RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
J. Ivy is a Grammy Award-winning poet who may not be on your radar, but he should be. In the mid-2000s, Ivy performed on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam." Here he is reciting the poem that he says changed his life. It's called "Dear Father."
(SOUNDBITE OF POETRY READING, "DEAR FATHER")
J. IVY: (Reading) Dear Dad, these words are being written and spoken because my heart and soul feel broken. I laugh to keep from crying, but I still have to heal after all of my years of my goofiness and joking. You've got me open, hoping this ill feeling will pass, won't last. I wear a mask so my piece won't ask for the truth, truthfully speaking the truth hurts...
MARTIN: J. Ivy spent years trying to come to grips with his relationship with his dad. His father had walked out of his life after his parents split up. And J. Ivy was never able to forgive him until after his dad passed away. His memoir recounts that experience and how poetry saved him starting at a young age. J. Ivy was in elementary school when he wrote his very first poem. I spoke with Ivy recently about his new memoir and his first poem about clouds.
IVY: Yes, "There Once Was A Cloud."
MARTIN: (Laughter) Can you tell that story - what that was like when you were asked to stand up and kind of own this poem in a way you weren't expecting to have to?
IVY: Yeah. Well, I was a very shy, teenager or child. So my junior year of high school, my English teacher, her name is Ms. Paula Argue. She gave us this homework assignment to write a poem. And I went home, and the only thing I could think about was the clouds that I saw outside of my window. So the next day, she surprised the class and made everyone read their homework in front of everyone. So I read my piece.
And to my surprise, she pulled me to the side after the class, and she told me that I had a very nice speaking voice. And she said, I have a show coming up, I want to put you in this show. And I said, I'm not doing the show. You know, I didn't want to do it. So I didn't do the show. And then she had another show come up, and she said, you know what? Last time I asked you to do the show, you didn't do it. So this time I'm not asking you. You have to do it. I decided to take on the challenge so she gave me a speech to learn. And my first time ever on stage as nervous and scared as I was to get up there, I got up there and did it. And the first time ever on stage I received a station ovation, and I just fell in love.
MARTIN: You spend a lot of time in this book talking about your mom.
IVY: Lady P.
MARTIN: She saw your talent pretty early on, right?
IVY: Yeah. Yeah. When I wrote that poem, "There Once Was A Cloud," I took it home because I got an A on it, and I was excited. I said, wow, I got an A something, you know. So I took it...
IVY: Something yes. So I took it home, and I showed it to my mother. And, my mom, she loved it. And, you know, she read it, and she just went crazy over the piece. She's just always been there, always encouraging me to encourage others. That's my angel, you know.
MARTIN: Her opinion meant even more to you because your dad wasn't around, I imagine. How old were you when you're dad left?
IVY: I was 12 - 12, 13. My father, he was actually a DJ. So he actually - I would actually listen to him on the radio before I would go to school in the mornings. And he had this magnificent voice. And he would actually do the news so this - essentially, we're doing what he was doing back in the day. But, you know, turns and twists happened in this life where alcohol became a factor, drugs became a factor. He lost his job. Fights broke out in the home. And separation eventually happened, which led to divorce. And then I didn't see or hear from my father for the next 10 years.
MARTIN: You finally reconcile or at least you finally get to the point where you sit down with one another. What was that conversation like?
IVY: When I walked up to the door, it was just such a nervous, nervous feeling. And, you know, ringing that bell and opening - and him opening the door and me expecting to see this giant, because that's what he was the last time I saw him, you know. And now I'm towering over him. And now he's just this older man. And you could tell life had beat him up.
You know, so seeing him in that moment, I could see that life had beat him up. He was at the time, I believe, like 59 years old, but he looked like he was 80. But I - as soon as he opened the door, I just - I hugged him. I said, man, you know, I love you. And then we didn't talk a lot, you know, outside of, you know, any deep conversations. But, you know, I was let him know about how my brothers were and how my mother was. And one of the things he told me, he said man, I never stopped loving your mother.
MARTIN: This book is not just about that seminal relationship with your dad, but it's also a retracing of a really unique career and what it took for you to get to where you are. You and Kanye West ended up collaborating. He used your poem, "Never Let Me Down," as inspiration for a song that he did of the same name. Would you mind reading for us?
IVY: Yes indeed. (Reading) We're all here for a reason on a particular path. You don't need a curriculum to know that you are part of the math. Casting, I'm delirious, but I'm so damn serious. That's why I expose my soul to the glow of the world. I'm to trying to make it better for these little boys and girls. I'm not just another individual.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER LET ME DOWN")
IVY: (Rapping) My spirit is a part of this. That's why I get spiritual. But I get my hymns from him. So it's not me, it's he that's lyrical. I'm not a miracle. I'm a heaven sent instrument.
MARTIN: J. Ivy joined us from the Studios of WBEZ in Chicago. It was great to talk with you.
IVY: Thank you so much for having me. It's such a pleasure and an honor.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER LET ME DOWN")
IVY: (Rapping) But that ain't what gives me the heart of Kunta Kinte I'm trying to give us "us free" like Cinque. I can't stop, that's why I'm hot. Determination, dedication, motivation. I'm talking to you of my many inspirations. When I say I can't let you or self down. If I were on the highest cliff, on the highest riff, and you slipped off the side and clinched on to your life in my grip, I would never ever let you down.
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