Holly Karapetkova is the author of Towline (Cloudbank Books, 2016), winner of the Vern Rutsala Book Prize, and Words We Might One Day Say (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2010), winner of the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Prize for Poetry. In 2022, Karapetkova received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship. In collaboration with Day Eight, Karapetkova will organize an anthology of youth poetry, offering a central point around which the community can organize readings and workshops. The anthology, launching in the spring of 2023, will be open to all high school county residents and will focus on the theme of resilience.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Arlington, and what support do you hope future poets laureate in Virginia have?
Holly Karakeptkova: What I hope for the future of poetry in Arlington is very much what I hope for the future of poetry in our country more broadly: financial support and visibility. Poetry is one of the most powerful tools we have for self-expression, for understanding the human experience. The problem is that poetry is not often made available to the larger public, and, though I’m happy to say I’ve seen ample evidence that poetry is thriving in our communities, especially among young people, it’s still often seen as something that belongs in an English class. This is one of the issues that poets laureate seek to address—giving poetry more visibility in local communities, where people have a chance to participate and benefit from all that poetry has to offer.
Poetry is also undervalued, as are the arts in general in a capitalist society. While I recognize that part of poetry’s appeal is its rejection of capitalist ideology, the fact is that poets still need the means to survive. Financial support, like that provided by the Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowships, not only allows artists the time and space to do their work, but it also reaffirms the value of such work in a world where money is the primary determinant of worth.
Poets.org: How has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing?
HK: I’m a true introvert, and the thought of taking on a public-facing role was initially intimidating. But my desire to champion poetry in my community won out, and I’m so glad it did because the rewards of doing this work are tremendous. I have seen firsthand how our community needs poetry, not only in times of celebration, but also in times of sorrow and loss. I’ve had the chance to witness the direct impact of poetry, my own and that of others, on members of my community, and this has made me want to work even harder to make poetry available. Being a poet laureate has given me confidence in poetry’s ability to reach a broad audience and impact their lives for the better. This has also emboldened me to try new approaches and explore new avenues for poetry.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
HK: Poetry is one of the most powerful tools we have for understanding and celebrating our shared humanity. Poetry doesn’t judge or stereotype—in fact, it pushes us away from mental shortcuts, opening up dialogue and refusing easy conclusions. Because it doesn’t require an either/or worldview and allows for diverse minds to share the same space, it’s the perfect vehicle for bringing people together, especially in a divisive climate. Poetry invites a reader’s participation. It is meant to communicate and connect. In this sense, reading and writing poetry are the most hopeful and collaborative acts we can engage in.
Poetry is also the most democratic of artforms. You don’t need any special equipment—just a pencil and paper, or, in the case of spoken word, your voice. And in poetry all voices are welcome; I’ve seen people carrying all kinds of baggage about their inadequacy as writers who find a place for themselves in the freedom of expression that poetry allows.
Poets.org: What part of your project are you most excited about?
HK: There really isn’t anything I’m not excited about. Working with Arlington’s young poets has been a priority of mine since I began my term as poet laureate two and a half years ago. I’m particularly excited about the opportunity to validate the work of young poets in my county—both by making their voices heard and by compensating them for their work. Reimbursing young writers for their poems, as the fellowship allows me to do, sends a strong message that their art is valued and worthwhile. COVID, in particular, has had a devastating impact on young people’s mental health. Celebrating young people’s voices and giving them the space to share their experiences and emotions seems even more essential now.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project?
HK: I’ve actually encountered fewer obstacles than I expected when I began the project. I expected to have a difficult time garnering support among teachers and students simply because I know how overwhelmingly busy their schedules are. However, I’ve received a tremendous amount of enthusiasm from Arlington-based teachers. I’ve been able to engage with local high schools, visiting classes and connecting students with poetry in a way that is probably different from the way they encounter poetry in a traditional academic setting.
Having youth poets as co-editors has also been a huge help with garnering enthusiasm for the project; our youth poets laureate have their own networks and the support of Words Beats & Life [an arts education nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.]. Arlington Arts has been a crucial partner for the project in terms of visibility and logistics, and teaming up with DayEight has been amazing. They are taking care of all the nuts and bolts of the publication and outreach, which frees me up to focus on what I do best: connecting with young people through poetry.
Poets.org: You are working alongside youth poets laureate Amasa Maleski (2021), Kashvi Ramani (2022), as well as poetry ambassador Liam Mason, as co-editors for the anthology. What has working with youth poets taught you about the art form over the years?
HK: As a teacher, I’ve been working with young adults for much of my life. Young people are the future, and I feel so fortunate to share in their journey. Teaching poetry to young people is particularly exciting, as it empowers them with tools for self-expression and understanding that can help them develop resilience, empathy, and open-mindedness—all qualities that are increasingly essential in our high-tech society.
Chris Martin, in his book May Tomorrow Be Awake: On Poetry, Autism, and Our Neurodiverse Future, explains how “[w]hen you focus on what poetry is, or worse, should be, you instantly lose the most important thing about the practice of making a poem: what could be.” Working with young people is a constant reminder to focus on what could be in poetry, of the magic that can happen when you move away from preconceived definitions and standards. The poetry young people in my community are writing is extracurricular in its purest sense. Their poems speak directly to their reality, getting to the heart of what is difficult to say in words in a manner that privileges connection and communication over preconceived ideas of what poetry should be.
Poets.org: Is there a poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in Arlington, particularly when working with youth on the topic of resilience? How so?
HK: I use Poets.org regularly in my teaching, especially as I have moved toward open-access course materials and greater accessibility for students. I can’t say enough how grateful I am for the poetry and teaching resources available on the site. One of the poems I turn to again and again for inspiration—so much so that I have a copy taped to my office door—is Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact.” The poem explores the resilience of the natural world and of the human spirit in the face of violence and destruction, as depicted through Eric Garner’s “small” act of planting seeds. This small act is, in fact, what sustains life and sustains our spirits in the face of the pain and injustice that we sometimes feel powerless to confront. Such small acts make “it easier/ for us to breathe” and can have a far-reaching impact on our community. I can’t help but see an extended metaphor here in the act of creating a poem. If there is anything I want young people to understand about writing poetry it is the hopefulness: the act of planting seeds that will continue to grow and affect the world in ways you may not even realize.