Irene: It started with the book of poems for adults CITIZEN by Claudia Rankine, which tackles systemic racism. My editor at Lerner, Carol Hinz and I were discussing how to bring this to kids. She thought it might work best as a conversation between a white poet and a black poet, and asked with whom I might like to work. Even though Charles and I were only online acquaintances -- and in fact did not meet in person until after the book was printed, at AASL in November 2017 -- I immediately thought that with his kind heart and infectious enthusiasm, he’d be a great writing partner. And I was right!
Charles: When I got Irene’s email, I was doing background work on the TV show Power. I was scrunched up with a bunch of other background actors in a small room in Brooklyn. It was freezing. I was learning lines for my Poetry Time show while avoiding the misery of being there, I knew at the moment of reading Irene’s email that my life was going to change for the better. It was like what Oprah Winfrey talked about on her former show, that there’s no such thing as luck, it’s opportunity meeting preparation. Here was the opportunity and after years and years of work and a pile of rejected manuscripts in the field of children’s poetry, I was ready. Within three weeks we submitted our first draft of the manuscript.
e: Describe your writing spaces.
Charles: I write in a multitude of spaces. Sometimes I tap out thoughts and phrases on a notebook app on my cell phone, I put in hours at a small desk in the apartment I live in, I also go to the Poets House where I spend all day reading and rewriting children's poems while gazing at the Hudson River.
Irene: I, too, am a bit of a vagabond writer. I depend heavily on the notes app on my cell phone. I also keep a notebook with me for writing emergencies -- my handwriting is terrible, so it really must be an emergency for me to start scribbling instead of typing! These days I do a lot of writing at our lake house - from inside looking out, or bankside, or from the passenger seat of our fishing boat. (I write while my husband fishes… and when I need a break, I pick up my pole.)
Charles: I don't have a schedule per say, when I'm not working I do a lot of writing overnight because all is quiet and I can focus better. If I can get in a couple of hours, that's a win, if my schedule is jammed and I can get in only fifteen minutes, that's a win as well. I'm a firm believer in Jane Yolen and her BIC rule. (Butt in Chair).
Irene: Ever since I trained myself with Dorothea Brande’s method from BECOMING A WRITER, I have been a morning writer. Sometimes I write for fifteen minutes, sometimes for two hours. Like Charles, I find showing up is really the key. My advice to kids it to think of writing like brushing your teeth: don’t go to bed without doing it.
e: Have either of you ever experienced writer's block? If so, how did you get over it?
Charles: Many, many times. What I try to do is not get too down on myself for it and try my best to get something down on Sunday, something about starting off the week putting words together jump starts me for the six days afterward.
Irene: I have this memory of being at a poetry reading and being so disheartened when the poet said she never experienced writer’s block. I was like, what is wrong with me? Because yes, I certainly do. I’m stuck right now, in fact! It helps me to admit it and to recognize it’s just part of the process. This too shall pass. Meanwhile, my secret weapon is the vacuum cleaner. Something about the repetitive motion helps unlock my brain -- and my floors get clean!
e: What song title describes your collaborative experience writing CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR?
Charles: For some reason I'm thinking of "Black Top Train" by Ellis Paul. I listened to this driving all over America in 2005-06 during my hitch with Poetry Alive! There's something about driving the open roads of America and this song and the message of our book that got me thinking of this particular piece of music.
Irene: I love Charles’ answer so much, I’m just going to go back and give “Black Top Train” another listen instead of forcing myself to come up with an answer. (See? One of the many benefits of collaboration!)
Charles: That it’s okay to ask questions, it’s okay to mess up in the understanding of something you might not understand, like in the “Black Belt” poem or in the “Ghost” poem.
Irene: And that before economics or ethnicity, we are all humans with the same feelings -- love, fear, anger. Let us have the courage to start those tough conversations, and when we do, let us “err on the side of love,” as my mother always says.