Saturday, April 21, 2018

I binge-watched Sex and the City one day with friends in Cleveland when I was back visiting maybe 18-20 years ago. I think it's the only time I've binge-watched. I enjoyed it that day. I knew my daughters liked the show and it gave me a TV connection with them which I almost never had. I liked Cynthia Nixon's character the best. She was easily my favorite.

I didn't really keep up with the show when I got back to New York. I can be that way. But I liked seeing Cynthia Nixon go on to do great work on stage and in some movies. I found it way cool that she was interested in public school issues. Her kids go to public schools here.

So when one day a couple years ago she and her partner (arms around each other is how I knew) went into the Department of Education right where I hold my sign, I got a little excited, and kept an eye out for them. Some minutes later they came back out the door of the big building, walking near me, close enough that Cynthia Nixon looked at my sign.

You can't tell who's going to like the sign as they approach it. No more than the women in grocery store aisles handing out samples of cheese spread on a cracker can tell who's going to ask for one. I've been disappointed and pleasnatly surprised by how people react.

I was big time disappointed by Nixon's reaction. She looked mad at it. Disdain may be the word. She looked away and walked away, her arm over her shorter partner's shoulder.

It bothered me. I Googled her when I got home. Nothing I found explained it.

Maybe she was thinking about running for office then. Maybe the sign surprised her. Maybe she agreed with the sign and didn't have a quick answer to herself about the issue. Maybe that bothered her

She's running for governor. She's for and against all the right things. Progressive for sure. I hope she comes by again. I hope she stops this time. At least smiles.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The street, Chambers Street, that I hold my sign on is just two lanes. It's pretty jammed when I'm there from 8:00-9:00 weekday mornings. It's rush hour and there's usually some kind of delay up ahead. Some cars beep at me standing there with the sign. They give a thumbs-up, sometimes two thumbs. Sometimes a car in the far lane, if they're stopped for a minute, will roll the window down and make some comment that I can't always make out with the thrum of lower Manhattan filling my ears. Yesterday a good-looking car was thumpimg with rap music with the windows up. I could hear it four cars away. When it got right across from me it came to a stop. It was throbbing then and throbbing more when the driver rolled down his window and put his forearm out with a strong curved thumb catching the morning light and said, 'Raise that sign higher, brotha.'

Thursday, April 19, 2018

from the New York Times:

In 2018, the writer and poet Jacqueline Woodson (on the right) was National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The author Tracy K. Smith is in the second of her two years as the poet laureate of the United States. In the midst of National Poetry Month, the two joined up to talk about reading, poetry, black history — and how their missions overlap. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You both have official national roles, and it’s such a big country. How do you make an impact?
JACQUELINE WOODSON I’m going to Alabama, I’m going to Mississippi, I’m going to Texas and having conversations, and then figuring out how they can continue the conversation once I’m gone. I’ve been going to prisons and detention centers in underserved communities where people haven’t met authors, so I can talk to them about the power of reading, show them that when we have these conversations about books, we’re changed by them. I have this idea that many people think books are “not for them.” Access to them has been denied in a sense to certain classes, certain races. Sadly.
TRACY K. SMITH I’m going to community centers, libraries, rehab centers. I was in New Mexico and South Carolina, and there are about six more trips. I’m trying to figure out how to have the conversation we have about poetry at book festivals or readings, but in the rural and central parts of this country. It’s been beautiful. I have this belief that we are so vulnerable when we open ourselves up to literature. We’re reminded of these real parts of ourselves.
WOODSON: When I go to a boy’s detention center I’m talking about books by Jason Reynolds and Kwame Alexander and Rita Williams-Garcia; when I go somewhere else I’m talking about graphic novels. I’m gauging the audience and helping them figure out which books make a natural entry point. It’s work though. [She laughs.]
SMITH It’s a wonderful kind of work and it asks a lot of you, too. It’s exciting but exhausting.
WOODSON And kind of heartbreaking, because the more you do, the more hunger you see. We could be on the road 365 days a year and we still wouldn’t fill the need of the people who are being denied. There’s so many underserved people, underserved institutions, there’s mass incarceration. I feel good when I’m in those spaces, and when I get out I’m like, oh, I should be going to three more places today.
Continue reading the main story
SMITH What are some of the possibilities you found for sustaining the engagement once you’re gone?
WOODSON I’m showing them how to start workshops. My first way in is to praise, so people feel safer. You meet so many people writing poetry or fiction, and they have no idea what the next step is. I’m trying to get them to not feel scared about gathering and talking about their work. I do Skype sessions after my visit, so they can take off from there. We’re also creating reading guides and suggested reading lists. A lot of times I hear, “I have young black boys, what are the books for them?” People don’t know if they’re not in this world of children’s literature. They could go to their public library and their librarian may not know. You go to rural Alabama, and the library is not even there.


Jacqueline Woodson receiving her ambassadorship earlier this year from Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, while Gene Luen Yang, the former National Ambassador of Children’s Literature, looks on.CreditShawn Miller/Library of Congress

SMITH I’m hoping to find something beyond just going and leaving, too. There are a lot of state poet laureates I’m meeting, and they talk about doing what Jackie is doing. I think there must be a way I can work together with them to foster something that won’t go away.
Has there been a children’s ambassador and a poet laureate who have worked together? Is there any possibility for that?
WOODSON Not that I know of, and Tracy and I like each other so much … [She laughs.]
SMITH Let’s do something!
I have a question about poetry. In children’s literature it’s front and center. There are books by Kwame Alexander and Elizabeth Acevedo on the best-seller list right now. Kids love them. Why isn’t it the same for adults?
SMITH I have this feeling it gets spooked out of us around the time we start feeling beholden to tests and performances. I think the way poems are taught to high school students is completely counterintuitive; it sets up this sense of being the poem’s adversary. The poem is sort of sneakily trying to outsmart you. Whereas children live in this sense of perpetual metaphor. We even use song and verse to teach kids. And then there comes a time when we somehow estrange them from that, without wanting to, perhaps.
WOODSON I completely agree. I mean it’s our first language — we put words together with all this white space and it gets figured out. And then that gets forgotten. I remember by fifth grade I was terrified of poetry. It was consumed not for joy, but to be tested on. But I don’t understand why readers aren’t buying poetry. They must still have that fear in them. Because if you can read a novel you can read a collection of poetry and have such a rich experience, if not a richer one.
SMITH Listening to music and lyrics and watching movies, I think, uses a lot of the same muscles we use in reading and experiencing poetry — and yet we somehow forget that we have those when it comes to sitting down with a book of poems.


Tracy K. Smith signs the historic guest book at the Library of Congress before beginning her tenure as the poet laureate last year. CreditShawn Miller/Library of Congress

WOODSON One of the things I love about Tracy’s work is how accessible it is, how much it invites me in and makes me feel loved, really.
SMITH I feel that when I’m reading your work, Jackie, with my kids. Like you’re doing what August Wilson did, recording decades of black life and cycles. I remember growing up and learning the history of slavery and feeling —
SMITH Yes. And guilt. Feeling bad that this piece of my history was making everybody uncomfortable. Your books tell these beautiful stories of survival and triumph.
WOODSON Growing up I felt so ashamed and guilty, but no one was talking about it as triumph, right? And as our country’s negative history, not our negative history. Even the way we said “slave” instead of “enslaved.” “Enslaved” takes the onus off us. Then the older I got the more I understood our history and the grace of our survival. Thank goodness for Mildred Taylor and Virginia Hamilton and Nikki Giovanni, the writers who came along and started putting black girlhood on the page in a way that felt relevant to me. And the fact that they’d once been black girls made it even more important.
SMITH The black history we got was just this little drop in February.
WOODSON I hated every time we got to pre-Civil War history. I was like, oh no, here we go. Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatley, the poet who learned to write from her nice white master. Nat Turner of course, because he died. Those were the biographies we got.
My daughter had an assignment where everyone in the class had to write a journal of someone from the 18th century. Her school has lots of kids of color, but everyone wanted to write from the white point of view. So I came in and said, I’ll write that! I wrote a journal of an enslaved girl. There was joy, there was playing, there was hard work, and there was resentment that she had to be enslaved to a white girl her same age. I wrote four journals that they still use. In my final one the girl finds out that the master’s daughter who she’s been enslaved to is her half sister. And then I was like, O.K. teachers, you can take it from there. [She laughs.]
Tracy, your new book, “Wade in the Water,” also takes the slavery narrative and makes it into something that feels new.
SMITH All I really did was listen to the letters that were out there, this Civil War correspondence between black soldiers and their families, or letters by black veterans or descendants of deceased veterans. Those voices felt so current, as though they were almost whispering from yesterday. I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything other than saying, let’s just get these voices together, and maybe somebody else will want to hear them in the same way. There’s one moment where the father of a soldier says, “I’m willing to sacrifice my son in the cause of Freedom and Humanity” — he capitalizes those nouns. I’m reading it and thinking, do we really understand: If you were enslaved, freedom and humanity are not these abstractions.
Have you ever written for children?
SMITH I haven’t.
WOODSON Please do!
SMITH I would love to, I just need to figure out how I would do it.
WOODSON Picture books are poems! I’m always so surprised that poets don’t write more picture books.
There’s also the visual aspect to picture books, the illustration, but maybe a poet has a good sense of that too.
SMITH How was the visual element for you, Jackie?
WOODSON It feels natural because when I’m writing, I see what I’m writing, it’s very visual. Line by line, from one line to the next, you’re just revealing more of what’s there to see.
SMITH You just explained something to me about line breaks.
WOODSON Do you get to wear a medal? I have one.

SMITH No, I don’t have anything like that. What’s yours like?
WOODSON It’s a coin-like medal, big and heavy, with the ambassador emblem on the front and my name on the back.
Why isn’t there one for the poet laureate?
SMITH I don’t know. Maybe I’ll get one at the end. For now I just get the satisfaction.