Sharon Kennedy-Nolle

Sharon Kennedy-Nolle is the author of the chapbook, Black Wick: Selected Elegies (Variant Literature Incorporated, 2021), which was a semifinalist for the 2018 Tupelo Snowbound Chapbook Contest. In 2023, she was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Kennedy-Nolle’s project, “Catskilled Poetry for Healing,” will utilize poetry as a tool for healing and self-empowerment and will be targeted to residents, including youth, afflicted by mental illness and substance abuse. Supported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Catholic Charities, the project consists of a three-month period of outreach to their affiliates; a six-month series of poetry workshops; a daylong interdisciplinary symposium bridging poetry, mental health, and public policy, for which the Hurleyville Performing Arts Center is also a partner; and a permanent public arts installation featuring the workshop’s poetry mounted on plaques and installed in the county’s eleven public libraries. What made you want to become a poet laureate?

Sharon Kennedy-Nolle: I applied for the laureate position because it spoke to my love of poetry, my desire to educate, and my appreciation for the rugged beauty of the Catskills and its community. Ever since my parents retired in 1981, my family has been living in Sullivan County, and I have written poems about this land’s inspiring beauty and hardscrabble resilience. Along with my neighbors, I’ve experienced the vicissitudes of economic downturns, floods, and lately, the devastating impact of the opioid crisis. From it all, I’ve seen local communities emerge strengthened by a spirit to adopt, reinvent, and endure. I wanted to celebrate and nurture that resiliency through poetry. At the same time, I recognize that, in this county, there are those who don’t see either a place or a time for poetry in their daily lives. Many feel that their experiences are mundane and unworthy of poetry. I wanted to change that, and I like to believe that, for some, I have. How has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing?

SK: It’s a truism that writing is primarily an act of communication, but the audience for whom you imagine you write can be fuzzy. Or, worse, sometimes you imagine a teacher, often internalizing that critical, correctional voice. But it’s important to have that relationship established and to acknowledge it. My mentor, Martha Rhodes, always admonishes us to ask, “Where is my reader now?” She wants her students to use it as a guide informing the unfolding sense and clarity of a poem.My connection to this county’s diverse residents, particularly its underserved communities, has been strengthened by the laureate position. Being a laureate has helped crystallize an audience for me when I write that I had hitherto not imagined. And this audience is more supportive and engaged than a typical workshop audience. The clients with whom I work struggle with addiction and mental illness, and what they seek from poetry is more informed by a compassionate curiosity and a search for an untutored emotional authenticity than by craft study or competitive guile. Whatever the subject of my poem, I have those readers visualized and at the ready because we have bonded powerfully over putting our many shared emotional truths to the page. How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?

SK:While understanding that there is never one community that prevails, poetry can bring communities, particularly those that are underserved and suffering, together in many ways. A successful effort begins by listening—listening to what people need and care about and then speaking to that need and desire by helping people be heard. I believe poetry, at its best, has the unique ability both to help uncover pain and to heal it. Already battling an unemployment rate of sixteen percent, Sullivan County has the highest death rate from drug use in New York State, according to the Department of Health. The writer Terry Tempest Williams has argued that grief challenges us to live again; to that I would add that poetry is a powerful tool that can help us to meet that challenge together. A poetry of community thus roars and whispers in its many voices. Poetry is an act of love. How does a poem begin for you?

SK: In many ways. A poem can begin for me with a revealing image or a fresh phrase, often synesthetic, something that the ear hinges on. See, I feel a poem coming on already! Some fundamental sensory perception is always at stake. Questions don’t typically prompt poems for me, but analysis does. A poem can begin with an idea caught in a news item, a historical event, or especially by the memory’s triggering. Rarely is a subject inappropriate to explore, though many (including me) feel a kind of permission is needed to explore it. It’s not the subject, but how the materials are handled on the page. Who introduced you to poetry?

SK:I had many introductions. There were the usual suspects: English teachers and my mother, who raised me on the aging anthologized likes of Longfellow and E. A. Robinson. I wasn’t even aware that there was an entire canon of bestselling writing by women until graduate school! But I would especially point a finger at my sister-in-law who introduced me to Sylvia Plath at the tender age of twelve.  Encountering Plath’s work was utterly transformative, and it still is for so many young women. Her poetry spoke powerfully to my budding feminist sensibilities in the 1970s. I didn’t realize that poetry could offer so much fearless verve and personal dynamism, and deliver with such assured voice and masterful craft. No one worked harder at being a poet than Plath, and I found that inspiring too. How do you want to be remembered in your community?

SK:The highest honor would be to be remembered as a person who saw suffering and tried to heal it by helping people to realize the value of poetry, to feel that they need poetry in their lives. Is there a poem that inspires you and your work in Sullivan County? How so?

SK: One poem that has inspired me is the late Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense” because it champions the embrace of the beautiful, simply sensuous, good things of this world as vital to respecting suffering. Pain demands to be heard, not denied or ignored. But Gilbert’s “Defense” also argues that pain cannot be the exclusive focus. Because poetry celebratorily achieves so much of that necessary vulnerable enterprise, I read it as a kind of ars poetica, even though he doesn’t address writing poetry per se.

Now, well into my “Catskilled Poetry for Healing” project, I have met challenges, many unanticipated, along the way. One has been in the form of some adverse community reactions to the project from those both outside and within the therapeutic environment. Among clinicians, administrators, and advocates, I often encounter indifference, skepticism, or outright dismissal of the value of poetry as a tool for healing, despite its long-established benefits in promoting recovery. Some sponsors, while initially supportive of the project, resist the hard-hitting emotional truths of clients’ individual poems; they would prefer not to have them publicly in their backyards.

At the same time, each week I witness the clients’ relief and joy in braving self-expression; rather than relentlessly enduring their trauma, they shift it to the page where our writing group helps them compassionately craft it into art. Above all, they are thrilled to be heard in both the workshop and with the prospect of having their work displayed publicly.

Gilbert’s poem gives me the courage to persevere with all phases of this project. By acknowledging the inevitable setbacks, and in recognition of the general misery of the world, I affirm Gilbert’s contention that we all must “risk delight” in writing intrepid poetry, as my clients do.