I think poetry is a way of helping us at least begin to understand ourselves better and eventually each other.

MARTIN: This collection is kind of a triple threat here, right? You want to get kids to enjoy reading poetry. You also want to inspire them to write their own poetry. And you're also teaching them about other poets. It's an ambitious effort here.

ALEXANDER: (Laughter) It is. It is. It's a lofty goal. But I think we tackled this book, this poetry collection with this notion that we could inspire kids to want to perhaps mimic the rhyme and the rhythm of a Langston Hughes poem or to be inspired by the environmental action of Judith Wright.

My kid is always, you know, she's a part of her recycling team at school. And so being able to make real life connections through the poetry I think will get kids excited. Not to mention that the poets that we are paying tribute to are just really cool people.

MARTIN: I want to get to another poem in this book. This was written by your colleague, Chris Colderley. And it's a tribute to one of the greatest poets of the English language. I want to give listeners a chance to see if they can identify who that poet is. So let's not tell them. Let's just read it first. This one is called "A Field Of Roses."

ALEXANDER: Oh, my goodness.

(Reading) I keep an old verse in my room that says believing in roses makes them bloom. I know enough of life's toil to say it also takes rich, fertile soil, lots of good old fashioned care and rain to make roses blossom in air. Here a beautiful red field grows, I'd say the loveliest anyone knows.

MARTIN: So this is an homage to Emily Dickinson.

ALEXANDER: To Emily Dickinson.

MARTIN: Emily.

ALEXANDER: Yeah.

MARTIN: How'd you decide which poets to include? I mean, Emily obviously and so many of them you couldn't not include. But you had to make decisions. You couldn't include everyone.

ALEXANDER: Those decisions were like arguments. And we - Chris and Marjory and I were in Charleston, S.C.

MARTIN: That's Marjory Wentworth, who was a collaborator with you on this book.

ALEXANDER: And we were there for about four days deciding out of about 50 poets which 20 we were going to choose. And so there were - there was a lot of shrimp and grits. There was some sweet tea. And there was some laughter. And there was some discussion and debate and argument.

And it really came down to, which poets were we passionate about and we really could defend to be a part of this book? And certainly it meant that some poets weren't going to make it. But that didn't mean they weren't worthy. But also what it meant, Rachel, is that there were poets that I wouldn't have chosen that I ended up falling in love with.

MARTIN: Like who?

ALEXANDER: Like Chief Dan George. You know, I was a fan of Mary Oliver, but not until Marjory said we've got to have Mary Oliver, and she fought for her, and we had her in the book that I really understand the power, you know, that Mary Oliver has in her writing and the kindness.

MARTIN: Yeah. She's my favorite.

ALEXANDER: She is?

MARTIN: Yeah. She's my favorite.

ALEXANDER: She's one of my favorites now.

MARTIN: Oh, cool. So I'd love if you could read us something to go out on. I mean, I can give it - I can leave the choice to you.

ALEXANDER: Yes.

MARTIN: Poet's choice.

ALEXANDER: So I'm...

MARTIN: What do you feel moved by right now?

ALEXANDER: Kids always ask me in school what inspires me when I go to schools and I tell them I'm in love with love. I am a hopeful romantic on so many levels. And so, you know...

MARTIN: Really? I can't tell.

ALEXANDER: You can't tell? Yeah. I am.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ALEXANDER: I mean my, daughters - I have two daughters, Nandi (ph) and Somaya (ph) - and they are so much alike and so different. One of the ways they are so alike is that they both would say random things to me to sort of get on my good side. Like, Daddy, I like your hat. Daddy, I like your shoes. Daddy, I like your fingernails. Daddy, I like your eyebrows. Like, that would be - and that was so endearing to me. And so no matter how I felt, I was sort of, you know, they got me.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ALEXANDER: This is a tribute to E. E. Cummings. It's called "I Like Your."

(Reading) I like my shoes when they are with your shoes, mostly the comes, leastly the goes. I carry your footsteps - one, two, three, four - in between today, tomorrow, again and again and again. I like to feel the flowers and the follow to your lead. It is such a happy thing to yes the next with you, to walk on magic love roads beneath the what and why nots, the anything of liking every blooming thing - four feet, two hearts, one great, great, great us - going.

MARTIN: Kwame Alexander. His new book along with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth is called "Out Of Wonder: Poets Celebrating Poets." Kwame, thank you so much.

ALEXANDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.