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Kwame Alexander's memoir began as a book of love poems but morphed into so much more

Hachette Book Group

Updated May 23, 2023 at 5:14 PM ET

Kwame Alexander's latest book pulls at the heartstrings. It's called Why Fathers Cry at Night, and its rawness is so poignant that Alexander fretted over its very publication.

He told NPR that he wrote it with the hope that his two daughters, Nandi and Samayah, would come to grasp the essence of love and experience the emotions he felt when he fell in love with each of their mothers.

Through a blend of poetry and prose, Alexander shares his memories of a dad who could be hard on him and of a mother who always supported him. And he writes of what he came to learn about relationships from watching them interact.

It's a departure from his previous 38 books because this memoir is deeply personal and he acknowledges that this time there's no hiding behind metaphors.

"Love Lesson": a poem in Kwame Alexander's memoir.
/ Hachette Book Group
Hachette Book Group
"Love Lesson," a poem from Alexander's memoir.

"I've avoided being able to really be as forthcoming and honest and authentic with who I am as a man, as a Black man," Alexander said in a recent interview with NPR's Michel Martin. "And how do I feel now? I feel like this book has forced me to do that. And that's hard. And, I've woken up with panic attacks and called my editor and said, pull the book. But ultimately, I feel like it was necessary."

When he was 12, he sometimes began associating books with punishment because of his father's habit of quizzing him on what he had learned. Then as he embarked on his writing career, his father discouraged him by expressing the belief that poetry would never be successful in terms of sales.

His parents inspired his love for words, and Nikki Giovanni inspired him to write.

Part of his mother's picnic fried chicken recipe, pg 125.
/ Hachette Book Group
Hachette Book Group
Part of his mother's picnic fried chicken recipe, pg 125.

Initially seen as a collection of love poems, Alexander's latest book took on a life of its own and evolved into something far more expansive. As he shares the highs and lows of his life, Alexander includes poems, memories and recipes, including some from his grandmothers and some from his mom.

"I realized that I was in sort of a crisis and this was around 2017," he said. "My mother had passed. My marriage was falling apart. My oldest daughter had stopped speaking with us. And at the same time, I'm winning all these awards for my books. But I wasn't happy, and I didn't know what to do about it."

Alexander's writing is a cathartic experience for anyone who has experienced a personal loss. His words have the power to evoke both tears and laughter, sometimes simultaneously. That's not surprising considering his popularity with his community crowd-sourced poems, which have been featured on Morning Edition since late 2017.

Here's some of Alexander's crowd-sourced poems composed from the contributions of hundreds of listeners:

  • A Blanket of Words: A poem about rest, relaxation and the power of a good nap.
  • Love, Me: A poem composed from letters with everyone writing to a different person.
  • Dear Captor: You Talk, I Wonder: A poem that celebrates pets and how they think about their owners.
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.