The question “What is it, then, between us?” is an excerpt from the poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” by Walt Whitman. In addition to Whitman being recognized as a poet whose work forged a new kind of American poetry, which both expresses democratic ideals and contains painful truths about our country’s origin, throughout 2019, many libraries, museums, schools, and cultural organizations will be marking the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth, which took place on May 31, 1819.
Any and all were invited to program on this theme in March and share their efforts using the hashtags #PoetryandDemocracy and #PoetryCoalition.
Here’s a look at some of the programs that took place across the country in March:
The Academy of American Poets in New York City is dedicating five Saturdays of the Poem-a-Day series in March to poems by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Richard Blanco, Tom Sleigh, Brenda Hillman, and Solmaz Sharif that explore the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights to peaceably assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Poem-a-Day is distributed to more than 450,000 readers each morning via email, social media, and syndication. Poets featured are also curating collections of poems by other poets that speak to the theme. The Academy is enlisting the support of organizations outside of literature to help share the poems and educational resources.
The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers’ current class of National Student Poets will be joined by alumni of the National Student Poets Program to present workshops at schools across the United States on the theme of Poetry & Democracy. Additionally, in conjunction with the AWP Conference & Bookfair in Portland, Oregon, 2019 National Student Poets Ariana Smith, Daniel Blokh, and Darius Atefat-Peckham will lead workshops on the theme of Poetry & Democracy for teens in local public schools and LGBTQ+ youth organizations. The class will also bring high school participants to the conference to hear from poets, speakers, and attendees about literary organizations, writing camps, and opportunities to study writing and literature.
The Asian American Writers’ Workshop will host a free reading in New York City to promote discussion in the Vietnamese literary community on March 23 in collaboration with the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network and NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. The reading will feature Amy Quan Barry, Matty Huynh, Violet Kupersmith, Thanhha Lai, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Vu Tran, Monique Truong, Thanhha Lai, and Ocean Vuong, and will be moderated by Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Mimi Khúc, and Isabelle Thuy Pelaud.
Brooklyn Poets ran its Whitman Bicentennial Poetry Contest where poets were invited to submit one original and previously unpublished poem in response to Whitman's indelible question: “What is it then between us?” Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang, Mark Doty, and Rowan Ricardo Phillips served as judges for three different age brackets: 13–17, 18–22, and 23+. The winners and judges will read at a celebration of Whitman's bicentennial on May 31 at Smack Mellon in DUMBO, Brooklyn, and have their poems published in a commemorative chapbook.
CantoMundo in New York City will offer “From Frontlines to Borderlines,” an ongoing series of poetry, paper-making, and printmaking workshops for veterans, Latinx poets, and Dreamers, in partnership with Frontline Arts and Mobile Print Power. Participants will aim to share unique and resonant experiences with democracy as a result of forces such as migration, class aspiration, struggles for citizenship, various forms of violence, and stresses from complex trauma. In March, a public, participatory art-making session will also be held over the course of three days in East Harlem, where participants will make screen prints using paper and poetry created in earlier workshops and create broadsides that reflect a communal response to Whitman's question, “What is it, then, between us?”
Cave Canem in Brooklyn, New York, and Lambda Literary in Los Angeles, California, co-hosted “Party for the People!” at Amarachi in Brooklyn, New York, on March 14, which featured pop-up readings on themes of democracy by Danez Smith, Omotara James, Victoria Newton Ford, and more, and music by DJ Rivera.
learn more about Cave Canem
The Favorite Poem Project in Boston, Massachusetts, will present a reading of favorite poems by faculty, students, staff, and alumni of the Boston University Creative Writing Program in March. It will also share voter registration information during this event, as well as for the rest of the month at its office, as a way of encouraging the voice—both of poetry and democracy—in the spirit of the Favorite Poem Project.
The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Program in Morristown, New Jersey, will present a day of poetry readings, conversations, writing activities, and performances that explore the shared theme on March 23. Afternoon reading and conversation topics will include Reginald Dwayne Betts and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice on juvenile justice and voting rights; Rigoberto González and Wind of the Spirit, an immigrant resource center, on immigration; others on LGBTQ rights; the working poor; and “The Skin You’re Living in” on racism and violence. The evening’s music and poetry performance, “In Praise: a Thousand Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Earth,” will celebrate gratitude across boundaries of race, creed, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and gender.
Kundiman in New York City will be sharing a Poetry & Democracy action calendar for the month of March, which will focus on one topic each week: immigration, documentation, Asian American activism, and solidarity. The calendar will include an introduction, a folio of poems, a writing prompt, and direct actions. Kundiman will also engage regional groups and invite them to hold in-person gatherings to take action together and will organize a poetry postcard exchange based on the writing prompts.
Letras Latinas at University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies in Notre Dame, Indiana, has commissioned award-winning poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico to compose poems that engage with the theme of Poetry & Democracy. On March 21, Scenters-Zapico will visit South Valley Academy, whose entire 9th grade will have read her book, The Verging Cities. Scenters-Zapico’s new work will be unveiled at a public event at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on March 22. In addition, Albuquerque Poet Laureate Michelle Otero and New Mexico Centennial Poet Levi Romero will co-host a late afternoon poetry walk through Albuquerque’s Río Grande Bosque on March 22, as well. Along the walk, the poets will read and invite attendees to reflect on Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Scenters-Zapico’s “When the Desert Made Us Visible.” Otero and Romero, and others, will also present work on the theme of Poetry & Democracy on March 22. This event will be presented in partnership with NHCC’s History and Literary Arts Program, headed by former Sante Fe Poet Laureate Valerie Martínez, as well as Duende District Bookstore, now based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Mass Poetry in Boston, Massachusetts, will enlist students, teachers, and members of its community to create erasures, or blackout poetry, of political documents such as the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Continuing in the rich, experimental tradition dating back to the 1960s, Mass Poetry will ask poets to create altered documents of the originals by blacking out text while exploring their newfound meaning. The erasure poems will be shared on its site and on social media, as well as in large-scale formats in public locales, such as libraries, city halls, and on buses and subway cars. In order to encourage dialogue and exchange among different regions of the country, Mass Poetry will also invite student poets to exchange their work on postcards with students from other Poetry Coalition groups across the country.
The Poetry Center, San Francisco State University in California presented poet Brandon Shimoda and Berlin-based Japanese artist Aisuke Kondo for a reading and conversation about their work on the internment of Japanese-American citizens and Japanese nationals living on the West Coast of the U.S. in federally administered concentration camps, where both their grandfathers were among those imprisoned. The program was opened by an informal gathering in the Ruth Asawa Garden of Remembrance, which is dedicated to the nineteen San Francisco State University students who were imprisoned in the camps during World War II.
The Poetry Project in New York City will offer several open workshops in March in partnership with local community college libraries, each inspired by a reading from The Poetry Project’s 50+ year archive, available for the first time since the completion of a digitization process in 2018. Readings by Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Tim Dlugos, Maggie Estep, Audre Lorde, Nicanor Parra, and others will inspire facilitated writing exercises on the power of poetry to shape and effect change within democracy. Participants in the workshops will also have the opportunity to share their work in a culminating public reading.
The Poetry Society of America in New York City will invite over a dozen poets, including Chase Berggrun, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Marilyn Chin, Meg Day, Tarfia Faizullah, Lynn Melnick, Carl Phillips, and Raquel Salas Rivera, to respond with new poems or essays for a special website feature dedicated to exploring the theme of Poetry & Democracy.
Poets House in New York City, together with the June Jordan Estate, hosted poet-educators Kay Ulanday Barrett, Taiyo Na, Sofia Snow, and Bill Zavatsky on March 2 for a discussion responding to June Jordan‘s urgent and nuanced essay “For the Sake of People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us.” Presenters’ prepared statements are featured in Housekeeping, the new Poets House blog, to commemorate the Whitman bicentennial.
Split This Rock in Washington, D.C., is presenting a month-long series of events honoring poetry's role in social movements. The series is opening with the Hyper Bole Youth Slam Festival and continues with the Sunday Kind of Love Reading & Open Mic, featuring poets Emmy Pérez and Sheila Black. Emmy Peréz is also joining a lunchtime presentation for activists co-hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies. Through Split This Rock's youth and adult writing workshops, poet-activists across the D.C. area are contuining to reflect on the connections between their civic and literary work. The series is closing with featured poet Mahogany Browne and youth poets from the D.C. area competing in the D.C. Youth Slam Team Finals.
On March 21, the University of Arizona Poetry Center in Tucson presented Patrick Rosal and Evie Shockley as part of an Art for Justice Reading. Throughout the month of March, and beyond, it is also featuring Broken Threads, Lives Unraveled: Fuentes Rojas and the Migrant Quilt Project, an exhibit showcasing textile arts that memorialize victims of drug war-related violence and honor migrants who have died.
The Wick Poetry Center of Kent State University in Ohio is continuing its support of the Poets for Science project in collaboration with Jane Hirshfield, which began with the 2017 March for Science in Washington, D.C., with special attention to advocacy in its interactive exhibit at the AWP Bookfair & Conference in Portland, Oregon. This exhibit encourages participants to contact their elected representatives in support of our scientific and creative communities. Simultaneously, it continues its River Stanzas project, which remembers the burning of the Cuyahoga River 50 years ago, with workshops throughout Northeastern Ohio, and its Writing Across Borders exhibit at the Lakewood Public Library, which celebrates the voices of immigrants and refugees.
From February 16 to March 17, Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hosted bruise bullet flower, an exhibition of new photography by poet and visual artist Rachel Eliza Griffiths, who gave a reading at the center on March 16. The intimate portraits of bruise bullet flower document the strength, vulnerability, and beauty of black and brown queer bodies under the daily threat of violence in the United States. At the reading, the center celebrated the debut of a chapbook focused on bruise bullet flower, featuring photographs from the exhibition and poems from Reginald Dwayne Betts, Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Ross Gay, Aracelis Girmay, Rickey Laurentiis, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Safiya Sinclair, Tracy K. Smith, R. A. Villanueva, and Phillip B. Williams. Throughout March, Woodland Pattern is also curating accompanying youth programming in the Milwaukee Public School system and sharing around the city lines of poetry and the #PoetryandDemocracy hashtag on tear-away flyers.
On March 26, Young Chicago Authors will present WordPlay, Chicago's longest running youth open mic. To be hosted by Essie Linzy, the event will begin with a workshop inviting participants to ask questions about their responsibilities to each other in their civic spaces and will be followed by an open mic inspired by the theme of Poetry & Democracy. The evening will close with a performance by students from the Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, winners of the 2019 Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam competition.