For the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, we contributed the following feature to the April 2016 issue of Poetry magazine.
This April marks the twentieth anniversary of National Poetry Month, a celebration founded by the Academy of American Poets with input from other nonprofit poetry organizations and publishers. The original aim remains today: to create a time-bound occasion in which we might work together to spotlight poets and poetry. Many publishers take advantage of the month to release their poetry titles; many libraries and schools celebrate the art form with special events that inspire young people to engage with poetry, some for the first time. More and more, National Poetry Month has become an event to inspire the next generation of readers, with thousands of grade school and high school students participating in Poem in Your Pocket Day (April 21 this year) and other educational projects. The hope has always been that this increased visibility for poetry might spark an interest in readers that would carry forward into the rest of the year and even last a lifetime.
Of course the month also inspires critics to question whether a month-long observance of an art form is a kind of boosterism. While the month is a platform, poetry is not a product. There’s no packaging the poetic imagination and the wilds of poetry communities across the globe that celebrate the art form regularly. National Poetry Month is what we make it. It is a concentrated time to explore the ways in which poets’ work changes language and lives. This year, the Academy of American Poets asked poets, leaders of poetry organizations, and publishers to respond to the question: What should poets and poetry readers be thinking about or doing for the next thirty days? Their responses are below.
—Jen Benka, Executive Director, Academy of American Poets
I once suggested that a friend and I compile and read some of our favorite short poems. It would be an event for National Poetry Month. He is a great proponent of reading poems aloud, so he would stand up and recite them from the podium. Meanwhile, I would sit on a chair hidden in the corner and read them silently to myself. I was kidding about the event, but half-serious about the idea. Much can be said for performing poems aloud, using our bodies as their instruments, but an equal amount can be said for keeping them to ourselves. Reading is contact. What we read can be shockingly personal because it so deeply activates our inner lives, the daydreaming capacity of the mind. Reading poetry has helped deliver me to myself. It has given me a language for experience—not just my own experience but also the experience of others. I wouldn’t recognize myself without being able to read and reread poetry. That’s why I’m sure it can be so determining. Reading is both private and social. For National Poetry Month, I recommend this sustaining way of being alone with others.
When I was appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in 2009, I felt the weight of opportunity and expectation. How could we live up to the promise of Barack Obama’s historic campaign? How could we contribute to realizing the hope for change that inspired millions of Americans?
I turned to poetry.
Poetry is a careful medium, a practice of observation and thoughtful articulation, and a centuries-old conversation. But it is also a space of exploration, of bringing the inside out. We cannot change our country or ourselves without the courage to speak honestly about who we are and who we hope to be. We need to put our unique knowledge into words and insist that it be seen.
In 2011, the President’s Committee created a program to elevate and invest in our country’s most promising teen poets. To date, twenty of these National Student Poets have been pinned by First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. They each spend a year bringing their poetry to communities across the country, encouraging and inspiring others to bring out the poetry of their own communities, and of themselves.
Michelle Obama tells these poets that they are brave to “share something so personal and so precious.” I would tell them that kind of bravery is both the hardest and most powerful way to change the world. National Poetry Month is a time to combat a fearful, chaotic, and angry world with the courage to raise your voice, to pour your hope into poetry.
—Olivia Morgan, member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, founder of the National Student Poets Program
This morning, a friend said, “Be in the life you’re in.” Why is it so difficult to live by these words?
Over my lifetime, I’ve used poets and poetry as a way to ground myself. When depressed or lost or crazed or in love, I’ve written a poem or read a poem or corresponded with a fellow poet. It’s commonly said that after great personal or national tragedy people turn to poetry. Poetry sales rose after 9/11. It is reassuring to know that poetry somehow answers the unanswerable. Over the last few years, several people in my peer group have died unexpectedly. Some of them were writers. I was put not just in the position of turning to poetry for solace in these instances, but to their poetry.
My friend, the poet Justin Chin, died unexpectedly in December. I drove to San Francisco, where he was spending his final days in a coma. People came in and out of his hospital room to bid him farewell. Many were poets. Some I hadn’t seen in twenty years. We’d all shared the same San Francisco literary community. And now we’d gathered to say goodbye to one of our own. It gave me such peace to see Justin surrounded by writers. His mother had flown eighteen hours from Singapore and never left his side. Justin’s brother was there too. All the poets kept telling Justin’s family, “Justin is a great writer. An important writer.” His mom, sharing Justin’s wit, said, “Unless he’s writing about you.” We laughed. Later, I tried to write a poem about Justin. The poem never went anywhere. But I still stand by the first line, “Poets are everything.”
As we celebrate National Poetry Month, let us widen our gaze to see clearly the people and lives blurred in the margins of rhetoric. Let us ask ourselves how we are using our power and privilege in language to empower our communities, lift the voices of others, and speak for those who have been silenced. Over the past year, I have watched poets and allies rally in the word to speak out against police brutality through the Black Poets Speak Out campaign. I’ve seen poems raised at demonstrations in the name of justice. I’ve watched a man attend an open mic searching for the best words to share with his son when children were killed by those sworn to protect them. He was given James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and more. The poets read him the words of Ross Gay, Evie Shockley, Danez Smith, and others. In this way, I have turned to my own writing, searching for the best words in darkness and light. I’ve asked myself: Who and what are my poems in service to? Let our poems be in service to the people. Let each word work relentlessly to call forth the best of our humanity.
—Amanda Johnston, Cofounder, Black Poets Speak Out
There is a familiar argument that gets reorchestrated every year to proclaim that poetry is dead. The argument cleaves to the idea that poetry has outlived its usefulness as an archaic, inaccessible art form and assumes that poetry is only something done in service to the distant past, perhaps in the presence of a Grecian urn.
Yet, if you look around, you will see a vast and diverse ecosystem of poetry and poets all around you, teeming with life and vitality. You will see poetry not only as a thriving community and conversation, but the extraordinary poets who are continuing to serve as vital translators of the most intractable problems of being alive in our current moment of beauty and collapse.
For National Poetry Month, try to spend the month engaging in the extraordinary work of living poets. Read a book (or 30!) by a contemporary poet. Go see a reading (or 30!) in your community. Take a poetry workshop, write a few poems yourself, and contribute your own bit of DNA to the evolving ecosystem of living poetry. Look around and be amazed.
—Samantha Giles, Executive Director, Small Press Traffic
This past fall, for the culminating reading of a poetry class at a Miami elementary school, we tried to order pizza from a major commercial chain. They told us that they didn’t deliver to that particular neighborhood, despite it being technically inside their delivery zone. Their refusal was blatantly discriminatory (the neighborhood has “a bad reputation”), and we were frustrated. We wanted pizza and were willing to pay for it; why wouldn’t they just bring it to us? I relate this story because sometimes I think the poetry world, for all of its good intentions, behaves like that pizza shop. We make decisions about who does and doesn’t receive poetry, about where poetry should exist, and about who should be writing it. Much of poetry advocacy would be better defined as poet advocacy and comes packaged with unspoken rules about who is and who isn’t a poet. It says: if and when poetry receives more attention (insert: money, fame, etc.), here is who should benefit. This advocacy becomes a frail mouthpiece for a fringe sector of society. If we want poetry to have a more central place in our culture, we have to let go of our personal investment in its growth. We have to admit that we don’t fully understand how poetry exists in the lives of people who don’t have MFAs, who don’t take workshops, who have no idea what AWP stands for, and we have to admit that those people have far more to teach to us than we have to teach to them. Poetry isn’t pizza. It doesn’t need to be delivered. It’s already in our communities, and by listening to those communities, we might learn that poetry’s power is far greater than we had ever envisioned.
—P. Scott Cunningham, Director, O, Miami Poetry Festival
Poetry asks us to pledge to one another, I see you. Poetry has been for centuries our great social media. You are its great theme.
I should have made my way straight to you long ago.
My life has been one of too much care, which ruins a person. I have turned through many pages. To summarize: we are invisible to each other. Let’s look into the first person’s claim of being first. Let’s look past the first person to see the second person.
Then you, hey you—
But let us pledge that it’s not enough to see you, in the poem, in the world. Let’s also set the poem humming so that the world may hum. Let me be you in the poem, and let me look up from the poem and still be you. Let me look up from many pages. Let me be you and you and you, and even you.
Let’s be simultaneous—
April to-do list:
1. If prose is called for, write a poem.
2. Write to someone, not to no one.
3. You will do.
A challenge for you, You-ness. /Add yours.
—Thomas Sayers Ellis
—Jeff Shotts, Executive Editor, Graywolf Press
Early in the year, Natalie Diaz pointed me to a New York Times opinion piece by Pagan Kennedy: “How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity.” Kennedy explores whether we can create conditions for serendipity and profiles the research of Dr. Sanda Erdelez. Dr. Erdelez’s work reveals distinct groups: “non-encounterers,” “occasional encounterers,” and “super-encounterers.” Imagine the spectrum: non-encounterers focus too much for serendipity; superencounterers find connections everywhere, always. The research shows the frequency of serendipity is not exclusively the domain of luck. How then do we move around in the spectrum of encountering, increasing our capacity to see and feel connections? “You become a super-encounterer, according to Dr. Erdelez, in part because you believe that you are one.”
Cultivate serendipity. Use poetry to do it. In showing us another’s experience of the world, poetry has a lot to serendipitously teach us about ourselves. Czesław Miłosz famously said that language is the only homeland. I have always felt this to mean that how we talk about things that matter is who we are. Poetry is a record of our best uses of language. Try it for a month—it might become a life.
—Tyler Meier, Executive Director, University of Arizona Poetry Center
Let’s be reckless. As humans and as artists, it is our natural instinct to take the risk of questioning what we know, what we like, and why. Similarly, the art of writing poetry does not progress without the constant questioning of poetry by poets. We are in a new age. An age when many of us are wild with our forms, our styles, our performances, and our ideas. So let’s be reckless. Write without form. Write without punctuation, without capitalization, without the letter e. Write with form, in extreme iambic hexameter, in a strict Shakespearean sonnet, in Victorian language. Put your poetry in a new place. Do what you’re uncomfortable with, but most of all, write without regard to the possible consequences. Poetry allows recklessness; it allows us to question certainties without caring about what’s to come.
—Andrew White, Houston Youth Poet Laureate
As a Presidential Inaugural Poet I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to share my love of poetry at such unlikely venues as the Federal Reserve, the Mayo Clinic, Silicon Valley, the USDA, engineering firms and conferences, law firms, and advocacy groups of all kinds. In every instance, I witness audiences taken by a newfound connection to poetry. I hear comments such as: “I never knew poetry could be like this”; “That’s not what they taught me in high school”; “This is my first time at a poetry reading—and I’m hooked.” For many, it’s the first time they’ve been exposed to contemporary poetry and engaged with a living poet. Their sudden delight and appetite for poetry has made me question why poetry isn’t a larger part of our cultural lives; why poetry isn’t as connected to our popular conversations as film, music, and novels; and why poetry isn’t more entrenched in our history, rooted in our folklore, and established in our national identity as it is in other countries. Where is the disconnect? I think the bottom line is education. The way poetry is generally deemed to be taught (especially in K through 12 grades) falls short of exploring its full potential for students as well as teachers. As such, this National Poetry Month, I urge poets and lovers of poetry to engage teachers of all disciplines, encourage them to discover the relevance and power of poetry, and the importance of enabling young people to encounter poetry in schools. That’s what I’ve committed to as Education Ambassador for the Academy of American Poets, which offers a plethora of resources for educators, including lesson plans, a monthly newsletter for teachers, and the “Teach This Poem” email series with activities to help teachers quickly and easily bring poetry into the classroom. Involving ourselves in education is important not simply for the sake of poetry, but to ensure that the world-changing power of poetry continues to enrich lives, not just in April, but every month of the year for generations to come.
You open April’s front window wide—it’s bursting with flowers and the best words jostling to be seen and heard. These are the poems of April. It’s not so much a “national” month as it is a month of inner life pushed forward, flattened against the page, the glass, the mirror, the front window. We see you! It is poetry—soul on paper, never-to-die. But then, as you must, you open April’s basement door, where the rotted poems, so stinking and so much more plentiful, are pushing up through the floorboards, shoving the flowers to the front window saying, “Go go my beauty! Take your chance, and don’t think of us. We won’t make it to May.”