National Book Foundation: How does the filmmaker select the poem?
Todd Boss: It’s a misconception that Motionpoems “matches” poems with filmmakers. In fact, we offer filmmakers groups of about 10 poems at a time, and filmmakers select their poems from those groups. We invite filmmakers to read, fall in love, and choose.
Filmmakers fall in love with poems the same way any reader does; something in the poem reaches them or speaks for them or touches a chord. If a filmmaker doesn’t fall in love with a poem, we send them more poems until they do.
NBF: What is the relationship between the poet and the filmmaker like? Do filmmakers often consult poets about the direction of their motionpoems?
TB: We invite the filmmaker to participate in a short, facilitated conversation by phone with their poet if they would like. That’s because they have been guaranteed complete creative control over their project.
We always preface the conversations by telling the poet that the conversation is purely research for the filmmaker and may not have any bearing on the creative direction of the project. We take the opportunity in that conversation to reinforce the fact that the filmmaker is in complete creative control. In fact, I often tell poets that they may not like their films.
NBF: Does that happen often?
TB: Almost 99 percent of the time. It’s a shock reaction in its initial viewing and it’s usually overcome in the second and third viewing. It’s just that, at first, seeing someone else’s interpretation of your work is jarring.
It’s a real trust game that our poets have to play. They have to be comfortable with giving up the poem. Smart poets understand that intrinsically. Once you put a poem on paper, it becomes reimagined by every reader. A motionpoem is just a window into one reader’s reimagination of the work.
Most of our poets love our motionpoems after the third time they’ve seen it. It’s just that initial shock that we’d like to prepare them for.
NBF: Your entire sixth season, thanks to a partnership with VIDA, features poems from female writers. How do you see Motionpoems expanding the voices of other communities in future seasons?
TB:We just announced that season 7 will consist exclusively of poems from African American writers through a partnership with Cave Canem. We’ll have more representing voices from different cultures and groups. We will also be exploring poems on timely themes that are potent for the moment.
TB: Really just through an invitational conversation. We say, “What have you got in the coming year?” and “Can we read through it?” and offer it to our filmmakers. The resounding answer is yes; we’re rarely turned down. It’s a great marketing and publicity tool for publishers. It’s also a great gift that publishers can give to their authors.
National Book Foundation: What was the literary landscape like for LGBTQ readers and writers when the first Book Report was published in 1987?
Tony Valenzuela: In the ‘80s, there was an explosion of queer literature, which is the very reason that the Book Report and the Lambda Awards were born. The LGBTQ community was besieged by homophobia and the AIDS crisis, and the burgeoning literary community that was publishing had this kind of do-it-yourself mentality. For a lot of us, our community centers were bookstores. Deacon Maccubbin, our founder, saw how the landscape was growing for queer writers, and he wanted to have an institution that would spotlight those works.
The political landscape was obviously very different, and the literary landscape was smaller, but we had our bookstores – many more LGBTQ bookstores in the ‘80s than we do now. In terms of mainstream acceptance, visibility, that was much smaller. We were doing it for ourselves.
NBF: I’m trying to think now of queer bookstores that I’ve seen or visited, and I can’t think of as many as I know there used to be.
TV: There’s the Bureau in New York City, and Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, but where else? So many bookstores have closed, and there are so few that are queer-specific.
I will say that there are a lot of independent bookstores doing a really good job with queer literature. In LA, Skylight Books has a great queer reading series, and so does Bluestockings in New York. There are others around that aren’t queer-specific that are doing public programming that includes queer writers. But many queer-specific bookstores have closed.
NBF: So it’s less a physical space now than a community.
TV: Yes. That’s another thing – virtual space is huge right now. Lambda’s one part of it, but there are blogs, there are queer writers in social media, there’s Goodreads and Amazon. There are a lot of places where we’re talking about literature in the virtual world. I know it’s a change, and that you lose something, but that’s so important.
I’ll give you one example with Lambda. Our Lambda Book Report ended as a print journal in 2009, and we had a circulation, I think, of about 3,000 subscribers. But since it’s been online, the review gets upwards of 50,000 readers a month. There’s a lot to be said for that.
NBF: The books that Lambda spotlights can be a lifeline for a lot of readers, especially more underrepresented readers. But access has always been and is still a huge problem. So how do you reach those readers?
TV: Librarians do a big part of it. As a community, they’re plugged into Lambda in a really meaningful way; we have a lot of friendships and relationships with librarians. They’ll tell us that they subscribe to the newsletter so they see what books are being published. They pay attention to the shortlist and winners at the Lammys because they want to know what books to stock in the library. That’s one way that the literature is reaching a larger audience that’s outside of the internet.
One of the things that surprised me when I started working at Lambda five years ago is this: you might think that we’re going to have a huge number of members from big cities or the coast. But the truth is that our members are from all over the place, from small and medium-sized cities in every state and other countries too. And that struck me powerfully.
Many of those members are readers. That’s another thing about Lambda Literary; we’re an organization that’s largely supported by readers. And they’re all over the country, not just in big cities, so books from all over the place, large and small, are given attention. That’s the reason why Lambda Literary, as an organization that’s about LGBTQ literature, has been able to sustain itself for all these years. We have a really dedicated, passionate base of supporters. It has grown and continues to grow, but it’s been there for decades.
NBF: There’s a kind of hunger for those books that you don’t always see.
TV: We’re one of the only places where some writers are getting reviewed. It’s really important, and we do as much as we can.
William Johnson in New York, the [Review] editor, gets well over a thousand books sent to him every year for consideration. We’re only able to do about a quarter of those. And for those that do get reviewed, Lambda is one of the only places, if not the only place, where that writer’s getting covered in a literary publication. The book review sections of major newspapers have shrunk, and it’s an important place for queer writers to have a platform and a spotlight.
NBF: Why is it important for a larger audience to read books by LGBTQ authors with LGBTQ narratives?
TV: Well, by and large, we’re the best at telling our stories. There are heterosexual writers who do their homework, who are strong allies and really understand the LGBTQ experience, and who do beautiful work to show different narratives of that experience. But, for the most part, we LGBTQ people are still best at telling our own stories, and we’re also the most invested in telling our own stories with us as protagonists in the most nuanced ways.
A lot of mainstream audiences are reading LGBTQ writers now, writers like Sarah Waters and Justin Torres and Michael Cunningham. They’re read not only because they’re beautiful writers, but also because they’re telling our stories in ways that a lot of heterosexuals wouldn’t be able to. I know that there are straight writers who do a beautiful job at it, but too often we still see ourselves stereotyped. We aren’t protagonists. That’s one thing queer writers are doing: we’re protagonists of our stories, of every kind of story imaginable. Literature has given us that more than any other form of storytelling, more than film and television. I mean, that’s why so many of us are drawn to books.
And we’ve barely scratched the surface of what our stories are. There’s a lot of attention now to LGBT characters in television shows or films [coming out], but there are still so many stories beyond coming out to be told. Still, we’re asked, “Is there a need for LGBT literature? Is there a need for an organization like Lambda Literary when now there’s gay marriage?”
NBF: Obviously, because marriage is legalized, everything is fixed.
TV: Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what happened in other marginalized groups. Once they got civil rights, it all went away [laughs] – which couldn’t be further from the truth. But we’re only now telling the stories of our lives in ways that mainstream America is paying attention to.
A lot of us write for our own community. Many of us write to a broad audience and want the mainstream to read what we have to say, but a lot of us tell our stories because we feel they need to be told to our own. I think that’s great.
NBF: Let’s talk about the Writers in Schools program, which was launched in 2012. What’s been the most rewarding aspect of working with teenagers and young adults?
TV: It’s rewarding to go into schools and see that, in a lot of places, there’s so much more support and understanding for gay youth than there has ever been.
For example, we were just in a suburban San Diego school last month. The high school’s GSA invited an author, and I sat in, because we were videotaping this particular session to do some outreach with it. At lunchtime, at this GSA meeting, there were about fifteen kids in the classroom. They’d all read A.S. King’s book Ask the Passengers, and she came in via Skype and did this Q&A for forty-five minutes.
It was just remarkable for me to watch because not only did they get to engage with literature and storytelling with an author and get to ask her what it’s like to write a book and what it’s like to be a writer, but they got to talk about themselves and the context of their own lives as queer kids.
This also happens in classrooms where there’s gay and straight kids. They get to talk about their own understanding of what gay life is and have it enriched by the stories that they read and the authors that visit them. And I think, most importantly, it’s introducing young readers to new works by queer authors. Young readers, you know, become older readers [laughs] and they know that there’s this vast queer literary landscape that is for them, too.
We’re introducing a lot of young people to that literature that their teachers may not have otherwise assigned. They may not have otherwise known that Catherine Ryan Hyde’s books exist, or Charles Rice-Gonzalez’s, or A.S. King’s, or Alex Sanchez’s. And now they do. They may become, more than just fans and lifelong readers of those works, lifelong readers in general. We know from the Harry Potter generation, when people become lovers of books young they’ll read when they’re older. Lambda wants to play a role in that by introducing young people in high schools to this other body of work and authors telling these others stories in ways that they’re not going to see anywhere else. So that’s very gratifying.
The program has remained in pilot phase because it’s been kind of small. I can’t tell you what this is, but we’re going to have a major announcement about the program in another month. It’ll be expanding in some important ways, and we’re excited about that. It just means we’re going to be able to reach more young people.
NBF: There’s also the Writers’ Retreat, which I know you just came back from. How has that expanded and changed since its original conception?
TV: It started in 2007, so it’s not quite ten years old, but we’ve done it enough times that, after this year’s class, about 350 fellows have gone through the program.
One of the ways that it’s changed is that it’s bigger. We started with three workshops – fiction, nonfiction, and poetry – and we now have five. We added playwriting this year, and we have genre fiction, which is a rotating workshop. This year there was a focus on young adult fiction and graphic novels. In years past, we’ve had a focus on sci-fi or mystery. So that one changes each year. We also get a ton more applications than when we started. [laughs] It’s become really competitive, which is great. Of course we want people to come into it and do the work in their own writing.
The faculty choose the students. They go through their own genre; they go through the applications and choose the group that they’re going to work with. The writing samples and the artistic statements are really important. I only say this because I hear from folks who didn’t get in once and they think, “Oh, well, Lambda didn’t think I was good enough for it,” and that’s not it at all. That particular year, the student may have applied to a workshop where the instructor was interested in a particular kind of student, but it may be different the next year. There are excellent writers who don’t get in. There’s this subjectiveness to it. People have to keep trying.
And the other thing that has changed is the amount of diversity. It’s always been a diverse group of writers, but we now have people who are writing across a multiplicity of identities: trans writers, and writers of color, and women writers, who are all queer and writing across all these identities and telling their stories across many different identities. That’s really important. It is a reflection of who our community is. Lambda has really paid attention to the diversity of the students in the program, and it’s been a really positive and powerful change in the program.
NBF: What’s on the horizon for Lambda Literary, and LGBTQ literature more broadly?
TV: We want to keep doing what we’re doing in each of our programs – the awards, the retreat, the Review, and the writers in schools – and make each of them better. Just five years ago I was the only staff member. Now we’ve got William Johnson doing the Review, Kathleen DeBold managing all the judges for the Lambda awards, Shirley doing the writers in schools and Kyle, our programs coordinator, doing everything under the sun. Our capacity has expanded, and so we’ve been able to grow and improve our programs.
We want to continue to advocate for our literature, to advance our literature, so our authors have the most exposure possible. We want to give emerging writers a leg up in our programs so that they have [the support of] our stronger writers and also have a better shot at getting their book published. The writers in our emerging writers program have this astonishing success in getting their books published – it’s just incredible.
We want to keep doing what we’re doing, but to grow it smartly and be a resource to readers. To expand our reach to readers and to people who don’t know we exist. There are a lot of people who still, even in the LGBT community, think, “Oh, Lambda, Lambda Legal,” and we have to say, “No, no, no! We’re Lambda Literary! And Lambda Literary has been around for over a quarter of a century!” And then they see what we do, and all the different ways that we’re involved in the literature communities, and they become a part of that, the Lambda family. We want to grow our family.
I guess this is the main thing: when I came in five years ago, it was me and a team of people who’d been working hard to grow the organization. There was potential for strong and steady growth with no ceiling in sight. And there’s still so much potential for what our writers and our literary community are doing. I believe that the sky’s the limit. We have not seen it slow down. In terms of Lammy submissions, five years ago there were 450 and this year there were over 850. So where’s that coming from? It’s exciting. I think that the queer literary community is really vibrant right now, and Lambda wants to play our role in helping writers and exposing writers to more readers.
National Book Foundation: What inspired Call Me Ishmael?
Logan Smalley: I’ve been obsessed with the opening lines of books for as long as I can remember, and of course “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most notable opening lines in literature. One day, I was sitting around with my co-founder, Stephanie Kent, and we realized the sentence contained a pun. So we asked the question, what if we gave Ishmael a phone number? What would people call him about? The natural answer was “stories about books that they loved.”
NBF: Is that your favorite opening line, or is that just a convenient one?
LS: It’s really hard to pick a favorite opening line. I think it’s agreed-upon that “Call Me Ishmael” and maybe two or three others are the most famous opening lines. And it’s certainly one that makes the most sense to give a telephone number to!
NBF: That would change the entire novel, if Melville’s character had cell phones.
LS: Haha! It’s kind of neat on a poetic level because, of course, Ishmael as a narrator only references himself two or three times throughout the book. If you think about what Moby-Dick is, it’s his observation of the story and his account of listening to his fellow sailors’ stories.
We like to think that we’re continuing the tradition of listening to great stories. There’s a Melville scholar who describes Ishmael as the ‘fortuitous witness.’ So we try and stay loyal to that characterization in everything that we do with Call Me Ishmael, and we certainly feel fortunate to be listening to all the stories that we receive.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Logan Smalley” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]If it’s a good book, then at the end of it, your life looks a little different.[/pullquote]
NBF: Are there ways in which the voicemails have surprised you?
LS: Oh, absolutely. One more thing on that previous note: the voicemails generally are anonymous and it’s kind of neat because, in a way, Ishmael is kind of an anonymous character, too. You never learn his last name or much else about him.
But anyway, I check Ishmael’s voice mailbox every morning and every night. It’s always full of surprises. Some stories make us laugh, some make us cry, some make us consider calling the police. [laughs] We get epiphanies, confessions, prank calls…you name it.
NBF: The people who call in anonymously share really honest and vulnerable stories. Why do you think that books are the vector that allows that kind of vulnerability?
LS: Well, if you think about the nature of reading a book, it’s a very private, intimate experience that carries out over a long period of time. In that time, inside your head, you’re creating images and meeting characters and going through various narrative climaxes and resolutions. If it’s a good book, then at the end of it, your life looks a little different.
I think that when you finish a book, you always want to talk about it with someone, and of course it’s always better to talk about it with someone who has actually read the book, or at least someone who’s interested in listening. That’s definitely one thing that everyone on the Call Me Ishmael team is: interested in hearing people’s stories about how books have affected their lives, both in the short-term and in the long-term.
Some of the most interesting stories come from people who sound like they’re a bit older. It’s all anonymous, so we never know exactly who the person is or where they’re coming from, but, for example, there’s a call about The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss. The caller alludes to his age in saying that he was born a year or two before Brown v. Board of Education, and he goes on to talk about how The Sneetches changed and defined his perspective on race relations growing up. It’s very interesting to hear someone who was born in the ’50s reflecting back on a book that he read in his childhood. I think there’s an incredible amount of perspective and wisdom gained over such a long amount of time.
NBF: There are also a few about To Kill a Mockingbird that seem to be from people who are old enough to have their own children. Do you tend to get callers who are anywhere in particular on the age spectrum – do they tend to be younger or older?
LS: Well, it depends on what’s going on and how they discover [the project]. For example, on one particular day John Green decided to share Call Me Ishmael with J.K. Rowling for her and Harry’s shared birthday – he tweeted a playlist that we had about Harry Potter to her. So that day, because John is such a fantastic author and presence on social media, we actually got hundreds of calls in a matter of minutes. In that case, because his demographic is generally a bit younger, everyone sounded like young adult readers.
We also get calls from people who have children who want to tell stories about the experiences they’ve had reading to their kids. Another recurring theme is calls about books that affected someone when they went to college or when they left home and became independent for the first time. It’s clear that transitional periods in life are perfect opportunities for books to have a major impact on a reader.
People of all ages read, so it’s certainly appropriate for people of all ages to call. On the very youngest end of the spectrum, we had this awesome day where an entire class decided to call in and share their opinions on Cat in the Hat. A lot of kindergartners letting us know what they thought about the Cat in the Hat coming back. [both laugh] One of those is featured, if you want to check it out.
NBF: Was there a consensus?
LS: You’ll have to listen for yourself. [both laugh] The one that we featured is really adorable. They’re all great, but the one that we featured was particularly exuberant.
NBF: Speaking of John Green, I recall one about The Fault in Our Stars. She, like many of the other callers, ended by saying “thank you.” When you get the thank-you at the end, how does that make you feel?
LS: Well, I think it’s a really neat phenomenon. The very first caller addressed the person they were talking to as “Ishmael” and then thanked Ishmael at the end. It was at that moment that we knew that we launched something special.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Logan Smalley” link=”” color=”#FBC901″ class=”” size=””]For as long as there has been reading, fictional stories have been affecting people’s lives in very real ways.[/pullquote]
People share beautifully real and vivid moments with a voice mailbox named after a fictional character that is now over a century and a half old. To me, that exchange is in tune with literature itself. For as long as there has been reading, fictional stories have been affecting people’s lives in very real ways. So I think that it’s only appropriate that the fictional character who sits at the helm of this project is being thanked in reality for listening.
NBF: What plans do you have, if any, to create or solicit original content?
LS: Ishmael’s phone number will be up for as long as there are phones. That won’t change. We’re also interested in creating a book around the project. We aren’t exactly sure what will be inside of the book, but of course it will incorporate some of the stories we’ve received and hopefully a healthy amount of illustrations.
NBF: I have one last question for you, and it’s the big one. What is your dream for the project’s future?
LS: That sentence [“Call me Ishmael”] has served as the point of embarkation for millions of readers for over a century and a half. I would like for this iteration of Ishmael — the character, the narrator, the listener, the “fortuitous witness”– to continue the journey and evolve into a character that helps people discover and celebrate great books.
National Book Foundation: What sets African poetry apart from other world literature, particularly the differences between African poetry and the western tradition?
Kwame Dawes: The term “Africa” is a complicated convenience of history. This makes it, despite what totalizing practices we fall into, as absurd to characterize African poetry as anything specific as it would be to characterize European poetry as anything specific. So, for our purposes, the only thing that allows us to call our series and our organization African is the historical convenience of geography.
Because the colonizing world totalizes such a varied continent, it’s the consistent and frighteningly homogenous exploitation of the people of that continent that has made acts of recuperation collective so as to achieve the power of shared suffering. We publish African poets because nobody is doing so in ways that make sense. We ask nothing of the poets but that they be writers connected to any one of the many countries and ethnic groups on the continent. There may be lines of connection between a poet from Nigeria and a poet from Botswana, but these may well be the same connections that these poets find with Croatian poets and Canadian poets.
So I don’t know what distinguishes African poetry except the things that distinguish any tradition of poetry—and that is the tradition, the patterns of what has come before. But in Africa, as in other places, this is never homogeneous nor prescribed. So it’s impossible to credibly characterize it as any one thing. A quick look at the poets we have published so far will confirm this. Perhaps Kenyans may offer a more useful answer to this question in reference to Kenyan poetry.
NBF: What are some of the ways the APBF contributes to the literary community?
KD: The absence of published poetry by African writers has simply meant that the ideas, craft, feelings, considerations and voices of poets from Africa have been excluded from some conversations about poetry in the world. Where African novelists have been part of the literary conversation, the same is not true for poetry—at least not at the same level. So we are slowly changing the conversation by adding these voices. This can only enrich the “literary community,” if you will.
Our other related efforts are creating a network of poets from Africa, facilitating mentorships, and attempting to partner with other entities that seek to ensure that poets from Uganda, for example, are read by poets and people from Senegal. They contribute to this conversation in necessary ways.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Kwame Dawes” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]We publish African poets because nobody is doing so in ways that make sense. We ask nothing of the poets but that they be writers connected to any one of the many countries and ethnic groups on the continent.[/pullquote]
NBF: Could you talk about how these mentorships work?
KD: The editorial team of the APBF is made of some highly regarded poets from Africa and its diaspora, but they are also amazing teachers and mentors for other writers. As a result, we have tried to find ways to add mentorships of various kinds to the work that we do. Typically, all the books we publish by African writers undergo very careful and intense editorial engagement and dialogue between members of our team and the writer we are publishing.
At the same time, we respond with extensive notes to those poets we believe have promise even if we do not select their work for publication. Our mentorship extends to connecting poets with other poets who are not necessarily on our editorial team and also granting advice and support for those poets in the business of publishing and working as a poet. We make ourselves available to work with African poets. This is our commitment. We expect these relationships to last even beyond the publication of a work.
Finally, most of the editorial team travel to various events that might feature African poets. We offer workshops, and in many instances, review manuscripts and offer advice for the poets. Essentially, we are trying to inculcate in our writers a system of support and respect that makes it possible for writers to enjoy apprenticeship opportunities and genuine support for their lives as writers.
NBF: You mentioned earlier that you partner with other entities. Could you talk about some of these partnerships?
We have a formal relationship, as well, with Blue Flower Arts, one of the leading booking agencies in the US, who has agreed to represent the poets of the APBF in securing readings and appearances around the country and outside of the country.
The APBF has a close working relationship with the Brunel Prize for African Poets, a relationship that allows us to share information about promising poets and to devise ways to bring workshops and mentorship to African poets. I could go on, but what should be clear is that our goal is to make as many connections with various organizations around the world that support the work we do.
NBF: How does your organization create a greater dialogue between African readers and writers across the continent?
KD: The challenges of book distribution on the continent of Africa are disheartening. But we are trying to use various strategies of partnering, networking, and working closely with publishers, arts organizations, and arts brokers in various countries to find innovative ways to get books across the continent. In our chapbook series we give each poet 100 copies of his or her chapbook to dispose of as she or he sees fit. This is an informal distribution system, but it works in many ways since the poets can become the conduit for these books.
It is not ideal. Ideal would be to have an Africa-wide distributor with reliable links to bookstores, literary festivals, and booksellers around the continent who can get these books to various countries. Some day, we hope this will happen. In the mean time, the African Poetry Libraries are designed to at least make the books available to people who can access the five we have established. A start.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Kwame Dawes” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Poetry writing is a very private and peculiar affair.[/pullquote]
NBF: What has your experience of building poetry libraries been?
KD: This has been an exciting endeavor because it has been based entirely on collaborations and partnerships with individuals and organizations on the continent who have assumed leadership of these libraries. The concept is simple, but the impact is anything but simple. The libraries have become hubs for poets and lovers of poetry and have filled an important niche of bringing contemporary poetry from around the world to these five centers. As they become fully established, we will expand to other places.
NBF: Where do you see the APBF going next? What plans and expansions do you hope to implement in the future?
KD: We are doing what we set out to do and will continue to do so. Our hope is to be able to facilitate workshops for poets in various countries, some virtual and some physical. We are seeking the funds to be able to do this.
We are also starting to plan books in translation from European languages spoken in Africa and from African languages. This is a long term goal, and our hope is to be able to do more of such work in the future. Our efforts, so far, remain in English, but we hope to expand when resource will allow us to. This is still a ways off, but we are exploring this.
NBF: Are the poets writing in English to begin with?
KD: Most of the poets that the APBF has published thus far are poets writing in English. The poets themselves may be multilingual, but they are writing in English. There is nothing unusual about this. However, we are now looking at the translated work of poets who are writing in other languages for publication. We will publish the work in English translation.
For instance, we are partnering with the Swahili Writers Prize, run by the Kenyan novelist and poet Mukoma wa Ngugi, to publish any poetry manuscripts that win the prize. The work will be translated into English and published by the APBF. We are also welcoming manuscripts that are then translated from languages other than English.
I can envision a time when we will be able to publish in other languages. But that is not likely to happen immediately given the challenges of multilingual publication. But with increasing success and expanding partnerships, it is likely that this will happen.
NBF: Has working with these emerging African poets influenced your own writing? What ideas have these poets introduced to you?
KD: Poetry writing is a very private and peculiar affair. My life has been equally devoted to making poems as it has been to teaching poets and making space for poets in the world. I am engaged by poets of all ilk, and I tend not to keep track of how one poem may offer ideas for a poem I may write. Were I to do that, I would have to include painters, singers, playwrights, teachers, lawyers, and on and on.
What I can say is that there is something deeply affirming in seeing new poets finding their voices and to see established poets getting the due they deserve. It has always been my view that I am as good as the company I keep. The more of us there are, the better I get. So this is at least one reason that I seek to build community.
National Book Foundation: Where did the idea for the program come from?
Mark Hecker: My background is in social work, and I worked in the foster care system. I had the experience of working with a number of really talented young people that, for many reasons – most related to some kind of trauma – had fallen behind in school. Over and over, I found that schools really didn’t have resources available that help high schoolers catch up. So it started with this idea of how we can get high schoolers invested in reading when, for many reasons, they often hate it?
I knew through doing research that high school students specifically improve at reading when they get to practice at their level. In D.C., what we were finding was that all these kids were getting to high school and reading at an elementary school level. My clinical background told me that, and I always say this in a joking way, if you hand a fifteen-year-old a Dr. Seuss book, they’re going to feel like you’re calling them stupid and they’re not interested.
So the idea we came up with was to hand them a Dr. Seuss book and a seven-year-old to read it to, and it dramatically changes the experience of reading that Dr. Seuss book. We can’t just get them to read elementary school material. We need to get them to read elementary school material to elementary school kids to reframe the experience of reading for them. That’s really where the idea started.
NBF: How do you see your program expanding in the future?
MH: We look at it in two stages. Our plan is to grow about two and a half times in the next two and a half years. We served about 180 kids in this school year that’s wrapping up now and our plan is to serve 500 by the fall of 2017. That’s 250 tutors and 250 students in our program. I think that’s getting to the size where we’re going to find what it is that makes us special and where we can grow.
We’ll definitely continue to serve D.C. The problem here is significant; we’re not addressing enough of the problem now and I don’t think we’ll be addressing enough of the problem in three years, or as much of the problem as we’d like to.
The second prong is how do we respond to the demand that already exists to replicate what we do. I’ve probably heard already from 30-40 different jurisdictions (nonprofit organizations, school officials, and towns) that are interested in working with Reach and replicating our programs in new places. And because we feel that the relationships that we build are so essential for what we do, we’re just not there yet. We’re not yet considering moving into any other jurisdictions, but when we do, we will focus on values alignment and a commitment to ongoing training and support to ensure success.
So I think, at the end of our current strategic plan, the question that we will be prepared to answer is how does Reach grow if it decides to grow beyond D.C.? Do we partner with already established nonprofits that we consider great? Or – and I don’t see this in our future – do we sell our curriculum and walk away? I think it’s more likely we’ll do some sort of licensing agreement where we would provide some training and support along the way, but we see that as the next stage of growth.
NBF: It seems great that you’re getting so much support from so many other jurisdictions.
MH: Yeah, I think there’s a really desperate desire for something that’s effective with high school students who are struggling with reading especially in the context of more and more standardized education. I think a lot of teachers at a lot of schools just feel lost. There are not a lot of people having success in part because there are not a lot of programs available. Those programs tend to be obviously remedial, which means the kids don’t want to participate in them. I think that people feel we’ve grabbed onto something that’s worth paying attention to. I don’t think they yet understand how difficult what we do is and how hard the work is and some of the values related to the stuff we do.
One of the most important [aspects of Reach Incorporated is] you can’t be thrown out of our program. So it’s a commitment – that we’re patient, that we work with kids for multiple years. We consider the relationship unconditional. That stuff is just as important to our success as the curriculum is, so when we do grow, it will be important to work with organizations that understand that.
NBF: Reach Incorporated encourages mutual learning to take place between the tutor and the student, as opposed to the traditional top-down hierarchy. How does this reciprocity contribute to the success of the program?
MH: There are a couple of ways. One, our students like their teenage tutors more than they would like working with me. [Laughs.] They think that the teenagers are just the coolest people in the world. They also get one-on-one attention.
On a very basic level, the reason it [works so well] is that the little kids get individual attention. They love that the attention is from a peer tutor from their community. And the older kids feel like what they’re doing is important. When they walk into our program, instead of feeling like a bad reader who has to work on something that they don’t feel good at, they just get tackled by a seven-year-old who wants to sit with them and read. The learning that happens does become secondary [to that], but it’s the driving force of what we do.
NBF: Which students’ stories from the program have surprised you most?
MH: There are a lot of them. I think every teacher has experiences of feeling running head first into a wall over and over.
There’s a young lady named Ashley from Ballou High School, which is one of our rougher schools. A year and three-quarters into our program, I went up to one of our staff members and said, “I need you to deal with Ashley.” I was getting into my own feelings and I was just angry. The key here is that we focus on being sure that every student has positive relationships with someone from the organization. In this case, when I grew frustrated, I knew it was important for me to step away for a minute.
Ashley had a strong relationship with one of our instructors, Ms. Sully, and she began to focus more on school. We remain positive, no matter what, to help our kids see their potential. Coming out of that, she’s shown some real improvement. During the third quarter, she won a Most Improved Award from her school.
I think this story illustrates the fact that we have to always believe in kids, and we need to be aware enough to know when our feelings get in the way of our ability to do the job.There’s a year and a half of work that feels thankless, and to see a kid flip that switch and get there when it would have been very easy to give up long before…we have to challenge ourselves sometimes to live our values. Those are very rewarding moments.
Two summers ago, [because of the lack of] diversity in children’s literature, we started publishing our own books. We’ve now published nine books written by teenagers and we’ve had a couple opportunities for events where authors go and read to kids. I was shocked by how meaningful it [was] for a kid at an elementary school to see a teenager from their community who went to their school and is now a published author. Those were really special moments.
We did [a reading] a couple weeks ago where we had teachers coming up with copies of those books and asking their own former students for autographs. These are students that likely were not these teachers’ favorite students. To see that reframe of what these kids can do — I was a little surprised with how hard that hit me. I don’t think we realized at the beginning the import of the work we do around what usually gets called “narrative change.” It’s this idea of getting [teachers and other adults] to see these kids differently because they’re generally seen as the troublemakers. [At Reach Incorporated,] we’re really focused on all that the kids have to offer, and that can be very powerful.
NBF: We were looking through some of the books the teenagers published. Khalil’s Swagtown Adventure and One Lonely Camel would definitely help many seven-year-olds out.
MH: Yeah, we had a reading last week with Litzi, one of the authors of Khalil’s Swagtown Adventure. Her younger brother Joey was one of the Reach students, and the authors read to the entire student body. It was one of those moments where he was the coolest kid in school because that was his sister and he got to go up and get his book signed by her.
When we met Litzi, she was always a pretty solid student, but she literally did not speak. She would not respond if you talked to her directly. And she now is headed out to the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer as part of a team that won a public speaking challenge. The turnaround you see in moments like that is really, really cool.
NBF: What more can you tell us about the books the tutors write?
MH: The whole premise behind Reach is instead of looking at these kids as problems, let’s look at them as assets. We we were working really hard to find good, diverse books – I feel like I know most of them at this point, but there are just not enough. And for us, there was just a moment where we said, “Well, we believe in these kids, and we notice this new problem related to our work. Why don’t we look at them as the ones that can solve this problem, too?”
It became part of our summer program to have the teens write new books to better reflect the realities of their world. We talk about diverse books a lot these days, but it’s not just about the color of the characters, it’s about their experiences. So with the ones you mentioned (Khalil’s Swagtown Adventure and One Lonely Camel), there’s talk of family dysfunction, there’s being the new kid at school, there’s being abandoned by your family, there’s dealing with death. We have one book that takes place in a shelter. Those things are real to our kids, and there are just not many books about those things.
Using the examples you just mentioned, One Lonely Camel has a camel who’s a rapper. His best friend is Tunechi, which is a nickname of Lil Wayne. And our kids know that. They understand that cultural marker. You and I can both imagine a book called Khalil’s Magical Adventure, but the fact that it’s called Khalil’sSwagtown Adventure – it speaks to the community that we work with in a different way. It’s been fun to see them not only step up as role models and do readings in the community, but to really contribute to a problem and, again, to change people’s minds.
When we first published the books, part of the reaction was, “Cute, I’m sure your students will like those.” What’s been fascinating is to watch the families more privileged than those, rich white folks, all of a sudden saying, “You know what? This book is really good!” Yeah, I know it’s really good! [Laughs.]
NBF: What obstacles did you face in creating this program?
MH: The work is hard and I [won’t] sugar coat that. So when we say things like, “We don’t throw kids out of our program,” the difficulty of living that is real.
We don’t meet our kids before we hire them. At each of our schools, we get at least twice as many applicants as we have spots in the program. We simply don’t have the ability to interview all those kids. This means we’re making decisions based on applications and school data. For that reason, we don’t always know what other factors might come into play. We look at that as a mostly good thing. We want to serve those students with significant need, not those that can do the best in an interview.
We select them based off a bunch of factors, but when we walk into a classroom at the beginning of ninth grade and three of our tutors are demonstrably pregnant, how do we support those kids? What do we do when the kid gets suspended from school for a long period of time? What do we do when kids get arrested? There’s lots of things we deal with.
Again, I come from a social work background and there was a lot that we saw that I was comfortable with because I was from that world. But my staff, who came more from the world of education, didn’t feel equipped to handle all those things, so that’s been a challenge. I think we’re better at it, but it’s a challenge in education in general, especially in urban communities. So many of our kids are coming from backgrounds of chronic stress and trauma that we need to find ways to better prepare instructors to deal with that.
There are also issues about perceptions of our kids and whether people believe they can do a good job both as tutors and as authors. We, at this point, have been lucky enough to have pretty solid data that shows what they’re able to do. But at the beginning, we had to prove it because people weren’t willing to trust teenagers and believe that they could do it.
We live in a world, in the education space, where there’s a focus on how quickly you can grow an idea and how you can scale it. It’s one of my least favorite words. Relationships aren’t really scalable. How do you end up growing a program that’s highly effective? We do want to serve more kids, but we find ourselves constantly in this battle about how fast we can reasonably grow while maintaining the quality we’ve established.
I’d rather do a really good job with a thousand kids in ten years than get to a thousand kids in five years but do half the quality work. I think a lot of education programs have grown big and have lost their quality along the way, and we’re trying to do that differently. We’re trying to grow in an appropriate way, but it constantly feels like we’re fighting that battle. When we say we don’t want to “scale,” we’re not just interested in serving as many kids as we can as soon as we can, people sometimes roll their eyes and say, “Oh, you’re one of those cute nonprofits that’s not ready to make hard decisions.” And that’s frustrating.
We have been able to find resources and build a family of supporters and a community that really believes in us. But that tension of [how to grow is real for us]. We’re getting there, but that’s been a real challenge.