Alice Walker Is For Oakland, Human Imperfection And The Children

Oct 6, 2018
Originally published on October 6, 2018 9:50 am

Alice Walker has a new collection of poems about issues of the world, and those in her own backyard.

The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author of the The Color Purple, The Temple of my Familiar and many other beloved works has now issued Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart. The book gathers 69 of her poems in both English and Spanish, the latter courtesy of translator Manuel García Verdecia.

She spoke to NPR about her adopted homes, the root of her poetry and human imperfection.

"I just think it's great for us to acknowledge that people are not finished," Walker says. "We're not finished!"


Interview Highlights

On the first line of "Loving Oakland"

If gentrifiers do not despoil it
which means getting rid of poor
and black and people of color
people
Oakland can be what it has been
for a long time: an urban Paradise.

Walker: In fact, it's happening as we speak. So many huge buildings, apartment buildings, forcing the people out. There are a lot of broken-hearted souls in Oakland who've lived there all their lives. I just moved there myself a couple of years ago, but I've known people who've lived there for a long time.

Simon: Do you wonder what the poem will sound like, say, five years from now?

Walker: No. I don't. I don't even know I'll be here five years from now. I mean, what I'm trying to express is just my absolute delight in finding a place — I'm such a country person. I mean, I actually really live on a farm. But you know, Oakland has a soul as a city. It has a real spirit, and when you lose it, it's major. It's a big deal.

On having every poem translated into Spanish

I live part of the year in Mexico. I've been living there like that for almost 30 years, I think — yeah, since the late '70s. You know, I'm busy writing in English, so it's been real hard to get my Spanish up to speed. And I sometimes am frustrated because I can't really explain to my friends what it is that I do. I just want to be closer to them, and I don't want to always be the one who is, you know — I have something to share but I can't share it, because I can't really speak the language.

On the inspiration for her poetry

Feeling, depth of feeling, absolute piercing of the heart — and the wanting to touch someone and someones with a reality that something is necessary to be done, to be looked at, to be understood, to be loved, to be cared about. And especially in this book, I'm thinking more about children, and this world where they must ... it's hard to even think about how most of the children on the planet are dealing with what is happening. I mean, it gives me nightmares. So I'm really writing out of that feeling of wanting people to be very aware of what we are inflicting on each other, and especially on the children.

On the poem "Necks of Clay" and listening to "imperfect humans"

Someone said to me:
Oh, stop that! He has feet
of clay.
This person's clay
went to the neck.
Can we listen to imperfect
humans?
I've always preferred them
myself.
Does this make us mad?
Can we hear our own
small voices
muffled by
the mud
of being:
pleading
for release?

Walker: I can. That's the only kind there is! I mean, really. And I think accepting that is taking us a long way forward. OK, you're not perfect, and I'm not either, and you're really not perfect. But what are you trying to tell me? And then maybe we can go somewhere.

Simon: I love it when you say "I've always preferred them / myself."

Walker: I do! I do, I do, I tell you, it's just so — it's so human, to be imperfect.

Sophia Alvarez Boyd and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Alice Walker has a new collection of poems, nearly 70, about issues of the world and in her own backyard. The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author of "The Color Purple," "The Temple Of My Familiar" and many other beloved works joins us now from the studios of KUOW in Seattle. Her book of poems is "Taking The Arrow Out Of The Heart."

Ms. Walker, thanks so much for being with us.

ALICE WALKER: I'm very happy to be here with you. I've heard wonderful things about you, by the way.

SIMON: Well, we've heard wonderful things about you, of course. I'd like to begin with - if you could read us a section of your poem about your beloved Oakland called "Loving Oakland."

WALKER: OK.

(Reading) If gentrifiers do not despoil it, which means getting rid of poor and black and people of color people, Oakland can be what it has been for a long time, an urban paradise. It is a place where the young blond woman crossing the street in front of your car would look like a threat to the neighborhood, except she's frowning over some deep issue in her inner life and wearing outrageous vivid blue shoes. It is a place where, as you sit on the grass by the lake, a tall black man of a certain age strolls by blowing his saxophone. You smile and bow. He bows back with his horn. His day is mellow. He's in the sun. He has given mellowness and sun free of charge to you.

SIMON: If I might ask you about that first line, if gentrifiers do not despoil it, are you concerned that Oakland might be improved, as they say, at the cost of a lot of people?

WALKER: Yes. In fact, it's happening as we speak. So many huge buildings, apartment buildings, forcing the people out. And so many, now, people living in tents - you know, so many homeless people. There are a lot of brokenhearted souls, you know, in Oakland who've lived there all their lives. I just moved there myself a couple of years ago. But I've known people who've lived there for a long time.

SIMON: Do you wonder what the poem will sound like, say, five years from now?

WALKER: No. (Laughter) I don't. I don't even know if I'll be here five years from now. I'm such a country person. I mean, I actually really live on a farm. But you know, Oakland has a soul as a city. It has a real spirit. And when you lose it, you know, it's major. It's a big deal.

SIMON: Each poem in this collection is translated into Spanish by Manuel Garcia Verdecia on the opposite page. Why was it important to you to have these poems available in Spanish at the same time?

WALKER: I live part of the year in Mexico. I've been living there like that for the last almost 30 years, I think. I'm busy writing in English, so it's been real hard for me to get my Spanish up to speed. And I sometimes am frustrated because I can't really explain to my friends what it is that I do. I just want to be closer to them. And I don't want to always be the one who is - you know, I have something to share, but I can't share it because I can't really speak the language.

SIMON: Yeah.

I want to get you to read - if I get an opinion - my favorite poem in this collection.

WALKER: OK.

SIMON: "Necks Of Clay."

WALKER: (Reading) Someone said to me - oh, stop that. He has feet of clay. Well, this person's clay went to the neck. Can we listen to imperfect humans? I've always preferred them myself. Does this make us mad? Can we hear our own small voices muffled by the mud of being, pleading for release?

SIMON: I love that poem.

WALKER: Thank you.

SIMON: So let me ask you the question. Can we listen to imperfect humans?

WALKER: I can. That's the only kind there is.

SIMON: (Laughter) That's true.

WALKER: I mean, really. And I think accepting that is taking us a long way forward, you know? OK. You're not perfect, and I'm not either. And you're really not perfect. But what are you trying to tell me? And then maybe we can - you know, we can go somewhere.

SIMON: I love it when you say, I've always preferred them myself.

WALKER: I do. I do. I do. I tell you, it's just so - it's so human to be imperfect.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, it's all we're left with, isn't it? That's...

WALKER: Oh, totally.

SIMON: Yeah.

WALKER: Yeah. But it can also be worked with. And you know - I mean, I just think it's great for us to acknowledge that people are not finished. We're not finished.

SIMON: Alice Walker - her new book of poems, "Taking The Arrow Out Of The Heart."

Thanks so much for being with us.

WALKER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.