Poetry for Young People
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, June 3rd 2015. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, poetry for young people. Every two years, The Poetry Foundation names a Young People’s Poet Laureate. The title is given to an American writer in recognition of a career devoted to writing exceptional poetry for young readers. That’s a great description of Jacqueline Woodson’s career. She’s the author of more than two dozen books for young adults, middle schoolers and younger children. She’s won many awards along the way, and she’s been named the Young People’s Poet Laureate. She lives in Brooklyn, and she joins me now to read a few poems and talk about her poetry. I was going to ask you whether I should call you Jacqui or Jacqueline, because I’ve heard both. Instead, I wonder if I can get you to read “A Girl Named Jack”, because I think that’s going to clear up this issue. It’s one of the early poems in your memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming.
Jacqueline Woodson: A Girl Named Jack
Good enough name for me, my father said
the day I was born.
Don't see why
she can't have it, too.
But the women said no.
My mother first.
Then each aunt, pulling my pink blanket back
patting the crop of thick curls
tugging at my new toes
touching my cheeks.
We won't have a girl named Jack, my mother said.
And my father's sisters whispered,
A boy named Jack was bad enough.
But only so my mother could hear.
Name a girl Jack, my father said,
and she can't help but
grow up strong.
Raise her right, my father said,
and she'll make that name her own.
Name a girl Jack
and people will look at her twice, my father said.
For no good reason but to ask if her parents
were crazy, my mother said.
And back and forth it went until I was Jackie
and my father left the hospital mad.
My mother said to my aunts,
Hand me that pen, wrote
Jacqueline where it asked for a name.
Jacqueline, just in case
someone thought to drop the ie.
Jacqueline, just in case
I grew up and wanted something a little bit longer
and further away from
Curtis Fox: So did your father call you Jack growing up?
Jacqueline Woodson: Well, I didn’t grow up with my dad. He and my mom separated when I was two months old. They got back together when I was 13, by then I was not Jack.
Curtis Fox: You were not Jack, never stuck.
Jacqueline Woodson: No, but actually my friends and family call me Jack. Not my mom, dad, none of them ever called me Jack.
Curtis Fox: So it did stick! You write for various age groups. What age group did you have in mind for the book that this poem comes out of, Brown Girl Dreaming. What were you thinking?
Jacqueline Woodson: It’s funny because my poor partner had to hear me moan and groan over this book for years, because I just thought no one is ever going to read this, I have no idea who the audience is. I didn’t think it was going to find a home, but then my editor said just keep going. I really thought at one point when I was writing early poems that it was going to be a series of picture books. Then I thought it was going to be a book for adults. I never knew, so it’s interesting that it’s found all these different homes.
Curtis Fox: Brown Girl Dreaming came out last year in 2014 and won the National Book Award. But I’d like to go back to a book from 2003 called Locomotion which is a novel inverse. Do you prefer to write books of poetry with a narrative arch?
Jacqueline Woodson: I came to poetry late. I was very much a fiction writer. I find that the poems have to stand on their own, and at the same time be a part of that narrative arch.
Curtis Fox: And what is the narrative arch in Locomotion? Before you read the poem, just give us a sense of what this book is about.
Jacqueline Woodson: It’s the story of Lanny Collins Motion, aka Locomotion, who is 11 years old and has lost his parents. He and his sister are separated, they’re both in foster care but in separate foster homes. He’s learning to tell the story of his life through poetry, and realizing he has a story to tell.
Curtis Fox: Can I get you to read “Group Home Before Ms. Edna’s House”? I’m guessing Ms. Edna’s a foster parent, but it’s the group home he went to before Ms. Edna’s house.
Jacqueline Woodson: Exactly.
The monsters that come at night don't
breathe fire, have two heads or long claws.
The monsters that come at night don't
come bloody and half-dead and calling your name.
They come looking like regular boys
going through your drawers and pockets saying
You better not tell Counselor else I'll beat you down.
The monsters that come at night snatch
the covers off your bed, take your
pillow and in the morning
steal your bacon when the cook's back is turned
call themselves The Throwaway Boys, say
You one of us now.
When the relatives stop coming
When you don't know where your sister is anymore
When every sign around you says
Group Home Rules: Don't
do this and don't do that
until it sinks in one rainy Saturday afternoon
while you're sitting at the Group Home window
reading a beat-up Group Home book,
wearing a Group Home hand-me-down shirt
hearing all the Group Home loudness, that
you are a Throwaway Boy.
And the news just sits in your stomach
hard and heavy as Group Home food.
Curtis Fox: This boy is not allowed to escape into fantasy world. He can’t think about monsters because his monsters are real.
Jacqueline Woodson: Exactly. And what he finds as his “escape” is his truth, the story he has to tell and the strength he has in being able to tell that story.
Curtis Fox: And he discovers his talent for poetry in particular. There’s a wonderfully witty and sad poem in this book called “Occasional Poem”. An occasional poem of course is a poem written for a particular occasion, which is the poem itself. Can you read that one for us?
Jacqueline Woodson: Sure.
Ms. Marcus says that an occasional poem is a poem
written about something
that's gonna happen
or already did.
Think of a specific occasion, she says—and write about it.
Like what?! Lamont asks.
He's all slouched down in his seat.
I don't feel like writing about no occasion.
How about your birthday? Ms. Marcus says.
What about it? Just a birthday. Comes in June and it ain't
June, Lamont says. As a matter of fact,
he says, it's January and it's snowing.
Then his voice gets real low and he says
And when it's January and all cold like this
feels like June's a long, long ways away.
The whole class looks at Ms. Marcus.
Some of the kids are nodding.
Outside the sky looks like it's made out of metal
and the cold, cold air is rattling the windowpanes
and coming underneath them too.
I seen Lamont's coat.
It's gray and the sleeves are too short.
It's down but it looks like a lot of the feathers fell out
a long time ago.
Ms. Marcus got a nice coat.
It's down too but real puffy so
maybe when she's inside it
she can't even tell January from June.
Then write about January, Ms. Marcus says, that's
But she looks a little bit sad when she says it
Like she's sorry she ever brought the whole
occasional poem thing up.
I was gonna write about Mama's funeral
but Lamont and Ms. Marcus going back and forth
zapped all the ideas from my head.
I guess them arguing
on a Tuesday in January's an occasion
So I guess this is an occasional poem.
Curtis Fox: So Ms. Marcus had some success there in spite of Lamont. She got a great poem out of one of her —
Jacqueline Woodson: She did. It’s an interesting thing to try to build character inside of poetry. You have a really short amount of time to create somebody and the feelings that person is feeling. For me that poem is so about teachers sometimes trying so hard, trying to do the good work and not having a sense of the community they’re working inside of. She’s not a bad person, and you see her kind of break a little bit at that moment and feel like she’s failing. But like you said, she’s not, because she’s getting a great poem out of Lanny.
Curtis Fox: Does Lanny come out of anyone you know in your experience, or is Lanny a totally fictional character that you —
Jacqueline Woodson: It’s funny, I got an email from a woman a few years back who’s son wanted to meet Lanny. And I was like, “He doesn’t exist, I made him up”. And she’s like “No, the boy who inspired that, the boy who’s story you’re telling”. (LAUGHING) There is no Lanny! I think Lanny’s a lot like me. It was in fifth grade that I knew I wanted to be a writer. There wasn’t the tragedy he has in his life, but there’s definitely this way I watched the world like he does, just takes it in and puts it back out into the world.
Curtis Fox: When you decided to write your latest book, you decided to do a memoir in verse. Why did you decide that? It was something you probably avoided until that point.
Jacqueline Woodson: I think I avoided it because I was still scared of poetry. But I think it’s the most realistic way to think about memoir, is memory. The way memory comes to us is it comes in these small moments with all of this white space around it.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, poetry’s perfect for it in a way. Then you don’t have to connect all the dots, the dots connect themselves. I can see why. But why are you so scared of poetry until recently? And are you still scared?
Jacqueline Woodson: I get scared of poetry sometimes. As a kid I thought it was some secret code that dead white men spoke. I didn’t have access. It wasn’t until I discovered people like Langston Hughes and County Cullen and Maya Angelous and Nikki Giovanni that I realized poets could speak my language. Even Robert Frost, I remember the first time “The Road Not Taken” made sense to me. I was like okay, I get this, I’m invited to this party. I think even now when there are the more obscure poets out there, I’m just like I don’t understand.
Curtis Fox: I feel that way too. Everybody feels that way I think. So we heard one poem from Brown Girl Dreaming. I’m going to see if I can get you to read another one. Would you read “The Right Way To Speak”?
Jacqueline Woodson: The Right Way To Speak
The first time my brother says ain't my mother
pulls a branch from the willow tree growing down
the hill at the edge
of our backyard.
As she slips her closed hand over it,
removes the leaves,
my brother begins to cry
because the branch is a switch now
no longer beautifully weeping at the bottom of the hill.
It whirs as my mother whips it
through the air and down
against my brother's legs.
You will never, my mother says,
say ain't in this house.
You will never
say ain't anywhere.
Each switching is a warning to us
our words are to remain
crisp and clear.
We are never to say huh?
ain't or y'all
git or gonna.
Never ma'am—just yes, with eyes
meeting eyes enough
to show respect.
Don't ever ma'am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
southern subservient days . . .
The list of what not to say
goes on and on . . .
You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak.
As the switch raises dark welts on my brother's legs
Dell and I look on
afraid to open our mouths. Fearing the South
will slip out or
Curtis Fox: Wow. “Fearing the South will slip out or into” your words.
Jacqueline Woodson: And switching is so against the law now, but back in the day, everyone knew the switch. My mother was really clear. It’s so interesting, because my family when they knew I wanted to be a writer they were nervous about it. Just because I would probably never be able to move out of their house.
Curtis Fox: They’re proper parents, any parents should be worried.
Jacqueline Woodson: They are. They came here via the great migration and the whole dream was to become part of this American dream; get a job, earn a living. I think her having a sense of how we needed to speak, how we needed to walk through the world. But also the idea of me becoming a writer was to foreign to her, but meanwhile she’s teaching us about language and she’s taking us to the library and she’s making us read. How could I not have become a writer?
Curtis Fox: Without her. But it’s interesting that her way of expunging the South is through language. Can’t allow that language to come. What was her fear if you did use “ain’t”, what would happen?
Jacqueline Woodson: I think one she thought people would think less of us.
Curtis Fox: Do you think she was right?
Jacqueline Woodson: I don’t. I think she was right and wrong. One thing I love is my double consciousness, the way that I can walk through many worlds. I can speak the language of the South and I can speak the language of Bushwick and I can speak the language of Park Slope and my college education. But at the same time I think for her having that history of having to be a subservient African American in the South was really painful. The whole thing about saying “ma’am”, everyone in the South says yes ma’am, no ma’am. And she said no, that word is for people who … you’re saying that to someone who’s thinking less of you. She thought of it as the thing she had to say to white folks. I think she was trying to do what all mothers do which is keep us safe and moving forward. Language was a big part of that.
Curtis Fox: I want to get you to read one more poem from Brown Girl Dreaming if you would. And this one’s about a racial hurt. It’s called “What Everybody Knows Now”. Is there anything you want to say about this one before you read it?
Jacqueline Woodson: What this poem did for me as I was writing it and understanding it was showed me what activists my parents were. They were resisting in this very peaceful and powerful way. In my 20s, I didn’t know this. I had some sense that they got us out of the South. Even when we got to Brooklyn, to Bushwick, there was a Woolworth down the avenue from where we lived, and my grandma was like you are not going into Woolworth. There was this way that they were constantly resisting that looking back on it made me really proud to come from them.
Curtis Fox: And where does the poem take place?
Jacqueline Woodson: Greenville, South Carolina.
Curtis Fox: So it’s a visit back.
Jacqueline Woodson: Yeah, I had lived there for a lot of my childhood and then we migrated to New York. We would go back in the summers.
Curtis Fox: Go ahead, give it a read.
Even though the laws have changed
my grandmother still takes us
to the back of the bus when we go downtown
in the rain. It's easier, my grandmother says,
than having white folks look at me like I'm dirt.
But we aren't dirt. We are people
paying the same fare as other people.
When I say this to my grandmother,
she nods, says, Easier to stay where you belong.
I look around and see the ones
who walk straight to the back. See
the ones who take a seat up front, daring
anyone to make them move. And know
this is who I want to be. Not scared
like that. Brave
Still, my grandmother takes my hand downtown
pulls me right past the restaurants that have to let us sit
wherever we want now. No need in making trouble,
she says. You all go back to New York City but
I have to live here.
We walk straight past Woolworth's
without even looking in the windows
because the one time my grandmother went inside
they made her wait and wait. Acted like
I wasn't even there. It's hard not to see the moment—
my grandmother in her Sunday clothes, a hat
with a flower pinned to it
neatly on her head, her patent-leather purse,
between her gloved hands—waiting quietly
long past her turn.
Curtis Fox: Jacqueline Woodson, thanks so much.
Jacqueline Woodson: Thanks for having me.
Curtis Fox: Jacqueline Woodson is the new Young People’s Poet Laureate. Her latest book is Brow Girl Dreaming, and if you like that one she’s got many other books you’ll like too. You can also read a few of her poems on our website. Let others know what you think of this program on social media or by writing a review in the iTunes store. You can write us directly at [email protected]. The music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.