Thanks to the 2017 Virginia Festival of the Book, St. Anne’s-Belfield School welcomed more than 2,400 young students from around the Charlottesville area onto the Learning Village Campus on Wednesday for a special event: Out of Wonder: Poets Celebrating Poetry – A Conversation Between author Kwame Alexander and illustrator Ekua Holmes, moderated by Sarah FitzHenry.
In my career, I’ve come to realize that the rumors about print and reading going out of style are just that – rumors. If you are lucky enough to work with children and books, you know that young people’s passion for stories is as strong as ever. But even I wasn’t sure about the current role of poetry in young people’s lives. Do middle schoolers in 2017 really connect with Langston Hughes? Will my students be inspired by the words of Maya Angelou?
For those of you questioning just like I did, let me share what I learned on Wednesday – poetry is as powerful as it has ever been. It still has the ability to bring a hush over a room crowded with thousands of people. It still creates an irresistible rhythm that turns words and turns of phrase into music. It still pops and bubbles and rolls and finds its way deep down inside of the listener or reader, lighting a spark; as visiting author Kwame Alexander recited and rapped, he blew on the embers, igniting small flames that grew to an inferno. And thanks to the work of authors like Kwame, poetry is now more accessible, engaging, and relevant than I can ever remember. Pair that power with the stunning and deeply meaningful collage work of Ekua Holmes, and the possibilities are endless.
Out of Wonder is getting a lot of press for bringing the cool back to poetry – for inspiring a new generation of poets (who have seemingly lost their connection to classic literature) to pick up pens and pencils and spit some verse. During Wednesday’s assembly, I asked Kwame if he had any advice for members of the audience who hadn’t had their “ah-hah” moment with poetry yet. Can anyone have this moment? Or is poetry only for some people – the smartest, the richest, the something-est? He thought for a moment, brow furrowed, hand on his scarf, which displayed the pattern of an old-fashioned library card.
“How many of you love poetry?” He asked the audience. Students turned to their neighbors and teachers, unsure – should I tell the truth? Am I gonna make Kwame Alexander mad if I don’t raise my hand? A few put their hands in the air. “How many of you aren’t sure about it?” He continued, surveying the room as a few more hands shot up. “And, be honest, how many of you don’t like poetry? Don’t get it?” He stood up and walked down the steps from the stage to the floor as most of the hands were sheepishly raised. “Okay. I hear you.” He stood in the middle of the floor, in the thick of the crowd, and rolled up his sleeves. The crowd settled into an anticipatory silence. And then, from memory, he recited a poem from his Newbery Medal winning 2015 novel, The Crossover:
is my name
but Filthy McNasty is my claim to fame.
Folks call me that
’cause my game’s acclaimed,
so downright dirty, it’ll put you to shame.
My hair is long, my height’s tall.
See, I’m the next Kevin Durant,
LeBron, and Chris Paul.
Remember the greats,
my dad likes to gloat:
I balled with Magic and the Goat.
But tricks are for kids, I reply.
Don’t need your pets
my game’s so
Your dad’s old school,
like an ol’ Chevette.
You’re fresh and new,
like a red Corvette.
Your game so sweet, it’s a crepes suzette.
Each time you play
it’s ALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL net.
If anyone else called me
fresh and sweet,
I’d burn as mad as a flame.
But I know she’s only talking about my game.
See, when I play ball,
I’m on fire.
When I shoot,
The hoop’s for sale,
and I’m the buyer.
Like a crowd witnessing a game-winning shot at the buzzer, the CCC filled with screams. 900 pairs of tiny sneakers hit the floor as they stood, hands flung high in the air, high fiving each other, pumping their fists. Kwame stood and waited for the screams to die down. Once the students were back in their seats, he said simply, “Okay. That was a poem. Now tell me the truth – who here loves poetry?”
Every hand in the room went up.
It took an incredible amount of work to make this special event happen. Thank you to the the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Virginia Festival of the Book for the months of planning, especially to Sarah Lawson. Thank you to the diligent staff and faculty of St. Anne’s-Belfield School for opening our beautiful campus to create an experience for children from all over the area. Thank you to Charlottesville City Schools, Albemarle County Public Schools, and the many independent schools from around the area for all they did to have their students attend. And thank you, of course, to Kwame Alexander and Ekua Holmes for spending the afternoon with us and for sharing their gifts with the millions of readers that most need them.