Every year during National Poetry Month, the Academy of American Poets produces Dear Poet, an education project that gives young people around the world the opportunity to engage directly with some of the award-winning poets on our Board of Chancellors. To participate, students watch videos of these poets reading their poems aloud and write letters in response to the poet of their choosing. They mail or email their letters to the Academy of American Poets office, and, after carefully reading each and every letter, we select a multitude to share on Poets.org.
Of the nearly two thousand young people who participated in the 2018 Dear Poet project, sixty were twelfth-grade students from an English class at a Massachusetts public school taught by Kurt Ostrow. In a letter he sent with theirs, Ostrow told us what the Dear Poet project meant to his class this year.
I am a young English teacher at B. M. C.Durfee High School in Fall River—a deindustrialized mill town on the southeastern coast of Massachusetts, recently an ethnic enclave for Portuguese immigrants, now with a growing Puerto Rican population.
My seniors and I kicked off National Poetry Month with your Dear Poet project. We watched and analyzed many of the selections online, and I couldn’t believe the response from my students. Many came in with a serious aversion to poetry, but this project helped them all to find at least one poem that spoke to them like never before.
The letters in this envelope, I hope, prove exactly that.
The exercise of writing to the flesh-and-blood poet pushed them to read, reread, and read again the work they chose. It elevated the quality of their analysis. It pushed them to be brave and divulge their own stories of loss, divorce, racism, childhood innocence, and grandparental love.… As their senior English teacher, I have wanted above all else to foster in my students lifelong habits of literacy. I believe the Dear Poet project works to do exactly that.
May they linger over the next poem that crosses their newsfeeds. May they all think of poetry as something possible.
Poetry awakens our understanding of ourselves, the world around us, and our place in it. Ostrow’s words, and the words of his students—some of which follow, alongside the poems by Elizabeth Alexander, Marilyn Nelson, and Alicia Ostriker that inspired them—are a strong testament to the power of this unique art form.
“Your poem reminds me of all the times my aunt used to watch me when both of my parents had to go to work in the morning. All the fun we had together came back to me. I could feel the ‘heft of unuttered love’ again. We used to do everything together from cleaning, cooking, playing, running around, pulling pranks, shopping, and messing around with the cats.... Thank you for that. I really appreciate it. It’s nice to remember things that you used to have when you were younger, things that you wished you cherished at the time.” —Jayden
“I hope the girl in the poem withstands her growing pains so that she can experience the full ‘mammoth’ of love. I hope she allows those ‘unfamiliar ions’ to become home and also love. I hope those aching small bodies grow up and move out of the Riverton apartment if that doesn’t happen before they’re grown. Maybe then she will be able to sleep.... Maybe the girl grew up to do great things. Maybe the girl is a writer. Maybe the girl wrote a poem about her grandfather.” —Chase
“Your poem ‘Tending’ jumped out to me because of how much I actually relate to it. Growing up I was and still am faced with a lot of issues many kids my age cannot relate to and don’t really understand. ‘In the pull-out bed with my brother’ was the first thing that caught my eye, and instantly I was intrigued. I’m currently living with my two younger siblings and two younger cousins at my vavo’s house, which definitely isn’t fit to hold this many kids. My sister and I were sharing a twin-size mattress and sometimes even sleeping on the floor to make ends meet with all the children. My parents have been out of the picture since I was ten years old. I’m currently eighteen and on my way to college being the first person in my family to attend.” —Kaysey
“Your poem ‘Moonlily’ brought me back in time to much happier days.... When I was a child, me and my friends would rush out of our school as soon as the bell rang. We would pick up our ball from the same place where we would always hide it. As soon as we got our ball, we would race each other to the beach that patiently waited for us right behind our school. We could hear the waves call out our names while sitting in class throughout the day. There was no better feeling than dipping our little toes in the bright blue Caribbean water to check the temperature. Not like the temperature would ever change: It was already the same, and it was perfect.” —Sol
“I grew up in two areas as a kid, Fall River, Massachusetts, and Alvin, Texas. Completely opposite settings and quite the experience. In Fall River, I had many friends who were like me in race and background. Even other minorities understood the struggle, and we accepted one another. We played and grew with each other in the playground and class sessions. Meanwhile in Alvin, I felt isolated and outcasted from minorities. I did not understand the meaning of being lonely until I was bullied often. Soon enough I made friends and made myself fit in with the school and neighborhood. I was always different and myself, but it was hard to find friends who accepted me for me and not for my skin.” —Alex
“My favorite quote in this piece was ‘Our plains know no fences.’ I think it really gives us a taste of how powerful and happy you feel as a child playing and pretending. It shows that you cannot be tamed or fazed by anything in this moment. I work at a preschool in my town, and when we play outside, it’s amazing to see how they all light up and are so blissful.... This poem inspired me to take a look back at all the things I have to do, and take time to be carefree and ‘untamed.’” —Tanisha
“Reading this piece, I looked at it several different ways, through the eyes of the daughter, the neighbor, even the parents. I wondered if as you wrote this poem you recalled the city you once created as a child, or found yourself grateful you had never been to that island. Did your parents divorce when you were young? I feel as though I would look at this poem differently if my parents hadn’t separated when I was only five years old. The experience left me a little bitter, feeling torn between the two people who had brought me into this world, and I wonder how the little girl coped with it. I hope she’s still going strong today. I want to thank you for this little poem that I didn’t know I needed. It really got me thinking, and I appreciated getting to see myself in this young girl.” —Cameron
“Everyone has thought their own utopia at least once. People might think of a perfect world because something negative happened in their life. Just like the little girl in your poem created her utopia because of her parent’s divorce, I created mine because of bullying and my family struggling financially. In my utopia, nobody has to worry about money, and people always have time to spend with family and friends. Everyone will respect each other and put their differences aside.” —Mahin
“Your poem reminded me of when I was little. I wanted my own little utopia. Everything would be perfect: love never ending, no hatred, no lies. Maybe a world where my real dad would be in my life. Tell me he loves me every day. Tell me ‘I’m proud of you.’ Take me to the park. Come to my games. Like a real father. It would be cool to throw a football with my dad. He’s never seen me in pads or even play. One day he will. [....] I thought I could never relate to a poem that I read. (I’m the sporty guy who has a low-key soft side.) This is honestly my favorite poem I’d ever read. Never told my teacher either. But this eighteen-year-old man loves it.” —Frankie
This piece was originally published in the Fall-Winter 2018 issue of American Poets.