Poetry Friday Roundup and Can I Touch Your Hair: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship

Happy New Year! Welcome to the first Poetry Friday Roundup of 2018! If you’re new to Poetry Friday, you can learn more from Renée LaTulippe at No Water River.

Today I’m proud to feature a brave and beautiful new book by two dear poetry friends, Irene Latham and Charles Waters, Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship, published by Carolrhoda Books on January 1, 2018. With starred reviews from Kirkus  and Publisher’s Weekly, this book deserves a place in every classroom. (A Teacher’s Guide is available here.)

Assigned to work together on a poetry project, Irene and Charles are ambivalent. Irene articulates this with the frank honesty of childhood: “Charles is black/and I am white.”

Overcoming their misgivings, they find common ground in the everyday worries of all kids, and begin by writing about shoes and hair. These subjects soon give way to more serious topics such as saying the wrong thing, racial tensions, police brutality, and fear of others because they look different.

They walk the tightrope of adolescent friendships when Irene’s request to join “the black girls/ play[ing] freeze dance” and Charles’s friends “play me dirty.” The poems reveal an unfolding friendship, which Sean Qualls and Selina Alko capture in their sensitive illustrations as heart-shaped flourishes erupting from their pens, mouths, and minds.

Throughout the collection, Irene and Charles make their alter egos come alive by honestly revealing pieces of vulnerability, as when Charles realizes he’s “a few shades too dark/to be allowed to call [a new classmate] by his nickname.” This is balanced by their courage to face fear and shame, as Irene does in “Apology.” When an African-American classmate’s family tree is “draped in chains,” she realizes that the words “I’m sorry…are so small/ for something/so big.”

Both poets use figurative language to bring a depth of feeling and wisdom that amplifies the emotional impact of their writing. We feel the “fury rising inside” Charles, as if he’s “a tidal wave about to crash on land,” as well as the joy they each feel as they “stand in line, cradling our books like newborn kittens,” as they wait to meet author Nikki Grimes. 

With Charles and Irene at NCTE in St. Louis last November.

Irene and Charles generously allowed me to share two of their poems with you today. Thank you so much!

“The Poem Project”

When our teacher says,
Pick your partner,
my body freezes
like a ship in ice.

I want Patty Jean,
but Madison
has already looped
arms with her.

Within seconds,
is the only one left.

How many poems?
someone asks.
About what?
Do they have to be true?

Mrs. Vandenberg
holds up her hand.
Write about anything!
It’s not black and white.

But it is.
Charles is black,
and I’m white.

© Irene Latham, 2018

“Writing Partner”

Mrs. Vandenberg wants us to write poems?
Finally, an easy project. Words fly off my pen
onto the paper, like writing is my superpower.
The rest of the time, my words are a curse. I open my mouth,
and people run away. Now I’m stuck with Irene?
She hardly says anything. Plus she’s white.
Her stringy, dishwater blond hair waves
back and forth as she stutter-steps toward me.
My stomach bottoms out. “Hello,” I say. “Hi,” she says.
I surprise myself by smiling at her–she smells like
a mix of perfume and soap. We stare at our sneakers
before I ask, “So, what do you want to
write about?” She shrugs. I say, “How about our shoes, hair?
Then we can write about school and church?”
She takes a deep breath. “Okay.”
I match it. “Let’s start there.”

© Charles Waters, 2018

In an interview with Megan Labrise on the podcast Fully Booked by Kirkus Reviews (starting at 32:40), Charles and Irene share the origin of Can I Touch Your Hair, as well as their hopes for their book. Irene states their wish is that “it will make it easier to have these really difficult conversations about race” and as we “talk about it, listen to each other, [we’ll] realize that we’re all human people, we have more in common than we have separate, different, and that the different parts are beautiful.” Because, as Irene and Charles so wisely point out in the book’s final poem, “Dear Mrs. Vandenberg”: “We are so much more than black and white!”

And now for the Roundup! Please join today’s celebration of poetry by sharing your link.

37 thoughts on “Poetry Friday Roundup and Can I Touch Your Hair: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship

  1. Catherine, thanks for sharing this peek into Can I Touch Your Hair? It looks wonderful! I really enjoyed both poems and listening to the podcast discussion with Irene and Charles and learning more about the origin of this book. Thanks for hosting this week!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Catherine, thank you for this post. I had a chance to speak with Irene recently about the process of collaborating on this book. I can’t wait to read it!

    This week, I’m announcing the theme of my 2016 February Poetry Project. It’s hard to believe this daily writing community has been happening for SIX years! You can read more and find the link to sign up here: http://laurashovan.com/2018/01/announcing-the-6th-annual-february-poetry-project/

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Catherine, thank you for hosting! I always love starting Poetry Friday on Thursday evening.
    I couldn’t agree with you more about Can I Touch Your Hair? It’s a beautiful and brave book. I’m so glad you got a chance to enjoy it. I really look forward to hearing about the book and youngsters ES age. Keep us posted, OK?
    This week, I am sharing a Happy New Year post with all the trimmings at A Word Edgewise: https://awordedgewiselindamitchell.blogspot.com/
    I look forward to jumping into Laura S. February Poem project and in using some cold snow days for writing longer than my 30 minutes before rousing teenagers for school.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for hosting Catherine and thank you also for bringing this powerful, and as you noted, brave poetry book to my attention. I shall be on the hunt to get hold of it to add to my collection. A most informative post.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you for hosting, Catherine. I love Irene’s and Charles’ book, and that you shared those poems, in such an honest voice that kids will recognize. I hope all is okay with you and yours in this terrible storm.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Good morning, Catherine, and thanks so much for your words about CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? It can be hard to be brave in our writing — but isn’t that where our best most important work lies/lays (I never can remember which one to use!) waiting? I love that pic of us from NCTE! What fun. xo

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello Catherine! Your post is a potent gift of love to Poetry Friday in launching the new year. The photo of you three smiling is a treat & the opening poems’ tentativeness of the students who are going to become friends. is potent.
    CAN I TOUCH YOU HAIR as a title evokes for me the 60s’ song’s’ words “…and sometimes when we touch the honesty’s too much..” I look forward to learning from this book. And also from all the Poetry Fridays this year.

    My post title this week is Nature Nurtures: https://www.bookseedstudio.wordpress.com

    I will be online next Thursday with directions at Bookseedstudio to leave the URLS in comments & I will write them into my post, where I am fortunate to host – January 12, 2018.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thanks so much for doing the roundup this week!. Can’t wait to get a copy of this poetry book!

    Can’t figure out why Inklinkz won’t allow me to include the entire URL of my post at Wild Rose Reader. I have tried several times. I’ll leave the link here in the comments.

    NOTE: Today is the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I posted two poems and some family photos in memory of her.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Catherine, thanks for hosting and sharing the wonders of Charles and Irene’s new poetry book. I was so happy to have a seat at their table during the NCTE17 Roundtable Chat. The book is one to be shared with all students to promote social justice, poetry love, diversity, and connections!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. “Brave” and “beautiful” are two perfect words to describe this wise, important book by two great souls. Thank you for featuring it today and for hosting, Catherine. Peace to you and yours in this new year. xx

    Liked by 2 people

  11. This book has continued to be a delightful surprise to me. While I imagine some children hadn’t even gotten to thinking of the things included, others will now have the language to articulate those weird and squickly feelings – which is such a brilliant thing to do for children. Give them the words, and let them speak…

    Thank you for hosting today!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks for hosting, Catherine, and for highlighting this book–which as you know was one of the treasures I brought back from NCTE. I’m starting to rethink my notion that it might be too grown-up for 2nd graders…it’s just too good and too helpful to let it pass by them, as the comment from Tanita reminds me.


  13. Thanks so much for hosting, Catherine. Additional thanks for highlighting CAN I TOUCH HAIR? We’re so thankful to you and the poetic readers so far for the kind words. #flynnpower


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