Listening to Kwame Alexander speak is like going to church.
And when you pair him with fellow poet and YA goddess Sonya Sones, you know you're in for a treat. The #LA17SCBWI Saturday afternoon's closing keynote did not disappoint.
"Okay, Kwame. Let's start from the beginning," Sonya said. "Tell me about the moment of your conception."
Kwame didn't miss a beat. "1967. Harlem, New York. A dormitory at Columbia University."
"Okay, moving on."
"What? You don't want to hear the rest of this story?"
Just getting started, and already a riveted (laughing) audience.
Kwame first realized he was a writer when he penned a poem as a child for his mom on Mother's Day. "That was the first time I knew that my words could be pretty powerful."
As a child, Kwame switched schools some 13 times as his family moved around. But socially, he thrived. "I was very outgoing and I knew how to use my words. I used humor a lot and liked moving through different crowds." He recalls going to a poetry reading at six and being enthralled.
In college, he studied with Nikki Giovanni. "I was writing social protest poetry full of passion and the spirit of revolution. And I remember her giving me Cs. I asked her why. She told me: 'you're writing poetry from your head, and not from your heart.' I remember telling her she was crazy."
At the end of the semester, she called him in, he thought to offer an apology. "She told me everything that was wrong with me -- that I was trapped in an image. I stormed out of her office. I took her class again the next year, and the same thing happened, and then taking it the third year -- and writing a play, on campus, about Nikki Giovanni, showing her in an unfavorable light. She knew about it. I left Virginia Tech with no relationship with her. A year later, I wrote my first poetry book. Bad poetry. I only sold like five books. The last day, a woman came up to me and said I want to buy two books - and was Nikki. I knew then I wanted to do this the rest of my life."
At its very core, poetry is this rhythmic, concise, emotional way of sharing, Kwame says. "That has a profound impact on a child," he says. "It changes the way they see the world."
He says that his own "voice" leaned heavily on poets who came before him, like Giovanni, Tupac, and e.e. cummings. In poetry, "every word counts. You have to chose carefully." But a lot of his work entails making up a rhythm, and even words.
Doing more than 200 school visits a year, he feels pretty connected to kids. "I want to empower young people." Getting on the path of writing for young people was nearly a fluke. He met a bookseller in Connecticut, who made the suggestion. "She said, 'Your poetry's pretty good. You should write novels in verse for children.' She gave me Love that Dog, by Sherry Creech. And after that, I devoured every novel in verse I could find."
In his memoir/life guide, The Playbook: 52 Rules To Help You Aim, Shoot, and Score in This Game Of Life, he shares similar wisdom. Some of it was borrowed from his dad. "He's always saying things like, 'You can't know what you don't know.' And 'Never have anyone around you who has less to lose than you,'" Kwame says. "This stuff is like ageless. I just put it in different terms, things kids can understand, using music, sports or other things I love a framework for it."
A few years later, he won the Newbery, and Sonya emailed him, saying, "I guess it could be said that I taught him nothing he knows." But that support was there.
Bottom line: "When you're in this business, if you want to be a writer and have certain goals, surround yourself with people who are like-minded, who will encourage you," Kwame says. "Even when you think they don't like you, like Nikki. You have to find your tribe. Keep going. We are stars, in our minds, day and night. Let it shine."