Sunday, April 18, 2010

Poetry Makers - Charles R. Smith, Jr.

It was Twelve Rounds of Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali that brought Charles R. Smith to my attention, though today he may be better known as the winner of the 2010 Coretta Scott King Illustrator award for My People, his photographic interpretation of the Langston Hughes poem. Here's a quick video of Charles talking about the making of My People.
Before we read more of Charles' poetry, let's learn a bit about him.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Charles: Like any child, I wrote poems in the early stages of school and enjoyed the response I got in reading some of my sillier poems to the class. As I got older I continued writing and once I graduated from college, I began to incorporate musical rhythms into my writing.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Charles: It wasn’t so much that I got hooked on children’s poetry, as much as it was that I wrote poetry that was easy to understand for all people. When you write poetry that’s easy to listen to and read, it has an appeal for all ages.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Charles: I truly enjoy wordplay and creative expression when writing poetry but I also enjoy seeing kids eyes open when they see poems about things they enjoy such as sports or music.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Charles: The college I attended was a photography school so I had no formal training there but I was in honors English classes all through high school. If not, how did you learn to write what you do? Mostly I learned from just writing and reading all the time. Also, when rap music came into existence I was influenced by that because music and rhythm were driving forces in the way words were rhymed.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Charles: My basic approach when I write is to waste no words. Whether it be a biography about a famous athlete, a poem about basketball or different cultures, I focus on each word being strong and creating strong images and unique sounds.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Charles: It’s hard to pick a favorite but my book Twelve Rounds of Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali definitely made me a better writer in general and poet in particular. It was a long book (64 pages; double that typed on paper) and since there’s lots of action, I really had to figure out how to bring the reader into each situation. After that, there are a couple of poems on a CD I created, Portrait of a Poet, that tell the listener something about me and what I do. Two poems in particular, About Me and I Am A Poet (the remix) I’m particularly proud of because it talks about the importance that reading has had in my life and allowed me to achieve what I have so far.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Charles: I’m currently working on a biography of Jimi Hendrix and since he was a musician, it’s written as a song. He had many stages in life when it came to music so the rhyme scheme changes according to where he was in his musical style. The challenge is that he has some very unique situations that happened in his life that make it a bit more difficult than the average bio. For instance, his name was changed when he was 3 because his father believed that his mother named him after a boyfriend she had while he was serving in the army when he was born. Try explaining that to a child in rhyme.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Charles: Langston Hughes.

Your favorite place to write?
Charles: Any café with great espresso and beautiful light.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Charles: It’s more of general quote, but it reads: "Do the thing that is hard to do."

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Charles: Myself. I know that’s not pc, but hey, the way kids respond to my work and knowing how some poets treat poetry as a cadaver meant to be studied, I think I could bring poetry back to the people.

I've been listening to Charles' CD while working in the kitchen over the last few weeks. The poems are moving, rhythmic, and inspiring. Here's the first stanza from the poem "I Am a Poet."
I am a poet
a weaver of words,
a wordsmith who works
wonders with verbs,
a painter who paints
from life observation
technicolor dreams
on your imagination.
I splish
a crimson red sky
with a slick
flick of a quick
and let fly
purple painted puffy clouds
flecked with fuchsia flocks
of seagulls in a v formation
soaring over rocks
rust-colored and red
cracked beneath a bright sun,
sitting stone faced under snakes
s-s-s-s-sticking out their tongues.
Another poem, "About Me," describes the importance of reading in Charles' life. Here's an excerpt.
Books provided hope
along with education
allowed me to dream
and provided motivation
to express myself
through words on a page,
allowed me to laugh
and vent rage,
allowed me to love
and engage
myself in the world
and all that I see
each book provided
to me
to a wide opened world
of adventure and mystery,
science fiction
sports and history.
Great men
great women
great stories
great lives
made great impressions
on my young hungry eyes
inspiring me to dream
of lands across the sea
While these poems scan well and are easy to read, it's hearing them that really makes them come alive. Take a moment or two to listen to Charles read a few of these poems.

Twelve Rounds of Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali is a biography told through poetry. Each chapter is a poem that describes an episode in Ali's life, beginning with his birth in the segregated south and ending with Ali lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta. The poems in the book are presented in three columns and sometimes run for more than a page or two. They are long, but the words and rhythm are so right that they move you along at a compelling pace. Here's the poem from chapter 1.
ROUND ONE: The Golden Child
"I always felt like God made Muhammad special,
but I don't know why God chose me to carry this child."
—Odessa Clay, Cassius Clay's mother

Bathed in beautiful light
from parental love,
brown skin shimmers
with a glow from above.
In 1942, the seventeenth of January,
you entered the world
in Louisville, Kentucky.
Whites Only stores
and Whites Only parks
sifted you out
because you were dark.
No Negroes Allowed
and No Colored signs
created separate worlds
and drew color lines,
but your middle-class parents
managed to survive
through hard work and faith
and were able to provide
you, their first child,
and your little brother later,
with food, shelter, clothing,
and something much greater:
that was passed
to you from day one,
that was passed
to you, the new son
of mother Odessa
and father Cassius Clay,
who also passed the torch
of your name
that birth day,
passed down to you
from a white farmer who
inherited a plantation
and your great-grandfather too.
But Clay freed his forty slaves
during America's dark days,
then fought to end slavery
and fought to change ways
and laws
and thinking
deep in the South,
using newspapers,
and his mouth.
He fought with a spirit
that lives in you today,
reflected in your name,
Cassius Marcellus Clay,
reflecting love from your parents,
who had faith and belief
that God would watch over you
and provide inner strength.
I want to end with a poem or two from a book that I adore. If you are a music lover, than you must look for this one. It's Perfect Harmony: A Musical Journey with the Boys Choir of Harlem. The book is dedicated to "anyone and everyone who loves music in all its many shapes and forms, and to all the musicians who create it" and is a photographic and poetic tribute to this fabulously talented musical group. The back matter includes glossaries of both musical and poetic terms. Here are two of my favorite poems.
Alto Haiku

Alto notes drift high
in the sky lingering
beneath soprano wings.



A perfect marriage of rhythm and time,
voices blend to create harmonic rhyme.

Bass drops anchor in musical sea,
for tenor and alto to create harmony.

Soprano chimes in with high notes that soar;
bass booms deep to even the score.

Tenor pitches words so nat-u-rally,
while alto floats in smooth and gracefully.

Soprano she flies so high in the sky,
as alto hovers below and nearby.

Each voice shines bright like glass in the sun,
harmony brings them together as one.

When musical notes melt with precision and pace,
music has life, energy, and grace.
To learn more about Charles and his work, check out these sites.
Many, many thanks to Charles for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Charles R. Smith, Jr.. All rights reserved.


  1. You know, I love that he says he should be the next poet laureate. He's right -- if he has the passion for it, why not campaign? And the man surely has talent!

  2. I agree--if he thinkis he would be a good children's poet laureate, then he should go for it. So glad to discover a new poet to read.