'Poetry is the piano of literature': Jason Reynolds on his life, work and everything in between

Published on: 06 September 2018 Author: Robbie Hunt

We were so excited at BookTrust to host author and poet Jason Reynolds, one of the most refreshing and distinctive voices in Teen/YA literature right now. 

Jason's groundbreaking book Long Way Down is in the works to be made in to a film and he was more than happy to answer our questions on that, writing in free verse, his work with young people, who he's reading right now and what he's working on next.

Find out what he had to say by watching the full interview video below, or scroll down to read a transcript.

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer on accident. I think for me writing was something I didn’t think would happen for me because I wasn’t a reader, I didn’t read anything until I was almost 18 years old it seemed a little strange for me to become a writer.

But if it weren’t for studying and reading rap lyrics when I was a kid I’m not sure I would be here today.

I was a young person who was obsessed with hip-hop. I grew up right in the midst of hip-hop growing its own legs and becoming a national phenomenon, and the international phenomenon. I would go and I would buy cassette tapes and I would pull out the liner notes. For all the young people out there liner notes were little pieces of paper that came with every album and you pulled it out and would unfold it, and printed on this piece of paper were the lyrics to every song.

It was looking at those words on the page, and seeing the shape of those words on the page, that I realised that rap music when written was poetry. The same poetry that they were trying to teach me in school, and from there I started to sort of mimic it on the page and writing poems. I did that for around 15-20 years and eventually it became this thing that it is today.

What do you think free verse offers readers as a form?

I think free verse is a powerful device and a powerful tool when it comes to engaging young people. I think we need to be honest with ourselves about who and where we are at the minute culturally. What I mean by that is that young people today are dealing with the exact same things that they were dealing with 25 years ago when I was a kid, and that’s the idea that books can be a bit intimidating. We should start to divert from what we think that a book is supposed to be. Storytelling is storytelling, we can manipulate what storytelling means as much as we want, it’s a creative artform. What free verse does is it shows young people that there are several different ways that you can tell a story. Furthermore it whets their pallets when it comes to poetry.

I always say that poetry is the piano of literature… if you can play the piano then you understand how to play anything. I do believe that if you can understand or grasp verse, then you have a better inclination of all the other literary artforms and mediums.

I think that young people need a bit of white space sometimes. We have to remember that not every kid is a reader, not every young person is inclined to delve in to Pride and Prejudice. The truth is that that white space and the ability to constantly turn pages is invigorating to any kid that ever felt that books weren’t for them, and that is a special gift.

What is the best way to engage reluctant readers?

Honesty. You’d be surprised how far authenticity will go. I think if you would ask the average teenager what’s missing in artform, or even in the relationships they have with adults, it’s probably going to be authenticity and honesty.

A young person wants to see themselves on a page. They want to believe that whoever wrote this book actually knows something about them.

Writing stories that feel authentic and honest means that whoever wrote the story cares enough to get to know who young people are. I always say that all young people are looking for is just some truth, and it’s their truth not our truth or our projections of who we think they are, just their actual truths. Their language, the way that they speak, the way they walk and posture, their fears and insecurities. You can’t show young people if you don’t know young people. That’s the reason there has been such a disconnect. Adults have to remember you have to engage with them in real life before you put their lives on the page.

How do you ensure that your work is authentic to young people?

First of all I spend a lot of time with young people. I have a 17 year old little brother, he’s pretty much a case study. I spend a lot of time in juvenile detention centres all over the world, from Germany to Scotland and all over America. I’ve been in those spaces where young people have been written off and I’ve talked to them and I’ve listened to them which is even more important. I do 150 school visits a year in America. Just anywhere there are young people is where I like to be.

Furthermore I am fully aware of who I was at 16 years old, it is not something that is lost on me. I know how messy it was and how afraid I was and I know how insecure I was, and I think for me I try to put that on the page. Things haven’t changed. Things are more the same than they are different. So if I can be honest about who I was it turns out it would usually connect with the honesty in them.

Lastly I was really lucky. I was born in the sweet spot. The greatest gift I was ever given was rap music, because that music that was a small thing ostensibly became youth culture all around the world.

So my natural language, the language I grew up speaking, my neighbourhood language turns out to be slang or at least familiar to every child on earth. I try to remember that and to be unafraid of using that in my literature.

Do you see an impact from the work you do in schools and youth detention facilities?

I hear from lots of schools that my visits or talks are working, but when I say working I mean a lot of different things. When I show up at a school or a prison the one thing I never talk about is books. I don’t talk about reading or books because they’re already in school and that’s what they’re being talked to about every single day. It’s always about how you need to read more books, I’m not a teacher and that’s not what I came to do.

What I came to do is connect and so I turn up and I talk about sneakers and tattoos and what it was like growing up when I grew up. I talk about my family dynamics and how terrible I was at reading. How funny my life has been, the interesting things, the not so interesting things. When I first got published, when I moved to New York, how I blew my money on sneakers and seafood. Worked odd jobs, lost everything and started all over again. I tell the whole story because that story and the moment for us to connect is far more important than me telling them to read.

The truth is human beings invest in human beings, they don’t invest in product they invest in people. If I can get them to believe me then they’ll read anything that my name is on. Teachers have called me and emailed me and said whatever you’ve done its worked.

You came to reading quite late. What book really got you in to reading?

For me the book that really changed my life was the first book I read. It was called Black Boy by Richard Wright. It’s interesting because the book isn’t’ about my life in particular, it was written a long long time ago in the 1940’s about Richard Wright’s life. On the second or third page… he sets the curtains on fire and he burns his mother’s house down. And that was it, it was sheerly because the book was interesting, I couldn’t believe he had done this. It didn’t take a hundred pages for me to figure out what was happening in the story. My 17 year old self, that’s all I needed to hook me. After that I went back and I read everything I had needed to read in school. I caught up on all the books and turns out most of them are pretty good. Moving forward it changed my life and it made me realise I did have a place in the world of literature.

This transcript is only HALF of the interview. We encourage you to please watch the above video in which Jason also talks about his book being made in to a film, his book suggestions, and what he’s working on next.

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