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Getting Kids Interested In Poetry


Oh, the long, hot days of summer - the kids are bored, parents are out of ideas, and everyone's just a little bit cranky. What to do? We wondered if poet and educator Kwame Alexander might have some ideas for what we are calling poetry play.

You know, you read it, you write it - not supposed to be scared of it. Right, Kwame?

KWAME ALEXANDER: No. You have to embrace it.

MARTIN: No, got to embrace it. All right, so this is your challenge. As you go around the country and you do these workshops for young people, in particular - trying to convince, I imagine, probably, most of the time, it's parents - that poetry is possible for young kids, that it's not beyond their reach from a really young age, right?

ALEXANDER: Well, the parents are a little bit afraid of it. And I get it. I mean, who wasn't in high school?


ALEXANDER: ...With Auden, and Frost and Shakespeare. But how do you get your kids excited about it if you're not? And I think we got to sort of remember the fun, the whimsy, the joy, the passion in poetry. I mean, my mother used to read to me a lot of Nikki Giovanni. She used to read to me a lot of Lucille Clifton.

You know, I got poems that jumped off the page. You know, my mom would come into my room and - folks, birthing is hard, and dying is mean. So why not get yourself a little loving in between? Like, what parent does that?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ALEXANDER: But I got a lot of that. And of course, it made you smile. It made you happy. And it made you say, wait, what was that? That was a poem? I want more.

MARTIN: OK, I need to hear a poem.

ALEXANDER: You do. Oh, all right.

MARTIN: Yeah. What'd you bring?

ALEXANDER: I mean, I got so much. I got, you know...

MARTIN: I want Shel Silverstein.

ALEXANDER: You want Shel Silverstein.


ALEXANDER: Ah - from "Where The Sidewalk Ends" - you ever heard of that book, Rachel?

MARTIN: Yeah, I love that book.

ALEXANDER: (Laughter) It's a poem called "My Rules."

(Reading) If you want to marry me, here's what you'll have to do. You must learn how to make a perfect chicken dumpling stew. And you must sew my holey socks, and soothe my troubled mind, and develop the knack for scratching my back and keep my shoes spotlessly shined. And while I rest, you must rake up the leaves. And when it's hailing and snowing, you must shovel the walk and be still when I talk. And hey, where are you going?


ALEXANDER: I mean, yeah, that's marriage, right?

MARTIN: Yeah, right? I love that poem because it's not esoteric. It - the languages of the real world.

ALEXANDER: It's the humor of everyday life. And then there's passion in it. It's underneath it. And I think that's the beauty of poems that are accessible and relatable. And they have all of these different elements that we can all pull something from, and be able to sort of have that emotional reaction.

MARTIN: So I brought a poem to this poem party.

ALEXANDER: Woo-hoo (ph).

MARTIN: Yeah, right? Want to hear it?

ALEXANDER: Ladies and gentlemen, Rachel is about to...

MARTIN: Yeah, I'm going to read a poem here, folks. I'm going to share a little bit - not the whole thing, but a little bit of "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver.

(Reading) Who made the world? Who made the swan and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper - I mean the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down, who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

And of course, this poem ends with that famous line.

Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.


MARTIN: Oh, isn't that good?

ALEXANDER: That says it all right there. I mean, that's that poem of hope and humanity.

MARTIN: You know, what I also love about it - when you think about how you can connect kids to poetry - the top part that I read there, it's about just connecting with the world around you - right? - the natural world. And that's something kids already do in their life. They're better at that than we are, of acknowledging the small stuff.

ALEXANDER: And now we're just giving them a way, through poetry, to be able to express it, to be able to, you know, distill it into a few digestible words that allow us to still get that same feeling.

MARTIN: So it's one thing to encourage kids to explore poetry, to read it. But how do you get them to write it? What your starting point?

ALEXANDER: The starting point - I tell people all the time, let the poetry do the work. I want to ride on a train. I sometimes fly on a jet plane. I love to cruise in a big boat. I'd even float in a green moat. Of course, I could always bike and for health reasons, hike. But if I had my druthers, I'd get my exercise in your arms.

MARTIN: Ooh (laughter).

ALEXANDER: Right? I mean, you want to get kids excited? Share a poem. Share a poem that's going to connect with us. And then we're going to want to write. We're going to want to mimic that emotional response. I've seen it happening with children all around this world.

MARTIN: So getting to the nitty-gritty here - I mean, when you give an assignment, do you give people a subject to start their imaginations going?


MARTIN: I'm still obsessed with the blank page.

ALEXANDER: So then, let's do this right now. Can we - I don't know if this has been done on MORNING EDITION. Let's write a poem.

MARTIN: Let's write a poem in real time?

ALEXANDER: All right, here we go. We're going to do it really quickly.

MARTIN: Is this going to end well? OK.

ALEXANDER: All right, this is what happens.


ALEXANDER: Do you remember your summers as a child, Rachel?


ALEXANDER: OK, great. Is there a particular year, a year or age, that you remember?

MARTIN: OK. I'm going throw out 8. Yeah.

ALEXANDER: OK, first line of the poem - I remember summer at eight. All right, give me a sight, something you remember seeing.

MARTIN: Front yard at dusk.

ALEXANDER: What about the front yard? How did it look?

MARTIN: Green (laughter).

ALEXANDER: Green. Green like what?

MARTIN: Grass.

ALEXANDER: Grass - I remember...

MARTIN: Is that a cliche? See, now I think that's a cliche.

ALEXANDER: I mean, it's a cliche, but we'll deal with it. I remember summer at 8. I remember green...

MARTIN: Iced tea - iced tea on the porch.

ALEXANDER: Ooh, I remember iced tea.

MARTIN: Sun tea...

ALEXANDER: Sweet like what?

MARTIN: Lemons. Lemons aren't sweet.

ALEXANDER: What's sweet?

MARTIN: Sugar.

ALEXANDER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Sugar.

ALEXANDER: Go deeper.

MARTIN: This is a horrible poem.

ALEXANDER: So this is what we tell the kids - go deeper.


ALEXANDER: Sweet like what? Like...

MARTIN: Like...

ALEXANDER: ...Grandma's kisses?

MARTIN: ...My mom's smile.

ALEXANDER: Ah - I remember summer at 8. Iced tea, sweet like...

MARTIN: ...My mom's smile.

ALEXANDER: Ah - see? That's an I-remember poem. And children love it. And it's a form, but it's also a way to tap into what they were feeling and what they were remembering.

MARTIN: Lastly, you've got this poem that's kind of perfect when we talk about not giving up, especially if we feel stumped in a creative kind of way. This is a poem from your book "The Playbook." Can you take us out on this?

ALEXANDER: Yes. So my grandmother used to say things to me like, dishwater gives back no images, boy.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ALEXANDER: And I'd be like, huh? What are you talking about? Or my father would say, and he still says, you can't know what you don't know. And I didn't understand this stuff. And of course, now I do. And it stuck with me. And so I really wanted to write a book that really took a lot of those wise sayings and those axioms, and made them cool so kids would get it. And so this is rule No. 45 from "The Playbook" which is a book of rules that you can use on the court and off the court.

(Reading) Dribble, fake, shoot, miss; dribble, fake, shoot, miss; dribble, fake, shoot, miss; dribble, fake, shoot, swish.

MARTIN: Swish. Kwame Alexander, Newbery Award-winning author and poet - he's got a new novel coming out. It is called "Solo." Kwame, thanks for coming in.

ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me.