If it’s true, as James Baldwin once wrote, that “these are all our children: we will all profit by or pay for what they become,” then everyone owes a debt of gratitude to Jacqueline Woodson, who has written more than 25 books and helped positively shape the lives of thousands of young readers. Woodson has won numerous awards, including a 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for her 2014 memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming. She often writes in the voices of the silenced or unheard, chronicling the beautiful and the difficult with equal care and compassion.
On June 1, Woodson will begin her two-year tenure as the young people’s poet laureate. The Poetry Foundation recently corresponded with Woodson on a range of subjects, from imposter syndrome to the poetry of the everyday. An edited, condensed version of that exchange follows.
You said in an earlier interview that when you first approached poetry, you were “afraid” of it and had to read several writers to get past this feeling. What did you find daunting or inaccessible about poetry, and who were the poets who invited you in?
The line breaks threw me. I thought there was some unwritten rule about how I was supposed to digest a poem. I think too it had to do with imposter syndrome—“How could I possibly ever understand this thing? How could this thing ever be mine?” Langston Hughes invited me in. As did Countee Cullen, Eloise Greenfield, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and Audre Lorde. Later on, Nick Flynn, Tim Seibles, Cornelius Eady, Marie Howe, and Michael Klein helped me deepen my understanding.
What expectations, limitations, and possibilities do you find inherent in poetry that distinguishes it from other genres? As the new poet laureate for young people, how will you advocate for and (re)present it?
I think one thing I want to do as young people’s poet laureate is make sure all people know that poetry is a party everyone is invited to. I think many people believe and want others to believe that poetry is for the precious, entitled, educated few. And that’s just not true. Our children’s first words are poems—poems we and our listeners are delighted to hear and eager to understand. Rap is poetry. Spoken word is poetry. Poetry lives in our everyday. I’ve read some of the most poetic tweets, listened to poetic voice messages and snippets of dialogue between teenagers. In terms of what distinguishes poetry from other genres—it wastes no time, and I love that. Poetry doesn’t meander—well, a lot of poetry doesn’t. It says, “Understand me now because what I need to say is urgent.” And this urgency, this sense of getting the moment on the page and then letting silence fill the white space, is one of the many things I love about poetry. I would love for everyone to listen to the poetry inside of them. I would love for everyone to believe that they have a poem to write, say, sing, rap, dance—and then execute that poem. I’m thinking about collaborations across race and class and gender. I’m thinking about old poets and young poets sharing stages. I’m thinking about young poets getting published and about young people discussing Ferguson and Guantanamo Bay and high-stakes testing and helicopter parenting and housing and health care—my lists go on and on—through poetry. I’m thinking about giving voices to and back to young silenced people.
So I guess I have some big plans and am so excited to get busy having talks and raising awareness and meeting the young poets across this country.
One of the many things I appreciate about your work is the unflinching way in which you approach and incorporate subject matter that has often been kept out of mainstream literary discourse—absent or incarcerated parents, the lure of youthful drug abuse, broken families. When you write, do you have a specific audience in mind? Are you writing for readers who recognize themselves in your words or for those whose horizons have never included the subject matter addressed?
Rudine Sims Bishop talks about the need for both windows and mirrors in literature. Mirrors allow readers to see reflections of themselves on the page. Windows allow readers to enter into worlds they may never experience in real life. I think language is powerful and important. For example, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “broken family.” A reader coming to that phrase and seeing a divorced mom or foster mom or care-giving cousin in the mirror of that doesn’t see it as a positive thing because that phrase suggests something is “not right” with the family. I believe there are so many ways we can have families, and none are wrong as long as love is there. So this—and many other ideas—I try to bring to the page. I enter worlds that are realistic with the hope that the readers who come into my books will have both mirrors and windows. I don’t have a specific person in mind, because I know different readers coming to the same book can have very different reading experiences. I am also always hoping to fill some gap in the body of literature—too often, that gap is reflected in the lack of books written by and featuring diverse characters and situations.
You’ve written more than 25 books so far in your career, ranging from picture books to novels in verse to fiction for adults and young adults. How do you know what form is best for a specific story, where it most authentically belongs?
I usually follow the voice of a character. If a character feels young and the story feels very immediate, I know that it will be either a picture book or a middle-grade novel. If the landscape feels vast and the story feels distant, I know the book will be for young adults. If I have a deep sense of a future place from a present perspective, I know the work is for adults.
In an odd synergy of time and place, my daughter’s class at school has been studying your work this semester, which made me a minor celebrity for conducting this interview—thanks for that! I asked them what they wanted to know, so this last question comes from the students in Ms. Mallory’s second and third grade class at the Bloomington Project School: how do you decide what physical or emotional journey to take your characters on? Do you tell them, or do they tell you?
The stories always seem to know more than I do about what they’re trying to say; we walk the roads together, my characters and I. The final story meets somewhere in the middle of what I intended it to be and what the characters decided it would be.
Stacey Lynn Brown is a poet, playwright, and essayist from Atlanta, Georgia. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. She is the author of the book-length poem Cradle Song (C&R Press, 2009) and is the co-editor, with Oliver de la Paz, of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of...