The Board of Chancellors was established in 1946 and is an honorary group of esteemed poets that consults with the organization on artistic matters; elects the recipients of the Wallace Stevens Award and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship; advocates for the organization’s programmatic work; and serves as ambassadors of poetry in the world at large. New Chancellors are elected by the current Board of Chancellors and serve a term of six years.
What exciting writing, trends, or changes are you seeing right now in contemporary American poetry?
Marilyn Chin: I love the social engagement and political fervor that is happening now. More poets are speaking out against social injustice in this fraught American and global moment. I also like the new beats and fun rhymes influenced by hip-hop.
Kwame Dawes: Any honest reckoning with the most challenging, urgent, disarming, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally risky poetry being published in American today is a reckoning with diverse populations, and this makes American poetry distinctive in the world. In poetry, this country has somehow resisted the myopia of closed borders and has allowed poetry settlements to sprout across the literary landscape. There is comfort in knowing that splendid poets are chronicling our times for our times and for the times to come. It’s exciting; people fought for it, and it is happening, sometimes beyond all efforts to destroy it. I find that to be very encouraging, but I am also cautioned by how hard it is to create platforms for the silenced communities of race in America. And so I remain vigilant, as I think we all should.
Marie Howe: Poets in greater numbers are beginning to look beyond the merely human to the entire living world. What’s being written is not only “nature poetry” as we have known it—but a poetry that is aware of and responsible to the interconnectedness of all elements in the universe. It is the poets’ increasing responsibility to educate ourselves about realities beyond the subjective self; to learn about the other organisms, minerals, and matters; to recognize our human crimes against this system of interrelationships; and to imagine recompense and solutions.
What poem or poems do you continually return to and why?
MC: Oh, goodness—I read and love everything. I read Tang dynasty poets almost every day. I read the modernists over and over. “Diving into the Wreck” was the utopian poem that changed my life. This semester, I will teach Sylvia Plath with Emily Dickinson, to discuss the craft of the short-line poem. I will teach a generous selection of Pablo Neruda in bilingual format to show his breadth of form and style. I taught myself to read poems from different source languages, with the help of dictionaries, of course. I love radical revolutionary thinkers, from Bertolt Brecht to Edward Said to the poets of the Black Arts movement to Gloria E. Anzaldúa, and I teach Walt Whitman with Allen Ginsberg for their “democratic vistas” and long-line yawps. As a kid, I memorized lots of Shakespearean sonnets and Chinese quatrains. I listen to all manner of music, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Cantonese opera to African American music: blues, jazz, hip-hop to K-pop…after all, a poet must train her ear; she must listen to the world’s music. I love classical modes and freestyling. I love, love Bessie Smith! I love all kinds of poetry from different eras. I had books by William Blake and Christina Rossetti and Gwendolyn Brooks at my bedside last week. I am a total poetry nerd. Then I try to absorb everything and dream up my own Chinese American aesthetics.
KD: I read the Bible. I listen to Bob Marley. I listen to Paul Simon. I read the poets of my making who continue to challenge me—Kamau Brathwaite, Lorna Goodison, Derek Walcott. I go back to them and treat them like touchstones of my growth. My poetry diet is protean, stretches across worlds, and there is something reassuring about the familiar and the unfamiliar.
MH: There are so many poems I return to—because they are within me now. But I often return to the Bible, the Book of Job, especially to the passage when the voice from the whirlwind asks Job the series of questions most of us still can’t answer: “Have you ever commanded morning / or guided dawn to its place— / to hold the corners of the sky / and shake off the last few stars?” Or “Have you seen to the edge of the universe? / Speak up, if you have such knowledge. / Where is the road to light? / Where does darkness live?” Or “Does the rain have a father? / Who has begotten the dew? / Out of whose belly is the ice born? / Whose womb labors with the sleet? / (The water’s surface stiffens; / the lake grows hard as rock).” No one knows who wrote this poem so long ago. It insists on the visceral and spiritual experience of suffering and concludes with a celebration of all we don’t know spoken in a song so concrete we fall in love again with the actual world and its mysteries, even as we are chastened by the irony and intimacy in the tone of this voice.
If you were to identify a poetic lineage for your work, what would it be?
MC: I am a transnational creature-of-a-poet: One could trace my work back to Li Bai, Du Fu, the ancient Chinese poets. But I am also well versed in the Western tradition. I am, first and foremost, a wild-girl American poet…nobody can take my citizenship away from me!
KD: I was trained in the Western canon, the English-language canon, and the European-language canon. My training was marked by recognition, acceptance, and profound and necessary skepticism and resistance. As I was trained in such work, I lived with the alternate lineages of African and Caribbean literatures and the songs, the art, the prayers, and the poems of the worlds of darker-skinned people. I have been given a great gift, and my work, I expect, reflects that quest for belonging, that tribal sense of what makes an artist make art, the tribal sense of what makes people believe in a world beyond their temporal one, and a tribal sense of what makes me who I am—the histories that have brought me here to the present moment.
MH: The metaphysical poets guided me early on—John Donne, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost—the great dead poets. Then women pushed the heavy door open, and the contemporary metaphysical poets became living company: Lucille Clifton, Jane Kenyon, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman, Jean Valentine, Jane Hirshfield, Brigit Pegeen Kelly—the list is endless.
If you could collaborate with any artist on a project, who would it be and why?
MC: Good heavens, I remember after graduate school, I did some projects with visual artists. One time some feminist artists and I poured red paint all over our bodies and threw ourselves against canvases to protest domestic violence. Once, a friend and I nailed a hundred Nike shoes to the ceiling to protest child slave labor in overseas factories. Recently I was inspired by a show by contemporary Chinese visual artists who use vibrant visual puns in protest. Some of the puns are not translatable into English and elude the present critical apparatus. I love the possibility of discovering a pure “imagist” poem that can’t be categorized or demeaned or subjugated by a critical regime.
KD: All my work is in conversation with the work of others. I have no magical wish list because I do not wait for other artists to welcome collaboration; I simply have conversations with their art, which is available to me. Art, music, dance, anything. Every time I see a play, attend a musical performance, visit a gallery, listen to a writer’s work, I am fit to collaborate.
MH: When I was the New York State Poet, I was fortunate to collaborate with the MTA Arts and Design team, the Poetry Society of America, visual artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, dozens of other poets, and the public to create The Poet Is In, an interactive poetry event we held in Grand Central Terminal and the new Fulton Street transportation hub. The idea originated from the old Peanuts comic—Lucy in a booth offering advice. We created domesticated spaces within a public space by placing poets at desks, with rugs and floor lamps and typewriters and chairs pulled up to the desks so that people might sit and ask for a poem. First the poet and the person talked together. From that conversation the poet pulled images, dreams, memories, statements, and—in an act of transformation, using words, silence, image, the line—created a poem that gave some of that back to the person. The poet typed on carbon paper and, when finished, pulled the poem out, separated the copies, signed one, read it aloud to the person who had asked for it, then gave it to that person to keep. Most people wept. The poets were so moved that many didn’t want to stop when their hour was up. And this is what most surprised us: People waited in line for more than two hours to speak with a poet and to have a poem written for them. The success of The Poet Is In is evidence of the hunger for articulated meaning in all of us. It is relational and transformative—people can glimpse how a poem might be made—and it is a gift given, person to poet, poet to person. Each as each: mirrored.
This essay originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2018 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2018 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.