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Protesting Through Poetry


What are the different ways that Americans protest? Our co-host Rachel Martin has been asking.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Here's Martin Luther King Jr. in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.



MARTIN: You hear that quote, and you may conjure up images of marches, sit-ins and boycotts. But protest also happens through language itself. Kwame Alexander joins us again to talk about the connection between poetry and protest.

Hi, Kwame.

KWAME ALEXANDER: How are you, Rachel?

MARTIN: I'm well. Thanks.

He is of course the New York Times best-selling author of "Solo," which received a 2018 NAACP Image Award nomination for outstanding youth literary work. Kwame, you have brought another voice to our poetry conversation. Do you want to introduce our special guest?

ALEXANDER: I would be honored to. She's a professor at Virginia Tech, the author of the latest collection of poetry called "A Good Cry" - Nikki Giovanni.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Kwame is my literary son, so it's wonderful to hear his voice.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Well, thanks so much for being part of our conversation today.

GIOVANNI: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: I'm going to start off by asking Kwame to describe how you see the connection between poetry and protest.

ALEXANDER: When I was 10 years old, I was living in Brooklyn. My father was the headmaster of my school. And one day, we woke up and he says we're going to march over the Brooklyn Bridge. He said, we're going to march against police brutality. But I was afraid that Mayor Koch was going to open up the bridge, and we were all going to fall in and die. This is what my 10-year-old mind thought.

MARTIN: Right.

ALEXANDER: But they dragged me to this march. We're facing off with police on horses, in riot gear. And I'm crying. And all of a sudden, we start singing. (Chanting) We're fired up. We can't take no more. We're fired up. We can't take no more.

And this was sort of the first moment in my life where I realized that language could empower you.

GIOVANNI: I'm of another generation. My generation grew up in segregation. So what I saw in language was colored only, white only. I saw a lot of bad language that had to be taken apart. What Kwame is doing - which I think is wonderful - his generation is having to try to help people take that next step, that you use language to make it just a little bit better.

MARTIN: We asked you to bring a poem that signifies the connection between poetry and protest today. What did you bring us, Nikki?

GIOVANNI: I brought "Black Lives Matter."

(Reading) I'm not ashamed of our history because I know there is more to come.

I'm not ashamed of slavery, neither bought nor sold, because I know there is another answer.

I'm not ashamed of dark or light skin, straight or curly or nappy - let's call it that - hair.

I'm not ashamed of thick or thin lips, nor of the time we waste singing and dancing.

We taught the white folks to sing and dance, too.

I'm proud of Simon the Cyrene. Nobody made him help Jesus. He did his part.

I'm proud of the woman who moaned on the ship at the 10th day for admitting if not defeat then certainly change.

I'm proud of the rappers who rap. And most especially, I'm proud that Black Lives Matter.

We do.

We honestly do.

MARTIN: That poem, written by Nikki Giovanni, called "Black Lives Matter."

Kwame, you also brought this amazing poem by Pablo Neruda that speaks to this conversation. Can you read this?

ALEXANDER: Sure. And Neruda, as we all know, began his career writing love poems...


ALEXANDER: ...And as he matured, witnessed the Spanish Civil War, his poems became more political.

(Reading) You are going to ask - and where are the lilacs? And the poppy-petalled metaphysics? And the rain repeatedly spattering its words and drilling them full of apertures and birds?

I'll tell you all the news.

Look at broken Spain.

From every house burning metal flows instead of flowers, from every socket of Spain, Spain emerges and from every dead child a rifle with eyes, and from every crime bullets are born which will one day find the bull's-eye of your hearts.

And you'll ask - why doesn't his poetry speak of dreams and leaves and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets. Come and see, the blood in the streets. Come and see the blood, in the streets.

And that's an excerpt from Pablo Neruda's poem "I Explain A Few Things."



MARTIN: Right.

GIOVANNI: That was lovely (laughter). That was lovely. (Reciting) Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is stretched out against the sky like a patient etherized upon the table. Oh, do not say you're not able (ph).

MARTIN: What's that from, Nikki?


ALEXANDER: You've got two poets in the room, Rachel. We're just - we just go...

MARTIN: But I love - she just, like, sprinkles it around. This is like a...

ALEXANDER: This is how we talk.

MARTIN: ...Battle of the poets here.

GIOVANNI: Oh, no - he'll beat me because I'm way dumber than he is on that (laughter).

MARTIN: Nikki, where do you see poetry making change in this moment?

GIOVANNI: I don't see anything other than poetry making change. Poetry is something that we all turn to. If you think about going into space - and I'm a big space fan - what are you going to take? You're going to have to take poems because - and excuse me, Kwame - you can take one or two novels. But you know...


MARTIN: Yours, of course.

GIOVANNI: Of course. But you can't take but so many novels. But you can take a book of poetry because every day that you read it, it's going to be different. And it's going to bring another light to you.

ALEXANDER: Rachel, I think we should take some of these young poets who are writing about protest, people like Aja Monet, who wrote an amazing poem about Black Lives Matter. It's a poem called "Word Warriors." This is her reading an excerpt of the poem.


AJA MONET: Show me a man willing to fight beside me, my hand in his, the color of courage. There is no mountaintop worth seeing without us. Meet me in the trenches, where we lay our bodies down in the valley of a voice. Say her name.


MARTIN: That's powerful.

GIOVANNI: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Nikki Giovanni is an author and a professor at Virginia Tech. Her most recent collection is "A Good Cry."

Thank you so much.

GIOVANNI: Thank you.

ALEXANDER: Thank you, Nikki. We love you.

GIOVANNI: Oh, we love you. I'll talk to you later on.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ALEXANDER: All right.

GIOVANNI: OK. Thanks, sweetheart.

MARTIN: So the next time we talk to you, Kwame, it's going to be Valentine's Day. And what we want you all to do, dear listeners, we want you to share a specific moment in your life regarding love and relationships. And then we're going to find a poem for it. This is the whole range of experiences. Right?

ALEXANDER: Yeah, we want specific moments. We want that loved one who's no longer here and what you were feeling that day.

MARTIN: Right.

ALEXANDER: We want, you know, that first look in someone's eyes when you saw them and you knew this is the person.

MARTIN: Yeah. And then we're going to give you a poem about that.

So go to npr.org/morningpoem to share your love anecdotes - again, npr.org/morning poem. And we look forward to hearing your submissions.


INSKEEP: Rachel Martin speaking with authors Kwame Alexander and Nikki Giovanni. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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