“I had been reading poetry, but the writing of it came later on,” says former Young People’s Poet Laureate Jacqueline Woodson. The National Book Award winner, for 2014’s “Brown Girl Dreaming” in the category of Young People’s Literature, was honored by the Poetry Society of America earlier this month for her work, which speaks to both adult and young audiences. Here, she discusses the importance of writing for young voices, the power of poetry — and the poets we should be reading now.
WWD: What do you hope your younger readers find or experience when they read your work?
Jacqueline Woodson: I think first and foremost I want them to find a good story. And to fall in love with the characters. I think when that happens, people want those characters to survive; one thing I think literature can do is help people to think about economic class and race and gender and all the ways in which people get divided. And lead them towards understanding. For many, that’s their first glimpse into their own visibility and invisibility, and [literature] also is a window into the worlds of other people. So people who live in very homogeneous worlds suddenly, through literature, can meet people [whom] they otherwise might not meet in the real world. I think that’s important: to know “the other,” as a means of coming to understanding.
WWD: Why write for a young audience?
J.W.: It’s basically where I found my voice: between the ages of 10 and 16. For me as a young person, that was the literature that was most powerful — coming of age narrative — and the stories that were written from a perspective that I could understand, which was a young perspective as opposed to an adult perspective.
WWD: You were honored this month by the Poetry Society of America — what does the distinction mean?
J.W.: It means a lot, [being] honored by PSA, because I think that for so many of us who for so long didn’t see mirrors of ourselves in poetry, it really feels like the words of people outside of a male white-dominated culture are getting recognized. I think a lot of times people don’t look at the writing for work that’s targeted at young people as valid. It’s a deep, deep, deep honor; and at the same time, like with everything, I hope it’s about change. It feels like a beginning. It’s not the end of my work. It’s the beginning of my work.
WWD: Who are some poets everyone should be reading right now?
J. W.: Claudia Rankine, Robin Coste Lewis, Laurence Dunbar, Cornelius Eady, Pablo Neruda.