Welcome to Poetry Friday. This week Janice at Salt City Verse is doing hosting duties. She's featuring David Elliott's new book, At The Pond.
I'm featuring an interview with Irene Latham and Charles Waters about African Town. If you not read it, I recommend you run and get a copy or perhaps you might win a copy here. Leave a comment and I will choose a recipient.
JRM: This is your third collaboration. What have you learned about working together in the past? How was this adventure different or new?
IL & CW: Can I Touch Your Hair? taught us to be open and trust one another as writing partners. Dictionary for a Better World taught us to be brave and try new poetry forms. African Town—because it was our first adventure together in YA and in historical fiction—required ALL of that as well as a whole new depth of collaboration, including research, responsibility, and sensitivity for the descendants and their ancestors. Each character we gave a voice was someone’s father, brother, mother, grandparent. Such a humbling experience.
JRM: You cover such a large swath of time 1859-1901, how were you able to keep all the research and poems from being too unyielding?
IL & CW: We were constantly aware of two things throughout the writing process: 1) we were asking A LOT of the reader by telling the story in 14 voices and 2) we needed to keep the story moving with only the details most pertinent to our book’s message of hope and resilience. We made ourselves stick to our outline.
JRM: Was there a section of the book which you wished you could have stayed longer with or one you were thankful when the section was completed?
IL & CW: Well, since writing is rewriting, we wish we could have stayed longer on the whole book to make it even better. One (or more) sections we’re thankful to have completed and not work on again include the parts chronicling being in the barracoons in Africa, the Middle Passage, the time in the Alabama swamplands (where the Clotilda survivors were sold as chattel), and the years they lived as enslaved people.
JRM: How did you determine who researched and wrote the poems for the fourteen characters? Was there a poem style you tried and realized it wasn’t fitting the character? Did you share any of the characters? Were there characters whose voice and story surprised you?
IL & CW: Initially we divvied the voices according to where we each were in the research at the time. We each wrote black and white characters to get a first draft, and then we spent marathon phone conversations revising line by line. The Clotilda poems we wrote together from the get-go. We put a lot of thought into which poetry form for which character at the start, and we stuck with our choices. And yes, there were many surprises along the way! We learned Abilè̩ had a secret—though it took a long time to discover what that secret was!
JRM: I’m curious about the process. After the research and poem drafts how did you piece and stitch the story like a quilt?
IL & CW: We outlined the entire book at the outset, thinking of it in “scenes.” So we knew for each poem who was speaking, and what critical information needed to be relayed. Of course some things shifted during the writing and revision process, but we had a solid plan based on the actual historical events.
JRM: What do you hope readers will take away from reading African Town?
IL & CW: So many things! This is rich material. We hope young people in particular recognize that there is no way of going forward in life unless we look back, take stock of the past, and bear witness by reading, watching documentaries, and having conversations about family history.
JRM: How had African Town been received by the descendents of Clotilda?
IL & CW: So far, there has been gratitude from the descendants for telling this story with respect and care for their ancestors. We’re particularly grateful to Altevese Rosario, descendant of Kossola and Abilè̩, who also wrote the Teacher’s Guide for the book, as well as Joycelyn Davis, a descendant of Oluale and Maggie who wrote our introduction.
RM: You have shared several interviews about African Town. I am wondering if there was an unasked question you’d like to share here and answer? Are there any characters you cut or others you wish you could have included?
IL & CW: We did cut a character named Free George. He appears in the poems now, but doesn’t have his own voice. As a free black man during the Civil War, his perspective and life was really interesting and inspiring to us. Also, had we known earlier about Matilda McCrear, who was only 2 at the time of the crossing onboard Clotilda, we might have given her a voice as well. But we had already turned in the book at that point and were only able to add her in a single poem. (But at least we were able to do that!)
RM: What is next for you both?
IL & CW: Our picture book Be A Bridge from Carolrhoda/Lerner Publishing with illustrations from Nabila Adani comes in August of this year.
Thank you, Irene and Charles, for taking the time to answer questions about taking Africatown.
You can order a signed copy from Alabama Booksmith.
I later asked Irene about what is available to visit in and near Africantown and Mobile, AL. She shared that there are quite a few things in the works in Africatown and Mobile to commemorate this history. The Africatown Heritage House opens possibly in May Mobile has a history museum and other attractions, like a battleship to tour, Bellingrath gardens, Fairhope (a cool history all its own) and gorgeous beaches Gulf Shores and Orange Beach very close.
I just may have to make a visit.
All photos and poems in these blog posts are copyrighted to Jone Rush MacCulloch 2006- Present. Please do not copy, reprint or reproduce without written permission from me.
2022 Progressive Poem
1 April 1 Irene at Live Your Poem
2 Donna Smith at Mainly Write
3 Catherine Flynn at Reading to the Core
4 Mary Lee at A(nother) Year of Reading
5 Buffy at Buffy Silverman
6 Molly at Nix the Comfort Zone
7 Kim Johnson at Common Threads
8 Rose Cappelli at Imagine the Possibilities
9 Carol Varsalona at Beyond Literacy Link
10 Linda Baie at Teacher Dance
11 Janet Fagel at Reflections on the Teche
12 Jone at Jone Rush MacCulloch
13 Karin Fisher-Golton at Still in Awe
14 Denise Krebs at Dare to Care
15 Carol Labuzzetta @ The Apples in my Orchard
16 Heidi Mordhorst at My Juicy Little Universe
17 Ruth at There is no such thing as a God-forsaken Town
18 Patricia at Reverie
19 Christie at Wondering and Wandering
20 Robyn Hood Black at Life on the Deckle Edge
21 Kevin at Dog Trax
22 Margaret at Reflections on the Teche
23 Leigh Anne at A Day in the Life
24 Marcie Atkins
25 Marilyn Garcia
26 JoAnn Early Macken
27 Janice at Salt City Verse
28 Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference
29 Karen Eastlund at Karen’s Got a Blog
30 Michelle Kogan Painting, Illustration, & Writing