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Kevin Powell on his new poetry collection 'Grocery Shopping With My Mother'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Kevin Powell's latest poems were written during what he calls in an introductory note some of the most difficult and introspective moments of my entire life. I am simply happy to be alive, truly alive again. His new collection - "Grocery Shopping With My Mother." And Kevin Powell, one of America's most acclaimed poets and hip-hop voices, joins us now from Brooklyn. Thank you so much for being with us.

KEVIN POWELL: Thank you so much for having me, Mr. Simon. I really, really, really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.

SIMON: What were you going through, living through, as you wrote these poems?

POWELL: My mother getting sick, first and foremost. I'm an only child, and I had to do what a lot of us in America end up doing. The parent becomes the child. The child becomes the parent, the caretaker. And it was a lot emotionally to process because also my relation with my mother is very complicated because it was just her and I all these years. And so I went through all of that. I went through a sad divorce. My first marriage ended when COVID hit. One of my close, close friends committed suicide, sadly. And so it was a lot of stuff personally. And so it forced me, for the first time in 14 years, to start writing some things down 'cause I love the essay as a form. But I said, you know, the economy of poetry is where I want to get to 'cause there's so much I want to express.

SIMON: Let me get you to read part two of your title poem, "Grocery Shopping With My Mother."

POWELL: (Reading) Dear God, my mother does not know that I often walk behind her on purpose as she grabs a pound of hamburger, a bag of sugar, a loaf of bread, a box of cereal. Aisle after aisle, my heart spills a bucket of suds. Aisle after aisle, my eyes spill two buckets of suds, like that day she slid as a baseball runner would onto the floor in her senior citizen apartment from her favorite chair, and it took my entire back strength to boost my mother's plump frame to get up from her recliner. And before I could, there we were - one, two, three, four, five seconds, her on the floor, me on the floor, when she and I stared at each other, as we may have stared at each other when I was a scared baby and her a scared young woman. And in that very moment, I wanted to tell my mother what she meant to me but could not because my mother and I have never hugged, have never kissed, have never said I love you. And here I was, the caretaker of a person who did not care to be touched by anyone.

SIMON: So your mother never touched you?

POWELL: No. I didn't even know how to hug anyone till I got to college, and someone tried to hug me my freshman year in college. And I recoiled because I had never experienced any kind of emotional affection. And, you know, I think what happens with a lot of us is, you know, a lot of us, whether you came - your ancestors came from Europe or from Asia or your families came from the South, like my mother came from the South - you just kind of did what you had to do to survive. And what was not involved in the equation a lot of times was just emotional love, you know, showing how you felt about folks. And so that's what really made the situation deep for me with my mom. It's like, I have to take care of her, but I also still am that little boy inside of me who wanted to be hugged. Plus, I owe it to them because I would not be who I am as a writer if it wasn't for my mother. She took me to the library when I was 8 years old. She introduced me to storytelling, even though she has a grade school education. It was my mother who made me fall in love with words. It was her.

SIMON: It wasn't just that your mother didn't hug you. She - let me put it this way. She wasn't kind to you.

POWELL: There was - I'll put it to you like this. When I was a kid growing up, I remember there was a movie with Faye Dunaway called "Mommie Dearest." And I remember saying to myself, I relate to this. I love my mother unconditionally. I have great compassion for her. And I don't know what it's like, Mr. Simon, to be a woman in this world, to have to deal with sexism, to be a poor person that has to deal with classism, and then to be a Black person, to have to deal with racism - she had to deal with all those different isms and try to raise a child by herself. It was very difficult, you know what I mean? And so I had to just take a step back - and, you know, years of therapy, honestly, years of counseling - and learn how to forgive 'cause I think the big thing is, you know, here I am, someone who cares about the world. You know, I don't want to see a world where there's any kind of hatred, any kind of violence, any of that stuff at this point in my life. But if I can't forgive my mother, then I feel like I'm a hypocrite.

SIMON: But she...

POWELL: You can say it.

SIMON: All right. Well, she beat you.

POWELL: She did. Part of the reason why I'm a writer, part of the reason why I did write this book, "Grocery Shopping With My Mother" is because I believe that it's a form of healing. Like, we have to be honest about this stuff. And so my job as an artist, as a writer, as a poet, is to paint a picture and say, here's the different way we can go because the easy thing would be for me to just throw my mother away and just disrespect her. I still believe that this book is a love poem to my mother.

SIMON: Yeah. I don't want to leave your father totally out of this, although it sounds like he left himself out of your life.

POWELL: (Laughter) Yes, he did.

SIMON: That's your first line, is, I forgive you.

POWELL: You know, when I was a child, I - my father wasn't there. My mother and father never married. I saw him a couple of times, and then he was gone and left a huge - what I call a father hole. And what I realized throughout my writings through the years, I've talked about, since I was a very young writer, you know, absence, abandonment, the craving for love and emotional connections. You know, I write these poems because I think about family a lot, ultimately. You know, what does family look like? What does it mean, blood relatives?

You know, and I think about our country right now and all the hurt that's out there and the disconnects and how, you know, literally you can have someone - think about just last couple of years. We've had people shoot up a Black church in South Carolina, a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., a queer club in Colorado. You know, this - and you start to - I start looking at the backstories of these people who are these shooters, usually males. And you see that there's some disconnect from any kind of love, any kind of family, any kind of sense of community. And the reason why I write the way I do and deal with very painful subject matter is because I don't want to spend the rest of my life hurting other people.

SIMON: Let me ask you to read from that poem, if you could.

POWELL: OK. (Reading) I forgive you for the hurt forever lurking there like a pipe bomb in my living room, for the hurt forever sleeping there like an unwanted partner in my bedroom. I forgive you because I heard how years later on your death march with a body part or two chopped off, missing, you asked your other children for me, the only one not there, the only one up North, the only one who had barely ever seen you, the only one who did not know you, the only one who never called you Dad or Pop or sir. I forgive you for dying without my knowing, yet I cried a decade later when I found out because the hole was still there. I forgive you because I also forgive me for all those many years I hated myself for having no father.

I've never read that aloud. This is - I mean, this poem, this book is new. I have not read that aloud, so that was really hard.

SIMON: Well, thank you for reading it.

POWELL: You know, what is my poetry book ultimately about? No matter what kind of parent you are, no matter what your gender identity is, just show up for your kids emotionally because if you don't, they end up carrying this stuff into their adult lives. And even though they may be adults, there's still that little child inside of them that's hurting.

SIMON: Kevin Powell, a great poet - his new collection, "Grocery Shopping With My Mother" - thank you so much for being with us.

POWELL: Thank you for having me, sir. I appreciate it. Thank you.

(SOUNBDITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.