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Remembering What Makes The Holidays Special


We are entering that time of year. It's supposed to be all about relaxing, cherishing precious time with friends and family. But you know as well as I do - it sometimes just does not end up that way. So we have decided to call in Kwame Alexander to help us remember what makes the holidays so special. He is The New York Times best-selling author of "Solo" and host of "Bookish," a new literary variety show on Facebook. He's been on our show before. Kwame, my friend, welcome back.

KWAME ALEXANDER: Thank you. Happy holidays.

MARTIN: Happy holidays. All right. So we are going to try writing a holiday poem with help from our listeners. But first, can you just sort of get us in the mood? Let's get into that poetry vibe. Share something with us, if you could, one of your favorite holiday poems or winter poems.

ALEXANDER: Well, holidays are such a cool and, you know, a wonderful time for me. I remember we didn't celebrate Christmas. We celebrated Kwanzaa.


ALEXANDER: And so I got zawadis, which are gifts. I got a book.


ALEXANDER: And I begged my mother, please let me go to my aunt's house and celebrate Christmas. And so she's like, all right. Fine. We'll let you go.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Because then you get more presents.

ALEXANDER: Because - yeah, my cousins got toys. So I went to my Aunt Barbara's house. Sorry to call her out. But I went to my Aunt Barbara's house. And I unwrapped my gifts that morning, and I had a turtleneck - a white turtleneck.

MARTIN: Bummer.

ALEXANDER: I told my mom, I want Kwanzaa back.

MARTIN: Let's go back to Kwanzaa.


ALEXANDER: So this is, like, a poem that I've found. It's by Steven Schneider. And it's really about what matters, what's important. And this is a poem about Hanukkah.

(Reading) Friends arrive from nearby towns and dance the twist to "Chanukah Lights Tonight." Spin like a dreidel to a klezmer hit. No delis in our neighborhood, only the wind howling over the crushed corn stalks. Inside, we try to sweep the darkness out, waiting for the Messiah to knock, wanting to know if he can join the party.

MARTIN: Love it. Excerpts from that poem...

ALEXANDER: That's a - yeah (laughter).

MARTIN: ...Are so good. All right. I'm going to share one now because I love this Langston Hughes poem.

ALEXANDER: Oh, great.

MARTIN: Here we go.

(Reading) The Christmas trees are almost all sold. And the ones that are left go cheap. The children almost all over town have almost gone to sleep. The skyscraper lights on Christmas Eve have almost all gone out. There's very little traffic. Almost no one about. Our town's almost as quiet as Bethlehem must have been before a sudden angel chorus sang, peace on earth, good will to men. Our old Statue of Liberty looks down almost with a smile as the island of Manhattan awaits the morning of the child.

I love that.

ALEXANDER: That is so beautiful. That just really captures the anticipation of Christmas Eve that you feel as a kid.

MARTIN: Right? So we are going to try to write this poem with our listeners. What's your inspiration for this?

ALEXANDER: Well, I'm such a big fan of I-like poems. Here's a really cool poem by Nikki Giovanni. (Reading) The reason I like chocolate is I can lick my fingers, and nobody tells me I'm not polite. I especially like scary movies because I can snuggle with mommy or my big sister, and they don't laugh. I like to cry sometimes because everybody says, what's the matter? Don't cry. And I like books for all those reasons but mostly because they just make me happy. And I really like to be happy.

I mean, who doesn't want to be happy? So I figure we want to make a poem that's composed of a bunch of lines from MORNING EDITION listeners about the specific things they like about the holidays.

MARTIN: So let's give some examples, all right? So when I say, what do you like about the holidays, Kwame, give me a sentence. Like, what do you like? What would be a line here?

ALEXANDER: I like the books that my mother gave me. I like the times that she reminded me what was important about the holidays. I even like going to my aunt's house and getting that turtleneck because I like caring and kindness - all the things that matter during the holidays.

MARTIN: You know you just basically wrote a poem? Like, that was like a poem.

ALEXANDER: (Laughter) Exactly. exactly.

MARTIN: But, see, only you can do that. So my thing is magic. I was thinking about this, and, really, what I love about the holidays is the excuse to believe in magic.


MARTIN: Because we're just not - I don't know if that's that profound or not. But it is - for me, that's where the joy comes from. It's like being able to forget about all the other stuff in your life and whether it's through your kids - or you don't even need kids for this. But you just get to suspend reality. And however you perceive of that magic, you get to seize on it. And it's such a joyful thing.

ALEXANDER: It is. It is.

MARTIN: So these are examples of lines that you can give us, right? Like, I like blah, blah, blah (ph).


MARTIN: And then we're going to put these all together.


MARTIN: And we're going to make a poem. So this is what you do. You can record yourself reading the poem on your phone's Voice Memo app. And then you send it to nprcrowdsource@npr.org. You can also tweet them to us @morningedition or you can email them. Again, it's nprcrowdsource@npr.org. We want you to throw MORNING EDITION Holiday Poem in the subject line. And before I let you go, Kwame, I'm going to have you read more poems.

ALEXANDER: Oh, I get to read another poem...

MARTIN: Yeah, because that's what you're good at.

ALEXANDER: ...One of my favorite poets or...

MARTIN: Shel Silverstein?

ALEXANDER: Oh, yes. If only I had Shel...

MARTIN: Can you just do that?

ALEXANDER: Let me see if I have one.

MARTIN: Do you have one?

ALEXANDER: I think I may. I think I may. OK, OK. No, that's not it.

MARTIN: Come on.

ALEXANDER: OK. (Reading) No one's hanging stockings up. No one's baking pie. No one's looking up to see a new star in the sky. No one's talking brotherhood. No one's giving gifts. And no one's loving Christmas trees on March the 25 (laughter).

MARTIN: I love it. I love it.

ALEXANDER: I like Shel Silverstein.

MARTIN: We've got one minute. I'm going to do a poetry challenge with you.


MARTIN: Here are the words. Make up a poem - magic, trees, kids.

ALEXANDER: The things that matter the most - playing in the snow, sipping apple cider, getting hugs from mother, loving my sisters, loving my brothers. Reading Harry Potter, discovering the magic between the pages of a book. Christmas morning because, you know, we celebrate Christmas now (laughter) and Kwanzaa. Opening the gifts but, most importantly, opening the gifts that really matter, love.

MARTIN: Kwame, love it. All right. Again, it's nprcrowdsource@npr.org. Give us your I-like line. Throw MORNING EDITION Holiday Poem in the subject line. Kwame Alexander - his most recent book is "Solo." He also hosts "Bookish," a literary variety show on Facebook. Thanks so much, Kwame.

ALEXANDER: Thank you. I like you, Rachel.

MARTIN: I like you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.