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Local poet-playwright and publisher Kwame Alexander had been friends with Stephanie Stanley since they met at a poetry slam in 1989. So when he invited her over for dinner one evening in 1993, it shouldn’t have been a big deal. But Alexander found himself taking as much trouble as if they’d just met. He went down to the health-food store in Takoma Park, got some mock-duck, and cooked it up in a stir-fry with some brown rice and steamed vegetables. Next, he kneaded and shaped dough into homemade rolls and dripped butter down their sides. He chilled the Chardonnay. He begged his roommate to leave the apartment as he laid on the jazz music and lit the candles. By 8 p.m., everything was perfect.
Then 10 minutes ticked by. Ten minutes turned into 15. And 15 minutes stretched into an interminable two-and-a-half hours. Alexander’s roommate, who had promised to leave as soon as Stanley called to say she was on her way, chortled the whole time. Meanwhile, a miserable Alexander skipped channels between the NBA finals and the O.J. Simpson trial, all the while looking at the clock.
Eventually, Stanley called to say she had been getting her hair done and had forgotten about him. Alexander hung up, steaming, trying to figure out why all of a sudden he was so upset. Over the years, he and Stanley had each gotten used to the other’s being two hours late. “It was that moment that made me realize: I love this woman,” he says.
The revelation was so strong, Alexander had to put it down on paper. The result, “Awkward Poems,” was his first love poem. It told Stanley, in essence, that he wanted to be more than friends. A week or two later, it won Alexander a kiss on the cheek. Later, it led to a serious romance. And, Alexander says, it started “the emotional trip that I’ve been on, to the point where I was ready to get married.”
It also was the first entry in Alexander’s most recent book, Kupenda: Love Poems. (Kupenda is the Swahili verb meaning “to like” or “to love.”) The collection of 30 poems, most fewer than 30 lines long, details the many forms of love in his life: being in love with Stanley, loving his new daughter, and even the pain-in-love he felt at his grandfather’s funeral.
The book is published by Black Words Inc., which Alexander started in Alexandria in 1995. “Love is funny. It’s sad. And I wanted to show some balance,” says Alexander, who has written two other books and co-edited two anthologies, including Tough Love: Cultural Criticism and Familial Observations on the Life and Death of Tupac Shakur. He believes Kupenda is the best book he’s written yet: “I really conveyed everything I wanted to convey in this, and this is the first time I’ve really felt like that.” —Ayesha Morris
Kwame Alexander presents Kupenda: Love Poems, along with National Poetry Slam finalist Tonya “JaHipster” Matthews, who will read from These Hips, and Texas writer Nina Foxx, who will read from Dippin’ My Spoon, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 18 at the Ellipse Arts Center, 4350 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington. For more information, call (703) 228-7710.