New York, NY (January 30, 2020) — The Academy of American Poets has received what is believed to be the largest grant ever made by a philanthropic institution to support poets in the United States—$4.5 million from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The unprecedented grant will enable the Academy of American Poets to fund its Poets Laureate Fellowship program for the next three years. 

“Across the country, local Poets Laureate and poetry organizations enhance creativity, channel civic understanding, and help communities grapple with important issues,” said Elizabeth Alexander, President of the Mellon Foundation. “Despite the recognition and esteem received from their communities, state and city poets laureate often do not receive resources commensurate with their creative output and public service. I hope that Mellon’s support will remind us of the power of language and human exchange that poetry uniquely offers.”

“The Academy of American Poets was founded more than 85 years ago to support American poets at all stages in their careers. We’re thrilled that this extraordinary grant from the Mellon Foundation will help us continue to fulfill our mission and enable us to meaningfully fund poets who are involved in the civic life of their communities,” said Michael Jacobs, Chairman of the Academy of American Poets.  

Piloted in 2019, the inaugural fellowship provided more than $1 million to thirteen poets appointed to serve in civic positions across the United States, enabling them to undertake projects that are engaging their fellow residents, including youth, with poetry, helping to address issues important to their communities. The fellowships ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 each. Among the 2019 recipients were: 

Claudia Castro Luna, who is spending this year producing poetry readings along the Columbia River in Washington State. She is working with other poets and partner organizations in multiple towns over many hundreds of miles to address the history of this vital natural resource, which was essential to indigenous peoples, figured in colonization, and which is now vulnerable due to climate change. 

Molly Fisk, who has funded twenty-two poets through California Poets in the Schools to lead workshops throughout the state encouraging 800+ students to write poems responding to the devastating wildfires in the past several years. Some of the poems produced will be included in an anthology, which will then be the centerpiece of a public reading. Fisk sees writing poems as an important way for young people to process events and their emotional responses to them. 

Adrian Matejka, who is growing “Poetry For Indy” workshops in Indiana cities with culturally diverse and economically underserved communities. He is also launching a digital archive that will serve both as a historical document of poetry in Indiana and as a resource for teachers. And as Matejka shared: “This fellowship program has been transformative. The financial support has allowed me to continue the programming and outreach I’ve been doing (and funding on my own) while also expanding some of the programs from the cities out into some of the rural areas of the state. That's the tangible part of things. A little less tangible but equally important is the profile and visibility the fellowship has gifted me. Because of the fellowship, some of the local arts and community organizations are now engaged and contributing some of their resources to help bring poetry to our neighbors.”

Robin Coste Lewis, who is creating and will conduct a “Poetic Truths and Reconciliation Commission” for the City of Los Angeles, which will be an experiment in redress through a series of programs (readings and conversations) that use the poetry from various LA histories and communities to engage the process of cultural, political, and historical reconciliation.

Background of Poet Laureate Positions

The public position of poet laureate was a concept that began in the U.S. on the state level when Governor Oliver Shoup appointed Alice Polk Hill the Poet Laureate of Colorado in 1919. Thirteen other states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, and West Virginia—followed suit, all establishing poet laureate positions before 1936. These states’ promotion of poets and poetry inspired action on the federal level. In 1937, the Library of Congress established the position of Consultant in Poetry, appointing the poet Joseph Auslander to this position, which was renamed the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in 1986. 

Today, hundreds of poets laureate positions exist throughout the country. In fact, in the past fifteen years the number of poet laureate positions in cities and towns has proliferated. The majority of these positions, however, do not come with an honorarium though there are expectations that the poet laureate will visit schools, give readings, and write poems for special occasions, among other responsibilities. By providing new funds, the Academy of American Poets, which has a many decades-long history of funding poets and promoting poets laureate,  hopes to spotlight and encourage poets’ important contributions to civic engagement. 

Applications from qualified Poets Laureate are open now and will be accepted until February 23, 2020. Guidelines for the 2020 Poets Laureate Fellowships are available here:

About the Academy of American Poets

The Academy of American Poets is the nation’s leading champion of poets and poetry with members in all fifty states. Founded in 1934, the organization produces, the world’s largest publicly funded website for poets and poetry; National Poetry Month; the popular Poem-a-Day series; American Poets magazine; Teach This Poem and other award-winning resources for K-12 educators; and an annual series of poetry readings and special events. In addition, the Academy of American Poets coordinates a national Poetry Coalition working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and the important contribution poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds. This year the organization has awarded more funds to poets than any other organization, giving a total of $1,250,000 to poets at various stages of their careers.