Kwame Alexander's memoir began as a book of love poems but morphed into so much more
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Kwame Alexander is a familiar name here on MORNING EDITION. He's had many wonderful visits with our friend Rachel Martin, creating and sharing community crowdsourced poems, talking about his poetry and award-winning young adult novels. But now he's got something new for us. It's a memoir of sorts. We'll ask him to explain why I said that. It's called "Why Fathers Cry At Night." And he is with us now to tell us more about it. Welcome back.
KWAME ALEXANDER: Hey, it's good to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: So why the memoir now? I mean, you could argue that a lot of poetry, especially your very personal work, is in some ways memoir, but this more directly describes your life story. What made you want to?
ALEXANDER: It started off as a book of love poems that I wanted to write that would hopefully have some impact on readers, make them feel good, make them think about their love lives. And as I wrote it, I realized that I was telling a story. The poems were chronological. And then I began to write prose pieces to support the poetry pieces. And then I began to think about the recipes that my mother and my grandmother used in their kitchens that were - you know, that were fueling some of these prose pieces. And so I began to include recipes. And before I knew it, it was - this book became sort of a mirror of what parenting is. And, you know, from a philosophical or just from a really intimate, personal perspective, I realized that I was in sort of a crisis. And this was around 2017. My mother had passed. My marriage was falling apart. My oldest daughter - I have two kids. My oldest daughter had stopped speaking with us. And at the same time, Michel, I'm winning all these awards for my books. But I wasn't happy, and I didn't know what to do about it. And so that's where the writing started.
MARTIN: So this is where we get to the pain parts, though there are some hilarious parts in this book. But there are the pain parts, and the pain parts are ones that I think will be familiar to anybody who has relationships with anyone. And this is where I'm going to ask you to read - if you'd read one of the poems. It's "Without You."
ALEXANDER: (Reading) Without you, I am lost, as in isolated, unfinished, broken off, shipwrecked on the shore of solitude, ankle-deep in possibility. I have read the dictionary twice, and still there are no words to fill my blank spaces, to punctuate the way I feel when your smile dances across the stucco walls of my memory. Perhaps I will open a thesaurus now and find a little piece of hope or something similar.
MARTIN: Tell me about it. I think this is one of those experiences that could apply to so many relationships that get ruptured - could be a love, could be a friend.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, I think it's all of the above. You've been married for 23 years, and now your marriage is over. You don't stop thinking about the person. Your daughter, your firstborn child - you all have an argument, and it explodes into something you could never have imagined, are not speaking with each other for years. Like, how does that happen? Those crises - there's a longing. There's a missing. And not to even mention your mother passing away - I'm dealing with all this stuff at the same time, and I don't know how to handle it. I'm unprepared for that kind of loss.
MARTIN: You know, this is something a therapist will tell you to do - you know, journal, write it down, put it in a drawer someplace until you're ready to deal with those big feelings. A couple of questions occur to me. This is other people's stories, too, but you're the one who gets to tell it. Do you think that's fair?
ALEXANDER: My father called me after he read the book, Michel, and he said, tell your publisher I read your little memoir, and I will be suing you for slander.
MARTIN: Oh, boy. Ouch.
ALEXANDER: And then in the next moment, he's like, so how you been (laughter)? I think it's fair for me to share what I have been going through, and on this canvas of life that is - that has been full of woe and wonder and tragedy and triumph, this is me painting my picture. I think that's very fair.
MARTIN: Now that you have, you know, laid your soul bare in this way, I would - I could argue - I said, having read your earlier works, especially your poetry, that you have done so for some time. You've been very vulnerable and opened your heart up. But this is different in the sense that there's no hiding behind the metaphors, you know?
MARTIN: So how does that feel now that you've done so...
MARTIN: ...Especially - can I - may I say...
MARTIN: ...As an African American man...
MARTIN: ...For whom that kind of vulnerability is not always welcome or safe?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah. It's - we're not taught that. You know, I have two really good friends, Marshall (ph) and Mike (ph), who I've known for 30 years. And I've been really busy with my career. You know, that's been my excuse why I haven't been able to hang and spend time and do the things that the fellas do. So I planned a trip, just the three of us. And it was wonderful. And we're sitting at dinner, and I'm like, fellas, have I had a wall up emotionally during our friendship? Have I been vulnerable? Have I shared with y'all? Like, I'm just in the moment - right? - 'cause I'm trying to learn and do the work that I write about in this book. And they both look at me and laugh at the same time, and they say, dude, you've always been surface. And I'm like, what? And so I think you're right, that I've hidden behind the metaphor. I've avoided being able to really be as forthcoming and honest and authentic with who I am as a man, as a Black man. And how do I feel now? I feel like this book has forced me to do that. And that's hard. And, yeah, I've woken up with panic attacks and called my editor and said, pull the book. But ultimately, I feel like it was necessary, and I'm going to be better.
MARTIN: Kwame Alexander is the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of 38 books. He is the showrunner and executive producer of the TV series based on his award-winning novel "The Crossover." And his latest book that we've been talking about is "Why Fathers Cry At Night." Kwame Alexander, thank you so much for talking with us about this very precious work.
ALEXANDER: Thank you for listening and letting me talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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