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Kwame Alexander discusses his anthology of Black poetry, 'This Is the Honey'
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Amna Nawaz: Kwame Alexander, an award-winning author and producer, has just released his latest work. It's an anthology by Black poets called "This Is the Honey."
I spoke to him earlier as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Kwame Alexander, welcome to the "NewsHour."
Kwame Alexander, "This Is the Honey: An Anthology of Contemporary Black Poets": It's good to be here.
Amna Nawaz: So, this new book is a collection of contemporary Black poets. The title of the book comes from a poem included in here by Mahogany L. Browne.
The first lines of it, which are so beautiful, the first lines read: "There is no room on this planet for anything less than a miracle. We gather here today to revel in the rebellion of a silent tongue."
Why did this give you the title of the book? What did you want to put out into the world?
Kwame Alexander: Well, the idea that, yes, we deal with drama and trauma, but there's also triumph. We deal with woe, but there's also wonder.
Like, amidst all the divisiveness and the uncertainty that's happening in this world, I wanted to give us something that would uplift us, that would give us a little bit of that hope, that would bring us together.
Amna Nawaz: How do you pick poems? How did you invite people to be a part of this?
Kwame Alexander: I sort of view this book like you would a day in your life. So you wake up in the morning, the sun is out. It's promise. And so this first section of the book is going to be poems of hope and promise and joy.
You greet your family, the people who you love, the people who love you. So the next section of the book is going to be love poems. And then, of course, you go out into the world and you're dealing with all the craziness, and so you're going to have poems that challenge us, that are obstacles.
And then, next, you're going to sort of take that lunch break. Or, in my case, when I worked in corporate America, I'd go to the restroom and just sort of chill a little bit just to get my bearings and to say a prayer.
Kwame Alexander: So you're going to have your devotions.
And, of course, the last part of the book is, you come home. And it's a long day, and you eat food, and you share, and you're grateful. And so you're going to have praise poems.
So I thought about that as the metaphor. And then I just sort of started looking for poems and poets that fit.
Amna Nawaz: There's some incredible work in here.
There's a poem from Warsan Shire, who's one of my personal favorites. Ruth Forman has this eight-line poem in there that is just so powerful. You have an original poem in here as well, right? It's called "How We Made You."
Kwame Alexander: Right.
Amna Nawaz: Tell me about that.
Kwame Alexander: Oh.
So, Stephanie, my wife and I were together — we were married for 24 years. And when the uncoupling happened, I didn't want my daughter to think that it was the divorce that defined us or was the things that didn't go right. I wanted to let her know that it was about — it was not about the storm, but about the rainbow, that we love each other, that we are very good friends and that we built a lot together.
We built a business. We built a beautiful daughter. So I want to focus on that. So that poem deals with how we made you, and it's really all about love.
Amna Nawaz: What was it like for you after she read that poem, your daughter?
Kwame Alexander: Has she read it yet?
Amna Nawaz: Has she read it is the better question.
Kwame Alexander: Look, when I wrote that — when I wrote that memoir, "Why Fathers Cry at Night," I had it on the counter.
And my kid, she's 15. She comes in, and she says: "Dad, we're studying memoir in school now. How cool would it be if I read your memoir?"
She's like: "I'm not going to do it, but how cool would it be?"
Kwame Alexander: So I doubt she's read it yet.
Amna Nawaz: Speaking of that memoir, it has been about a year now almost since it's been out. That was an intensely personal blend of poetry and prose that you put out in that — the memoir called "Why Fathers Cry at Night."
All this time later, what's it like for you to have that out in the world?
Kwame Alexander: That is a great question, because I have wrestled with realizing that this book is out in the world still.
Amna Nawaz: Really?
Kwame Alexander: Because it's a memoir about these challenges that I have had dealing with the fact that, in 2017, my mother passed, my marriage started sort of breaking down, and my oldest daughter and I had an argument that just blew up into an estrangement.
And so all these things happened. And so writing the book allowed me to deal with it, to heal from it, and then to get on a path to sort of figure it out, which I did. So now the book is out, I'm a much better person, but I'm like, oh, the book is still out, all the stuff I went through.
But, hopefully, it helps people, it offers some insight and some inspiration for people who are dealing with their own things.
Amna Nawaz: Kwame, you are nothing if not prolific. Your Newbery Award-winning New York Times bestselling book "The Crossover" was made into a Disney+ series that won you your first Emmy.
What was that moment like?
Kwame Alexander: What was it like?
Well, somebody asked me, was it a dream come true to win an Emmy Award? And I was like, no, because it was never a dream. I wanted to write good books. And so the fact that this book that got rejected by 22 publishers, the fact that this book, which came out six years, seven years ago won an Emmy Award for a TV adaptation, it just speaks to the power of poetry to me, how it can translate and transfer across different mediums.
And I think poetry ultimately is about making us feel better. And, hopefully, the TV show did that. The Emmy certainly did that for me.
Amna Nawaz: Well, you have been carrying that Emmy around everywhere. I'm going to show people here a photo of you with the Emmy on your lap on the flight home. Tell me about that.
Kwame Alexander: Well, they made me check the bag. I wanted to put it in the overhead, and it didn't fit. So I said, well, let me take something out.
And I did.
Amna Nawaz: That is a flex.
Kwame Alexander: That's a flex. Hey, it didn't fit.
Amna Nawaz: All of your work though, all of your writing, it's really grounded in who we are as a country, who we are as a people and where we are.
I remember reading this op-ed that you wrote for The L.A. Times earlier this year on MLK Jr. Day. You wrote about the first protest you went to back in 1978 in New York. You wrote about studying Dr. King's famous Selma speech with the "How long, not long" call and response. And you said that there was hope embedded in those words.
You wrote this: "In the war room of our red, white and weary blues, we become pioneers in this renewal by awakening our conscious, summoning our courage, then treading the stony road through a tunnel of hope."
Where do you find that hope today?
Kwame Alexander: You know, I still find it in words. I still find a world of possibility in language and literature.
I think, when a child sees themselves in a book, the book is a mirror. It shows them who they are and what they're capable of and gives them some sort of experiences outside of what we're thinking. When you show a child a book, a book can be a window, and it can show a kid someone else or another community.
I think, ultimately, these words can connect us to ourselves and to each other and allow us to become better human beings because we're empathetic and we're connected. So, for me, that's where the hope comes from. It comes through the power of words to make us imagine a better world or a different world.
Amna Nawaz: The book is "This Is the Honey." The author is Kwame Alexander.
Kwame, thank you so much. Great to see you.
Kwame Alexander: Thank you very much, Amna.