Leesburg, VA (Jan. 23, 2016) – “Poetry saved my life.”
That was the message of award-winning author and poet Kwame Alexander as he spoke to the Riverside High School student body on Wednesday, January 13th. Alexander, a Herndon resident, is the author of 18 books, including “The Crossover.” “The Crossover” is the recipient of the 2015 Newbery Medal and the 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award.
Alexander recounted discovering poetry at the age of 3 when he first heard the works of Dr. Seuss. He said that poetry then became a “turnoff” in high school when he encountered the works of William Shakespeare.
Poetry saved his life for the first time when Alexander was in high school and in need of a date to the prom. He told Riverside’s students that he stood up on a table in the cafeteria to recite a poem to the object of his affection. Her response? “I’ll think about it.” Two weeks later, the young woman accepted his invitation so that he didn’t have to go to the prom with the members of his tennis team.
Alexander then went to Virginia Tech, where he majored in biochemistry and planned to become a doctor. Instead, he found himself in an English class taught by award-winning poet Nikki Giovanni and listened to her recite a poem about what it means to be black. He was hooked.
He then put his poetry skills to work to attract the attention of another young woman. As a sophomore, he wrote a poem that featured the refrain “you’re going to be my wife.” Three years later, the young woman married him, and poetry again saved his life.
Alexander told students that he has been “a fan of saying yes.” He shared a number of instances in which people came to him with ideas or suggestions that he ultimately pursued because of being open to “yes.” These events shaped his career as a writer. After having published five books, Alexander was approached about doing a poetry workshop in a juvenile detention center. When he got there, he wanted to get out of the commitment, but his wife persuaded him to stay. The workshop was so well-received that he spent the next three years working with the young people at the center.
Later, after having published 10 books, he discovered his 14 year-old daughter wanted to date, despite the fact that he didn’t think she should date until she was 30. Poetry saved his life again as he wrote a poem “to deal with the woes and wonders of the world.”
After having published 12 books, he was presenting at a conference when a woman approached him and asked if he ever wrote poetry for children. Again, he said “yes” and went off to a writer’s fellowship in Tuscany where he was inspired by a local farm to write “Acoustic Rooster and his Barnyard Band.” This children’s picture book, which he read to the students at Riverside, is infused with his love of jazz. His barnyard characters include Mules Davis, Duck Ellington, Bee Holiday, Ella Finchgerald and Thelonious Monkey.
At another conference, another woman approached him to ask whether he wrote books for middle and high school students. Again, he said “yes” and set to work on the book that would become “The Crossover.” He said he doesn’t write at home because he has a daughter at home who makes him play dress up. Instead, Alexander writes at the Panera Bread on Elden Street in Herndon. Alexander finished the book, sent it to a publisher and immediately received a rejection letter. He
rewrote the novel, sent it off again and received a second rejection. He rewrote it again, sent it off again and received a letter asking him to please stop sending it. He rewrote the book one last time and sent it to 19 different publishers. Eighteen publishers rejected the book. He reminded students, “No’s are a part of life. They have to come. You only need one yes.” One year later, the book rejected by 18 publishers received the Newbery Medal.
Six Riverside High School poets showcased their works and received feedback from Alexander to conclude the assembly.