Joy Harjo Named U.S. Poet Laureate

Staff

Today the Library of Congress announced that Joy Harjo will be the next U.S. poet laureate. Harjo, who is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, is the first Native American poet to serve as laureate. She will begin her term on September 19, succeeding poet Tracy K. Smith.

“Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry—‘soul talk’ as she calls it—for over four decades,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in a press release. “To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making. Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”

Harjo is the author of several poetry collections, most recently Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (Norton, 2015), and the memoir Crazy Brave (Norton, 2012). She is the recipient of the 2017 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation, the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the 1991 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, among other honors. On Monday, Poets & Writers, the nonprofit organization that supports this publication, awarded Harjo the $65,000 Jackson Poetry Prize.

“I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem,” said Harjo of her appointment. “I count among these ancestors and teachers my Muscogee Creek people, the librarians who opened so many doors for all of us, and the original poets of the Indigenous tribal nations of these lands, who were joined by diverse peoples from nations all over the world to make this country and this country’s poetry.”

Harjo succeeds Tracy K. Smith, who served two terms as laureate and focused on bringing poetry to rural and underserved communities. During her tenure, Smith edited and published American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (Graywolf Press, 2018); launched The Slowdown, a daily poetry podcast produced by American Public Media; and read and spoke at many events across the country as part of her American Conversations tour. “As we approach the end of Tracy K. Smith’s two terms as the Poet Laureate of the United States, it’s a moment to celebrate her as arguably the most active and effective poet in this role,” tweeted Graywolf Press executive editor Jeff Shotts in late May. “That Tracy has done this work, had these conversations, and held this role as a Black woman in a racist and violent nation during this racist and violent presidency is impossible to overstate.”

The poet laureate position, which was originally titled the “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress,” was established in 1937. Recent poet laureates include Juan Felipe Herrera, Charles Wright, Natasha Trethewey, and Philip Levine.

Joy Harjo: An Interview

by

Stephanie Izarek Smith

7.1.93

Joy Harjo is a poet unafraid of self-discovery. She explored painting, dancing and medicine before focusing on a writing career. Born in Tulsa in 1951 to the Muscogee tribe (of the Creek Nation), Harjo is both Muscogee and white, and her acceptance of both heritages plays a crucial role in her work: Her poetry preserves her Native American background, while integrating aspects of the mainstream American culture in which she was also raised, to create a unique, poignant voice. 

Harjo attended high school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and went on the study at the University of New Mexico, where in 1976 she was in the first graduating class of its creative writing program. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1978. She has taught creative writing at the University of Arizona and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of New Mexico. 

Harjo has published four books of poetry and several short stories, and has written several screenplays. She is a winner of several awards, including an Academy of American Poets Award in 1978, two National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowships (in 1978 and 1992), the Josephine Miles Award for Poetry from PEN Oakland in 1991, and the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award in 1991. Harjo has also served on a policy panel for the NEA. 

Now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Harjo has a 23-year-old son, Phil Dayn, and a 19-year-old daughter, Rainy Dawn, who is the subject of the poem “Rainy Dawn” that appears in Harjo’s most recent collection of poetry, In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). 

From a hotel room in Lincoln, Nebraska, Harjo reminisces about her childhood creative stirrings. “I went outside very early in the mornings to draw in the dirt while everyone was still sleeping. I’d sit there and imagine what I could paint. And what always came to me out of the imaginative sphere were images—not particularly words, but images. Maybe that’s how I think, because sometimes I feel that I write as a painter. It’s almost as if I paint the poems.” 

Harjo came from a family of painters. Her grandmother Naomi, a full-blooded Creek Indian, and her Aunt Lois, who was the family member closest to Harjo, were painters. Both women received their BFAs in fine art in the early 1900s and painted in the classical European style, but their subjects were often Native American. In her living room, Harjo has a painting by her grandmother of Osceola, the Seminole warrior who would never surrender to the U.S. government. Harjo uses a different medium, but the same collaboration of classical and Native American influences is the marrow of her poetry. 

Reading was a large part of her childhood. She loved poems and memorized them, first because she was forced to in school, and then because she enjoyed doing it. For her birthdays, she requested poetry books, but she was on her own in the quest for quality poetry because she did not have any outstanding educational figures to guide her. 

In high school, Harjo trained as a dancer under Rosalie Jones, a dancer of the Blackfeet tribe, and toured as a dancer and an actress with one of the first all-Indian dance troupes in this country. The show was called “Deep Roots, Tall Cedar” and gained recognition from many professional dance companies because it combined elements of classical European drama with traditional tribal drama. 

After the tour ended in 1968, Harjo, who was 17 years old, returned to Oklahoma, where her son, Phil, was born. She next moved to New Mexico, leaving Phil’s father behind and enrolled at the University of New Mexico as a premed student. Within one semester she returned to art. The university setting introduced Harjo to a world of poets from backgrounds similar to her own and among the group of Native American writers at UNM she found a poetry that spoke of familiar places in a language she understood, something she had never encountered before. “Most of the poetry available to my generation was set in New England or in the Northeast and was written by men, or women emulating the male experience. I always had to change myself to conform to the poem. But I loved the melodic tones, the rhythm, and the music—those are the things that pulled me into a poem, as much or more than the idea. 

One of the first poetry readings Harjo attended was given by Galway Kinnell, who became a source of great inspiration to her. She views him as a musician as well as a poet in the way he writes and reads his poetry. Harjo recounts with verve another significant event that was the turning point in her “unconscious decision” to take up the art of writing poetry: “I was watching a documentary one Sunday afternoon about a tribe in New Guinea. There was a storyteller, but he was also a poet—you could tell by the way he spoke his words. The story was about a hunt for a wild pig, and as he spoke he became—through his inflections and physical movements—the poem, the animal itself, while remaining human. It touched me as nothing else had.” 

When asked about other important influences on her poetry, she says, “There are people who were very important to me. They were poets who I felt were human beings with integrity—integrity to the word and integrity to their country (the land), and to their human beingness. I think of people like Pablo Neruda. One of my favorite poets from Uganda, Africa, who influenced me very much is Okot p’Bitek. I love his piece ‘The Song of Lawino.’ I also like the work of other African writers—West African writers especially. In this country, I became excited by the African American writers: Ishmael Reed’s fiction, the work of Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, Leslie Silko, and Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, a novel that was pretty much a poem. All were important to my writing.” Harjo had also read the Bible twice by the time she was 12 years old. 

Harjo became disenchanted with the academic view of poetry, because it distorted poetry’s sheer beauty. “I think that what’s happened within the past centry, and it probably came with T. S. Eliot—although you can’t blame everything on T. S. Eliot—is that poetry became the property of the academic. It was taken away from the people in a sense, and I don’t believe that’s where poetry belongs—it belongs to the people. Yes, you can take apart literature, separate it, and see how it works, but as with taking apart the human body, you can’t see the spirit, which is at the root of it. It is the same with a poem—you can’t touch the spirit.” 

Harjo sought a more creative approach to teaching and adopted a method that was directly influenced by one of her students. “I was teaching a class that involved African music and its connection to the spoken word. There was a young Ghanian man who told an incredible story about how he studied to be a master drummer. At seven years old, he was the apprentice to the master drummer, who would send him out into the bush every morning. He had to listen to all of the sounds going on around him, including the sound of the sun coming up, the insects buzzing, the people going for water, and the sound of the hunters as they went out into the bush. He would take it all in, and his ongoing lesson was to repeat those sounds on the drum and perfect them. Of course, it was the same lesson that went on for years, but it was the first teaching method I felt made sense. The workshop method is useful for technique and craft, but the approach seems more like business rather than the sacred art that poetry is.”

As a poet, Harjo viewed a changing society as an opportunity to explore the new attitudes toward her culture and humanity through writing. “I have felt the explosion of the civil rights movement in this country and have been challenged by the shock waves of human rights struggles all over the world. I’ve been especially involved in the struggles of my Indian peoples to maintain a place and culture in this precarious age. My poetry has everything to do with this. I came into writing at a poignant historical moment. I was lucky to be a part of a major multicultural movement with other writers.”

The beginning of her writing career also coincided with the rise of the women’s movement. Harjo noticed a great many poems being written straight from “the kitchen table,” and her poetry fit into this niche as well. “This poetry spoke very openly and honestly of women’s experiences. I considered it to be an incredible revolution in which we gave ourselves back to ourselves. Women had been stripped away by the language, by expectations of the language, and by expectations of the poets and the fathers of the poets. And we are not out of it yet.

“I am seen as a feminist poet. The way I interpret feminism in my own work is the power of a woman to be a warrior—to recognize the warrior characteristics within herself, which include self-love, vulnerability, honesty, integrity, a sense of morals, and so on.” But in a broader sense, Harjo’s poetry reflects the truths of being human, our relationship to one another, and our relationship to the physical world we inhabit. 

Harjo views herself as a woman who has had to learn—or who is learning—to honor the female within herself. “I think it’s easier to honor the male in our culture because it’s much more accepted. There are almost no truly powerful and sustained images of female power. None. Look at Marilyn Monroe? The Virgin Mary? And what images exist for Indian women? The big question is, How do we describe ourselves as women in this culture? It’s unclear. 

“I’ve had to nurture and accept all the elements of myself—both the creator and the destroyer; accept both my white and my native relatives, and accept the female and the male. It’s an ongoing internal war. I almost destroyed myself by the time I was twenty, because I felt like I had to be one or the other. Finally, at one point I made a stand, and here I am.” If there is any one poem that exemplifies her reconciliation of self, Harjo says it is “I Give You Back” in She Had Some Horses (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1983), her second collection of poems. 

Harjo’s subject matter is drawn mainly from the Native American tradition of exalting the land and the spirit, the realities of American culture, and the concept of feminine individuality. Her characters may be actual people like Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and Russell Moore, or they may be imaginary entities. “I imagine like a fiction writer sometimes. Most readers assume that the events in a poem actually happened to the poet. Not everything I write is autobiographical. In my work, I add to or change the truth. It is still the truth, just presented in a different form.” 

There is an inherent spiritual quality to Harjo’s poetry, but she doesn’t feel that she is any more spiritual than the next person. “Part of the way I am comes from being around Native American people, but I wouldn’t really use the world ‘spiritual.’ It is natural for human beings to be in awe of the sacred and to realize that the sacred is everywhere. But humans seem to have lost their way, although every once in a while someone may find it, and I think that’s the artist. The artists and the poets are the ones who search for the sacred place.” 

Her first collection of poetry, a chapbook, What Moon Drove Me to This? (I. Reed Books, 1979) is now out of print. “It should stay out of print,” says Harjo. “It was a very young book. There are probably only two good poems in it—poems that showed promise. It was a painful book, written during a difficult period in my life. You could see the beginnings of something, but it wasn’t quite cooked.” 

Harjo’s second book, She Had Some Horses, sold over 11,000 copies and is now in its eighth printing by the same publisher. Horses are a recurring image in many of her poems, but when asked about their meaning, she laughs and replies, “I don’t really want to say, and I get asked that question often. I just leave the horses to themselves.” 

Secrets From the Center of the World (University of Arizona Press, 1989) was a new kind of book for Harjo, combining photography with poetic language. The photographer/astronomer Stephen Strom was looking for a Native American writer to collaborate with him on his book of photographs of a Navajo reservation. “My friend Rain Perish, a Navajo artist and writer, couldn’t do it and referred him to me. We met, and I loved his photographs. Whichever way you turned the pictures, the perspectives made sense, and I think his being an astronomer and spending so much time looking at the universe affected his vision. He sees the world with immense detail. I wrote some text to go along with the photos, made the rounds to all of those places, and then rewrote the text.” Harjo and Strom worked on the arrangement of the photographs together. 

Harjo had already visited most of the places featured in the photographs. “I spent a lot of time going out as a student activist to work with the Navajo people. Many of my friends were Navajo, so I learned the language. I learned the language to the point where I could speak it pretty well, joke in it, and I actually started to dream in it. For me, Secrets From the Center of the World is, in a way a tribute to that time of my life, to those people, to the land, and to the language, which I think influenced my writing very much.” 

In Mad Love and War, Harjo’s most recent book of poems, departs from her original chant-oriented writing style. “In Mad Love, the story started to take precedent. Even though the lyric is important for me, the narrative had more of an edge. Maybe I’m getting farther away from the poetics. My next book will be very different. Harjo’s next collection—The Field of Miracles—is a prose narrative, which she hopes to finish within the next year. A recent short story appears in a Norton anthology called Best of the West, a collection of works by writers west of the Missouri, and another story appears in an anthology of short stories by Native American writers called Talking Leaves (Harper, 1991). 

Harjo’s work has grown in density and in scope, and her increasing love of music has become a major element in her poetry. She plays tenor and soprano saxophone and is now learning to play the flute. She is excited by the literary possibilities that arise out of writing and playing music. “I started playing the saxophone about halfway into writing Mad Love and could already see the effect of jazz. Even though I’m just learning the elements of jazz, I listen to it a lot.” She doesn’t think that her poetry is “jazz poetry,” although it is very much influenced by the music. “I’m close to my tribal music and ceremony, and there is a relationship to jazz. There is a history of connections among the Muscogee, African American, and Seminole people. What I hear in jazz is my people, and I feel related to the music.” 

Harjo’s relationship to jazz runs parallel with her relationship to American poetry. “I am an American, but it took me a while to reconcile my feelings toward American poetry. James Wright praised the American condition, as did Richard Hugo, who truly came out of the American experience. Adrienne Rich, too, is very important—more important to America than America wants to know or realize. I think academics felt betrayed by her when she refused to wear the clothes of her fathers. She refused the forms of her fathers, and left the house of her fathers. When she left the house of the fathers and embraced the mothers, academia felt betrayed. But I look to her honesty as much as her incredible gift of language and intellect.” 

Harjo has recently formed a band called Poetic Justice, with a drummer and a bass player, and would like to record a mixture of poetry and music. She has already completed one projected called “Furious Light” (distributed by Watershed Foundation in Washington, D.C.), taped a reading of poetry from She Had Some Horses and In Mad Love recorded over music. The music was taped separately in this instance, but Harjo is eager to produce a tape that integrates poetry and music even more dramatically. 

In addition to working on her new book and pursuing her musical career, Harjo is teaching and writing several screenplays for a television series called “Tales From the Center of the Earth.” The acknowledgement and integration of all creative energy—art, history, emotion, music—are highly important to Harjo’s work and daily life. The personal growth Harjo sees through the evolution of her writing is key. “If my style didn’t change and evolve, I would quit writing. Poetry is reciprocal. As poetry feeds you, you have to nurture the art and give it time and attention. It does give back to you, I suppose like anything else.” 

 

Stephanie Izarek Smith is a writer an editor based in New York City. She is currently writing a collection of short prose and poetry.

The opening spread of “An Interview With Joy Harjo” as it appeared in the July/August 1993 issue. 

Vote of Confidence: The Life-Changing Support of an NEA Fellowship

by

Kevin Larimer

4.12.17

For more than fifty years the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been a vital part of this country’s creative ecosystem, providing funding and support to writers, translators, and organizations, as well as partnering with arts groups and non-arts sectors to create programs, such as Poetry Out Loud and the Big Read, that celebrate America’s rich cultural heritage and promote access to the arts in every community. For readers of this magazine, of course, the most visible—and sought-after—support offered by the NEA comes in the form of creative writing fellowships: $25,000 grants given in alternating years to poets and prose writers, enabling them “to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and general career advancement.” In short, they allow writers to be writers—even if that means simply giving them the ability to pay the rent or the student loan or the babysitter or the credit card bill—in a world that rarely acknowledges their work in financial terms.

But this isn’t all about the money. This is about being part of a tradition, built over the past half century, that honors artistic excellence in its many forms. This is about writers who are also nurses and farmers and teachers and librarians receiving support and validation from experts in the field—a measure of reassurance that the work they do before or after the day job or the night shift is valuable. And, yes, this is about patriotism: the federal government sending a message that the work of poets and writers is integral to an open society in which free expression is not only protected, but also encouraged. 

This and much more is at stake as we move through the congressional budget process following President Trump’s ill-advised proposal to eliminate federal support for the NEA. And while these kinds of decisions often come down to numbers on a spreadsheet, it is important to highlight the real people—with lives and loved ones and dreams and challenges—at the other end of those fellowship checks. I spoke with nine fellowship winners, from 1977 grant recipient Joy Harjo to 2017 fellows Kathryn Nuernberger and Monica Sok, about what receiving the NEA’s creative writing fellowship meant to them, both in terms of practical financial assistance and as a vote of confidence from the federal government at that particular time in their personal and professional lives.

Joy Harjo | Kimiko HahnJulia AlvarezPeter Ho DaviesAnthony Doerr  
Benjamin Percyfrancine j. harrisKathryn Nuernberger | Monica Sok

“To be an artist in my family was somewhat expected. My grandmother and great aunt were painters. With Indian oil money, they obtained arts training—but more than that, they were afforded the time to create. Two of my most valued possessions are paintings by them. My grandmother Naomi Harjo even played saxophone. But to be a poet, especially as a single mother, with no additional income, made for a different story. My family was proud of me, but their constant concern was: How are you going to make a living? We already had one poet in our family tree, Alexander Posey, a Muscogee Creek poet who founded the first native daily newspaper, but he made a living as a journalist, not as a poet. I knew that I would write no matter what, and I wrote my way through jobs, classes, and childrearing. The Pueblo novelist and poet Leslie Silko was the first writer I knew to be awarded an NEA fellowship, and she urged me to apply. I was about to graduate with my MFA and didn’t have anything lined up except a return home to New Mexico and an application for teaching creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, then a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. I remember that late spring afternoon of 1977 opening the letter from the NEA announcing my fellowship. It was the gift I needed. It was enough money to assist me with writing what would be my breakout/breakthrough book of poetry, She Had Some Horses. I used the money for rent, utilities, supplies, and childcare. The fellowship bought me time. And it bought more than that; it brought affirmation. It put my family and community on notice that what I was doing as a poet—a strange occupation for a young native mother who needed to make a living—was considered worthy of support. My next fellowship came in 1992. It gave me the time I needed to get over that hump period that happens in the lives of all of us who create art. She Had Some Horses had set a mark. The second fellowship helped me leap the fence and make a collection that envisioned a book of poetry as an oral event.” —Joy Harjo, NEA fellow, 1977, 1992; author of ten poetry collections and a memoir, Crazy Brave (Norton, 2012)

 

 

“In the early 1980s I was studying Japanese at Columbia University and working in one of the college’s secretarial pools. When I wasn’t retyping a professor’s paper, I took advantage of the best typewriter in the world, the IBM Selectric, and put it to use for my own purposes. I was the busiest-looking secretary on campus, writing poems that would become my first two books, Air Pocket then Earshot. I was also a thirty-one-year-old new mother without an MFA—which is to say, without mentors or connections—and I felt alone, isolated. All my poet friends had books, but the support for presses was rapidly drying up. For me, mailing out a manuscript with the enclosed SASE was expensive. And waiting for snail mail was crushing. This was the backdrop to a parcel I received in our small mailbox: a thin envelope from the National Endowment for the Arts. I read it in the crack-infested vestibule of my apartment building in New York City and wept. It was 1986, the year I knew I’d be okay—more than okay. The NEA fellowship in poetry gave me validation that cannot be measured. Validation, for me, was a license to trespass: to continue writing fragments about the female body from an Asian American woman’s point of view. It may be difficult now to believe how radical this was: to hold a legal pad and pen in a coffee shop and write with confidence. The fellowship marked a turning point in my life, as it does for so many writers who receive the same gift of validation from the NEA.” —Kimiko Hahn, NEA fellow, 1986, 1992; author of nine poetry collections, including Brain Fever (Norton, 2014)

 

 

“My first job out of graduate school was as a poet in the schools in Kentucky, a two-year residency funded by the Kentucky Arts Council and the NEA in 1975. I traveled around the state giving writing workshops and exposing people of all ages and backgrounds to poetry—students in elementary schools and colleges, farmers in communities in Appalachia, and reform-school teens in Louisville. After the Kentucky residency, I went on to teach across America in poetry programs funded by the NEA. I taught migrant workers in California’s San Joaquin Valley; bilingual elementary school students in Baltimore; senior citizens in nursing homes, church basements, and Sunshine Centers, as they were called, centers where a free meal was provided, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This last residency culminated in a book of their writings, Old Age Ain’t for Sissies, as well as a series of public readings in the community funded by the NEA. African American eighty-year-olds recited their poems before enthusiastic audiences, feeling for the first time in their lives that they had a voice and were being heard. The program helped create a strong, compassionate, connected community. The NEA is a cultural resource we can’t afford to lose. No other programs are so widespread, addressing so many different age populations and areas of the country. We must not think of the NEA and its programs as something ‘just for artists.’ It is a vital educational resource, which doesn’t quit after our school years are over. We are educating our citizenry in the rich literary resources of this great country and helping them evolve and develop their own expressive tools. An informed citizenry means a stronger, more united, compassionate, and educated America. The individual grant I received from the NEA in 1987 allowed me to take time from full-time teaching and work on the stories that would eventually become my first published novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, based on my family’s immigrant experience after escaping the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1960. The novel now forms part of the curriculum in many schools and universities—the NEA at work again, enabling the creation of a diverse culture that enriches us all. Finally, in 2015, it was the NEA that nominated me for a National Medal in the Arts. For a little immigrant girl to end up receiving an award from the president of the United States was the American Dream come true. But none of us get where we want to go by ourselves. Along the way we encounter helpers, fairy godmothers. The NEA has served that role for me and so many others. I don’t have a magic wand to wave, but I do have a pen to write down this plea: Keep this incredible national treasure endowed and vital for the next generations of students, artists, writers, and readers, so that they can continue creating the country we all dream this can be.” —Julia Alvarez, NEA fellow, 1987; author of twenty-two books, including the children’s book Where Do They Go? (Triangle Square, 2016)

 

 

“I was lucky enough to receive NEA fellowships in 1998 and 2016. Both enabled me to write for a year. Both provided a considerable morale boost. Both made possible the books I was working on. That much is likely true for most recipients, of course. In my case, though, as an immigrant to this country, both also felt like an embrace from my adopted home. The emotional significance of the $25,000 grants, in other words, far exceeded their already handsome monetary value. The NEA also cemented my bond to the U.S. in another way. In between my two awards I had the privilege of serving on the panel that selects NEA fellows, which is how I found myself in a federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue at 9 AM on September 11, 2001. We saw smoke rising from the Pentagon through the windows of our conference room. Shortly thereafter, we were evacuated. That afternoon, back at the hotel, we decided, in spite of shock and sorrow, to continue our work. A small gesture, of course, but it felt like something worthwhile, a modest assertion of life and hope, of creativity, in the face of destruction, and one only made possible by dedicated NEA staffers. That night I walked down to the White House, which was floodlit like a beacon, and stood with the hushed crowd gathered before it. There’s been much talk of patriotism in the years between then and now, much talk about what the country stands for. The NEA, representing as it does a nation’s faith in the arts, seemed to me that day and ever since, an institution any country could and should be proud of. The federal building where the NEA was based on 9/11, incidentally, was the Old Post Office Pavilion, now the Trump International Hotel. The cost for a night in its largest suite on September 11, 2017: $25,000.” —Peter Ho Davies, NEA fellow, 1998, 2016; author of four books, including the novel The Fortunes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

 

 

“My wife and I were married in 2000, but we couldn’t figure out how to live in the same town. She was working for Hewlett-Packard in Boise, Idaho, and I was hopscotching around the Midwest chasing teaching gigs and fellowships. We were paying two rents, spending all our money on airfare and telephone bills, and multiple times a year I cajoled my Subaru across Wyoming and Nebraska with our goldfish in a gallon water jug beside me. Every night I asked myself, ‘How important is it to me to be a writer? Important enough to spend anniversaries and Valentine’s Day and random Tuesdays apart? Just because I want to chase a silly dream?’ Then I won an NEA fellowship. I promptly sold the kitchen table, gave away most everything else, drove two thousand miles west, and moved in with my wife. For the first time since we were married, we got to wake up together every morning on a consistent basis. And after she went to work, I got to turn on my computer and face down the dragon of my next book. Years later, serving as a judge on a panel to award those same fellowships, I discovered that all over the country, writers and their loved ones were weighing similar choices: Make a car payment, or write an essay? Take a second job so a partner can finish her novel? The National Endowment for the Arts allows artists and their families to prioritize creativity, even if only for a few months, and sometimes those months are all an artist needs to give back to the country a piece of work that will outlast us all.” —Anthony Doerr, NEA fellow, 2002; author of five books, including the novel All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner, 2014)

Benjamin Percyfrancine j. harrisKathryn Nuernberger | Monica Sok

“If I could have any superpower, it would be to stop or stretch time. And whenever someone asks me what I want for my birthday or Christmas, I say, ‘Time.’ There is never enough of it. Here is the math of 2011: Two young kids, one still in diapers; two teaching gigs—at a traditional and a low-res MFA program—which translates to maybe a thousand manuscript pages in need of editing; one leaky roof; one totaled car; one novel under way; twelve speaking gigs; ten book reviews; six short stories; $40,000 in student loans; a five-hour flight to one set of grandparents; a five-hour drive to the other. There’s nothing startling or appalling about these numbers; I was responsible for many of them, and I was building the life I wanted. But working sixty hours a week and chasing bills and scrambling from one speaking engagement to the next and trying to be there for my family sometimes added up to a schedule that made me feel stretched so thin you could see through me. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I’m not sure I can keep up this pace,’ and she said, ‘I don’t want you to.’ The NEA fellowship allowed me to slow down and carve out time so that I could properly research and pour all of my creative energy into a book that I couldn’t have written in such a harried, exhausted state. Time. That’s what these grants give their recipients. The gift of time, which is in such short supply for all of us. And, of course, money: to hire a babysitter. To fly out a grandparent for help. To teach fewer classes or take on fewer freelance assignments—or escape whatever other obligations are keeping us away from the page, the canvas, the studio, the darkroom. And here is the lovely, complicated calculus of the NEA: Those dollars become hours, and those hours become novels, memoirs, sonnets, sonatas, landscapes, photo essays, documentaries that have an incalculable effect on enriching and expanding the lives of their audience.” —Benjamin Percy, NEA fellow, 2012; author of seven books, including the novel The Dark Net (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

 

 

“Being awarded the NEA Fellowship changed the direction of my life. At the time it was awarded, I was teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a secondary school in northern Michigan. I enjoyed the job but wasn’t writing enough. While a brilliant few are able to meet the time demands of high school teaching loads and still write, I didn’t have that stamina. Additionally, northern Michigan, though beautiful, was culturally isolating. Short on money and time, I worried I might get stuck in a career that would have meant limits on my writing. Winning this fellowship allowed me to accept my current residency at Washington University in St. Louis. It also gave credibility to my work. For poets, that’s a big deal. While, as artists, we all want to make work that is satisfying on its own merit, most poets do not survive on their work alone. As important as the work is to our audiences, I believe part of the reason harsh critics of the genre can get away with claiming poetry has no social poignancy is because we stand to make so little money in our field. Book contracts offer smaller advances than in other genres, so publishing does not always equal income. People who love poetry often depend on this community of reading and performance, and those events are generally free to the public. With our short form, we have a vibrant and accessible presence online. But it means the power of this art is not in its capital. We do what we love, and fellowships, such as the NEA’s, are monetarily crucial. The National Endowment for the Arts fellowship has, quite simply, allowed me to continue my work.” —francine j. harris, NEA fellow, 2015; author of two poetry collections, including Play Dead (Alice James Books, 2016)

 

 

“The recipient of an NEA grant sits precariously at the nexus of contradictory forces: art, government, and money. Great art ought to have nothing to do with money or power, and so paradoxically it comes to have a great deal to do with both. The philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer suggested the distinction between entertainment and art is that entertainment has purpose (to inspire people to pay for it), while art has ‘purposiveness.’ Purposiveness is the feeling that a work of art is accomplishing something beyond its own ends. By providing financial support and putting a spotlight on my recently released collection, The End of Pink, the NEA grant encourages me to focus more on purposive writing and less on a purposeful hustle to find readers, royalties, and otherwise ‘succeed’ in the literary marketplace. I’m able to use this year of grant funding to finalize a third book of poems, Rue, which considers eighteenth- and nineteenth-century botanical expeditions and folklore surrounding plants historically used for birth control through a lens of intersectional feminism. The grant has also allowed me to plan poetry readings in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado, often in rural areas that are disconnected from more urban literary hubs. How bold and brilliant a democracy is to invite paradox and dissent into its agencies, its budget, its apparatuses of power and control. Governmental support for the arts, which by their nature challenge the government that funds them, is a mechanism that inculcates within itself a relentless seeking after deeper understandings of what a democratic government should do and be for its people. Though not everyone who deserves these grants receives one, the presence of the NEA reminds all of us that our creative work is essential to the advancement of a great nation with even greater as-yet-unfulfilled ideals.” —Kathryn Nuernberger, NEA fellow, 2017; author of two poetry collections, including The End of Pink (BOA Editions, 2016)

 

 

“My manuscript needs work. It’s full of myth-making and family narratives in the context of the Khmer Rouge regime. Lately, I’ve been allowing myself to dwell in my dream space longer, to take more risks in my poetry. With the support of an NEA fellowship, I feel more confident about the imaginary world I’ve been trying to create over the last three years. Every week I continue my process of world-building. I spread out all my drafts and swim in the poems I’ve started. At this time in my personal life, I want to create new structures within my craft, to be wildly imaginative, to survive better in my search for love and healing. Without the financial burdens of rent and utilities, monthly student loans, credit card bills, and medical expenses, I can rest and practice more self-care while dealing with the difficult subject of genocide and intergenerational trauma. The award will also help me travel to Cambodia over the course of writing my first book. When I learned that the NEA might be defunded and then eliminated, I thought about the Khmer Rouge and its horrific transition into power, one where hundreds of thousands of artists and intellectuals were targeted in the early days of the regime. I’ve always been aware of myself as a poet in this country. The urgency to write remains the same for me, but I renew my desire to hone the subversiveness that my craft relies on so heavily. In 1990, the NEA also supported my grandmother Em Bun, a weaver, through a National Heritage Fellowship. My grandmother was a refugee. Over the course of three generations, the NEA has helped two women artists in my family. I strongly believe that it must continue to do the necessary work of preserving the arts.” —Monica Sok, NEA fellow, 2017; author of the poetry chapbook Year Zero (Poetry Society of America, 2015) 

 

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.

Photo credits: Joy Harjo: Karen Kuehn; Kimiko Hahn: Beowulf Sheehan; Julia Alvarez: Bill Eichner; Peter Ho Davies: Dane Hillard; Anthony Doerr: Todd Meier; Benjamin Percy: Arnab Chakladar; francine j. harris: Cybele Knowles; Monica Sok: Sy J. Abudu

NEA at Risk: The Future of Arts Funding Under Trump

by

Kevin Nance

4.12.17

Update: May 23, 2017. The Trump administration today released its first full budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2018 (running from October 1, 2017, through September 30, 2018). The $4.1 trillion budget is notable for its cuts to domestic programs focused on social welfare programs, science and research, and the arts, including the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as the defunding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Each of the proposed cuts must pass through Congress before becoming law. 
 
Update: May 1, 2017. The House Appropriations Committee released the FY 2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill, the legislation that will provide discretionary funding for the federal government for the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2017. The bill includes $150 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), $2 million above the fiscal year 2016 level. Congress is expected to vote early this week on the full spending package.
 

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a word commonly used to describe the Republican Party’s nominee, Donald J. Trump, was nonideological. Running from outside—and to some extent against—the Republican establishment, Trump appeared ready to offer a policy agenda that would depart from his party’s traditional platforms in ways large and small. 

Following his Electoral College victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, however, President-elect Trump launched a transition during which he announced one rock-ribbed conservative appointment after another, including that of Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman of far-right media company Breitbart News, who is committed to what he has called “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” as his chief strategist. And in the first six weeks of his administration, President Trump took a series of hard-line Republican positions: cracking down on immigrants, rolling back a slew of Obama-era regulations protecting the environment, nominating a Supreme Court justice said to be “an heir to Antonin Scalia,” reversing federal guidelines on restroom rights for transgender students, and, more recently, announcing a massive military buildup. This last increase is to be funded by deep budget cuts in other programs—including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an independent agency of the federal government that offers support and funding for individuals and organizations through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector.

On March 16, Trump became the first American president to propose not just cutting funds for the NEA but abolishing it outright. The White House unveiled a proposed budget that includes eliminating the NEA and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or CPB, which helps fund PBS, National Public Radio, and local public radio stations across the country.

“We are disappointed,” NEA chairman Jane Chu said in a statement, “because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every congressional district in the nation.”

Why kill the NEA? If the $3.9 trillion federal budget is envisioned as a pie, the Endowment’s most recent slice under President Barack Obama ($147.9 million, or .004 percent of the total) would hardly register as a crumb, much less a sliver. And yet the NEA quickly surfaces in nearly any discussion of budget cuts in the Trump era—not because gutting or killing it would contribute meaningfully to any fiscal imperative, but because many Republicans object to it on the ideological grounds that taxpayer funds shouldn’t be spent on the arts, which they consider inessential (or even “waste,” as Brian Darling, a former staffer of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank and longtime NEA opponent, put it in a recent article in the Hill, a newspaper covering politics).

“I am deeply troubled by the Trump administration’s proposed FY 2018 budget calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts,” Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of the lobbying group Americans for the Arts, said in a statement. “Our nation’s parents, teachers, community leaders, arts advocates, government officials, and even economists will not accept this proposal.”

Although Trump has now gone further than any of his predecessors in the Oval Office, the NEA has been the target of Republican budget hawks since early in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget and an architect of what became known as “supply-side” economics, planned to abolish the NEA and NEH over three years. Those plans—later confirmed in a book by Livingston Biddle, NEA chairman from 1977 to 1981—were shelved when a special task force (which included Reagan’s former Hollywood colleague Charlton Heston) concluded that the two agencies performed a valuable service to the nation. Still, and simply put, conservatives have been critical of the NEA for more than three decades because they consider it a frill.

That philosophy was carried to its logical conclusion at the state level in 2011 in Kansas, where Republican governor Sam Brownback gutted the Kansas Arts Commission by line-item-vetoing the $689,000 in state funding that would have qualified it for matching grants from the NEA and a second group. “In difficult fiscal times such as these, the state must prioritize how to spend its limited resources and focus its attention on providing core services,” Brownback said in a statement at the time. In an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine, Kansas Arts Commission chairman Henry Schwaller called it “a devastating loss.” “This has happened because of the governor’s ideological belief that public funds should not be used to fund the arts,” he said. “But it’s also related to his clear misunderstanding of the role of the arts in society and in Kansas in particular. Children and seniors, especially in rural communities, will lose access to the arts because of this.”

Cultural conservatives also still harbor an animus against the NEA that has its roots in the controversies that erupted in 1989 over photographer and NEA grantee Andres Serrano—whose “Piss Christ,” part of the artist’s Immersions series, showed a plastic crucifix submerged in what was said to be his own urine—and Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs depicting the gay S&M subculture were shown in an NEA-supported exhibition in Cincinnati. The Serrano and Mapplethorpe firestorms, stoked by subsequent flare-ups involving the so-called “NEA Four” (performance artists Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller, whose grant proposals were approved by the NEA’s peer review panels but vetoed by then chairman John Frohnmayer in 1990), turned the NEA into a national lightning rod. Led by Republican senators Alfonse D’Amato of New York and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, conservatives in and out of government repeatedly called for the arts agency to be dismantled as an affront to traditional American values. “Do not dishonor our Lord,” Helms railed on the Senate floor in reference to Serrano. “I resent it, and I think the vast majority of the American people do. And I also resent the National Endowment for the Arts spending the taxpayers’ money to honor this guy.”

In recent years, controversies involving NEA-supported art have become exceedingly rare, in part because most grants to individual artists were discontinued, by congressional mandate, in 1995. The exceptions were literature fellowships and two lifetime honor programs, the NEA Jazz Masters and the NEA National Heritage Fellowships. At the same time the NEA’s advocates have successfully made the case for the arts as an economic engine, contributing $704.2 billion to the U.S. economy in 2013 alone, according to a study conducted by the NEA and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. (That includes for-profit arts activity such as filmmaking.) The NEA has also staked a claim as the nation’s most effective instigator of contributions to the arts by others. For every dollar it awards in grants, the NEA says, up to nine dollars is generated in matching support from private and public sources, leading to an additional $500 million in arts funding in 2016. Still, that onetime shibboleth of the religious right—that the NEA supports degenerate art—still bubbles up now and again on alt-right Internet forums.

Weeks before President Trump unveiled his budget plan, two powerful conservative groups—the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of 173 conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives—called upon him to abolish the NEA and the NEH. And the NEA remains a perennial target of right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart News, once edited by Bannon and known to be on Trump’s daily reading list. Breitbart has been publishing articles critical of the NEA at least since 2009, when it claimed the agency was encouraging artists to support President Obama’s agenda on education, health care, the environment, and other topics. “The National Endowment of the Arts is under attack—again,” poet Dana Gioia, who led the NEA from 2003 to 2009, wrote recently in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “The foes are the same tired cast of characters who have assaulted the agency for the last thirty years. Their arguments are the same threadbare notions that have been repeatedly rejected. They are mounting a partisan battle that will do the nation no good. But for the sake of the arts, it needs to be fought again and won.”

Gioia continued: “Both the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee have long been obsessed with ending federal support for the arts. During my six years as the chairman of the NEA under president George W. Bush, these groups launched one unsuccessful volley after another. Their stated rationale was that the federal government had no business funding the arts. Beneath that small-government ideal, however, was another openly acknowledged motive not related to the public good but to political advantage. By eliminating the NEA, they could deliver a symbolic victory against leftist urban constituencies.”

For all these reasons, the NEA finds itself once again in potentially mortal danger. With Republicans now firmly in control of the executive branch and both houses of Congress, the agency’s prospects for continued survival may be dimmer than at any point in its history.

***

The NEA was established by Congress in 1965, during the Johnson administration, to “support the survival of the best of all forms that reflect the American heritage in its full range of cultural and ethnic diversity and to provide national leadership on behalf of the arts.” Over the years, the Endowment has dispensed more than $5 billion to artists and arts organizations in the fields of dance, design, folk and traditional arts, literature, media arts, music, opera, multidisciplinary works, performance art, theater, and the visual arts. (Poets & Writers, Inc., the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine, receives an annual grant that supports the magazine and the website pw.org. Poets & Writers is also a cofounder of the Literary Network, or LitNet, a coalition of sixty-eight nonprofit literary organizations that was established in 1992 as an extension of the now-defunct Coalition of Writers Organizations and in response to the freedom of expression controversies surrounding the NEA.)

In the 2016 fiscal year, more than 80 percent of the NEA’s $147.9 million appropriation was distributed as grants and awards to organizations and individuals across the country. About 40 percent of that money was awarded directly to the states through their arts agencies. The other 60 percent was distributed to artists and arts organizations applying through the NEA funding categories.

In a clear response to past criticism of its grant-making process as “elitist,” the NEA now earmarks a portion of its grants for underserved communities. Forty percent of NEA-supported activities happen in neighborhoods with high poverty rates, and 36 percent of NEA grants go to organizations that reach people with disabilities, people in institutions (including prisons), and veterans. One-third of NEA grants serve audiences with low incomes. 

And while some have charged that the NEA favors large cultural institutions that would more appropriately be funded by their presumably wealthy patrons, the majority of NEA grants—65 percent—go to small and medium-sized organizations in every congressional district in the nation.

All grant applications to the NEA are reviewed on the basis of “artistic excellence and artistic merit,” according to “Art Works for America,” the NEA’s 2014–2018 strategic plan. Applications are first evaluated by independent panels consisting of experts in the various disciplines and “at least one knowledgeable layperson.” The panels’ recommendations are forwarded to the NEA’s advisory body, the National Council on the Arts, whose members are artists, scholars, and arts patrons appointed by the president. The council’s recommendations are sent to the NEA chairman (currently Jane Chu, a holdover from the Obama administration), who makes the final decision.

But will there be any grant decisions to be made in the new fiscal year? Will there be a National Endowment for the Arts at all? As of this writing, it’s unclear how Trump’s budget will fare in Congress, where the NEA still enjoys the support of most Democrats and some Republicans, including moderates and even some conservatives. In his statement, Lynch quotes North Carolina Republican representative Mark Walker, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, as saying he opposes Trump’s plans for the arts: “I appreciate the education that is found in the arts, so at this point I have no path to making any kind of hard cuts right now.” In her statement, Chu implied that anything could still happen. “We understand that the president’s budget request is a first step in a very long budget process,” she said. “As part of that process we are working with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to prepare information they have requested.”

A message posted to the grant application page of the NEA’s website on the same day the president’s proposal was unveiled reads, “We continue to make FY 2017 grant awards and will continue to honor all obligated grant funds made to date. In addition, we will continue to accept grant applications for FY 2018 at our usual deadlines…. The agency continues to operate as usual and will do so until a new budget is enacted by Congress.”

In the coming months the House and Senate budget committees will each write and vote on budget resolutions, at which point the subcommittee’s “markup” appropriation bills determine the level of spending for all discretionary programs. Then the full House and Senate debate and vote on those bills; only after each bill passes Congress can the president sign them and the budget becomes law. 

Whatever happens during this process, it won’t occur under the radar. It will be done in the full glare of the public eye, and under the careful scrutiny of those who benefit from NEA’s support, including members of the literary community who stand ready to protect the future of arts funding.

 

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine

Vote of Confidence: The Life-Changing Support of an NEA Fellowship

by

Kevin Larimer

4.12.17

For more than fifty years the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been a vital part of this country’s creative ecosystem, providing funding and support to writers, translators, and organizations, as well as partnering with arts groups and non-arts sectors to create programs, such as Poetry Out Loud and the Big Read, that celebrate America’s rich cultural heritage and promote access to the arts in every community. For readers of this magazine, of course, the most visible—and sought-after—support offered by the NEA comes in the form of creative writing fellowships: $25,000 grants given in alternating years to poets and prose writers, enabling them “to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and general career advancement.” In short, they allow writers to be writers—even if that means simply giving them the ability to pay the rent or the student loan or the babysitter or the credit card bill—in a world that rarely acknowledges their work in financial terms.

But this isn’t all about the money. This is about being part of a tradition, built over the past half century, that honors artistic excellence in its many forms. This is about writers who are also nurses and farmers and teachers and librarians receiving support and validation from experts in the field—a measure of reassurance that the work they do before or after the day job or the night shift is valuable. And, yes, this is about patriotism: the federal government sending a message that the work of poets and writers is integral to an open society in which free expression is not only protected, but also encouraged. 

This and much more is at stake as we move through the congressional budget process following President Trump’s ill-advised proposal to eliminate federal support for the NEA. And while these kinds of decisions often come down to numbers on a spreadsheet, it is important to highlight the real people—with lives and loved ones and dreams and challenges—at the other end of those fellowship checks. I spoke with nine fellowship winners, from 1977 grant recipient Joy Harjo to 2017 fellows Kathryn Nuernberger and Monica Sok, about what receiving the NEA’s creative writing fellowship meant to them, both in terms of practical financial assistance and as a vote of confidence from the federal government at that particular time in their personal and professional lives.

Joy Harjo | Kimiko HahnJulia AlvarezPeter Ho DaviesAnthony Doerr  
Benjamin Percyfrancine j. harrisKathryn Nuernberger | Monica Sok

“To be an artist in my family was somewhat expected. My grandmother and great aunt were painters. With Indian oil money, they obtained arts training—but more than that, they were afforded the time to create. Two of my most valued possessions are paintings by them. My grandmother Naomi Harjo even played saxophone. But to be a poet, especially as a single mother, with no additional income, made for a different story. My family was proud of me, but their constant concern was: How are you going to make a living? We already had one poet in our family tree, Alexander Posey, a Muscogee Creek poet who founded the first native daily newspaper, but he made a living as a journalist, not as a poet. I knew that I would write no matter what, and I wrote my way through jobs, classes, and childrearing. The Pueblo novelist and poet Leslie Silko was the first writer I knew to be awarded an NEA fellowship, and she urged me to apply. I was about to graduate with my MFA and didn’t have anything lined up except a return home to New Mexico and an application for teaching creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, then a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. I remember that late spring afternoon of 1977 opening the letter from the NEA announcing my fellowship. It was the gift I needed. It was enough money to assist me with writing what would be my breakout/breakthrough book of poetry, She Had Some Horses. I used the money for rent, utilities, supplies, and childcare. The fellowship bought me time. And it bought more than that; it brought affirmation. It put my family and community on notice that what I was doing as a poet—a strange occupation for a young native mother who needed to make a living—was considered worthy of support. My next fellowship came in 1992. It gave me the time I needed to get over that hump period that happens in the lives of all of us who create art. She Had Some Horses had set a mark. The second fellowship helped me leap the fence and make a collection that envisioned a book of poetry as an oral event.” —Joy Harjo, NEA fellow, 1977, 1992; author of ten poetry collections and a memoir, Crazy Brave (Norton, 2012)

 

 

“In the early 1980s I was studying Japanese at Columbia University and working in one of the college’s secretarial pools. When I wasn’t retyping a professor’s paper, I took advantage of the best typewriter in the world, the IBM Selectric, and put it to use for my own purposes. I was the busiest-looking secretary on campus, writing poems that would become my first two books, Air Pocket then Earshot. I was also a thirty-one-year-old new mother without an MFA—which is to say, without mentors or connections—and I felt alone, isolated. All my poet friends had books, but the support for presses was rapidly drying up. For me, mailing out a manuscript with the enclosed SASE was expensive. And waiting for snail mail was crushing. This was the backdrop to a parcel I received in our small mailbox: a thin envelope from the National Endowment for the Arts. I read it in the crack-infested vestibule of my apartment building in New York City and wept. It was 1986, the year I knew I’d be okay—more than okay. The NEA fellowship in poetry gave me validation that cannot be measured. Validation, for me, was a license to trespass: to continue writing fragments about the female body from an Asian American woman’s point of view. It may be difficult now to believe how radical this was: to hold a legal pad and pen in a coffee shop and write with confidence. The fellowship marked a turning point in my life, as it does for so many writers who receive the same gift of validation from the NEA.” —Kimiko Hahn, NEA fellow, 1986, 1992; author of nine poetry collections, including Brain Fever (Norton, 2014)

 

 

“My first job out of graduate school was as a poet in the schools in Kentucky, a two-year residency funded by the Kentucky Arts Council and the NEA in 1975. I traveled around the state giving writing workshops and exposing people of all ages and backgrounds to poetry—students in elementary schools and colleges, farmers in communities in Appalachia, and reform-school teens in Louisville. After the Kentucky residency, I went on to teach across America in poetry programs funded by the NEA. I taught migrant workers in California’s San Joaquin Valley; bilingual elementary school students in Baltimore; senior citizens in nursing homes, church basements, and Sunshine Centers, as they were called, centers where a free meal was provided, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This last residency culminated in a book of their writings, Old Age Ain’t for Sissies, as well as a series of public readings in the community funded by the NEA. African American eighty-year-olds recited their poems before enthusiastic audiences, feeling for the first time in their lives that they had a voice and were being heard. The program helped create a strong, compassionate, connected community. The NEA is a cultural resource we can’t afford to lose. No other programs are so widespread, addressing so many different age populations and areas of the country. We must not think of the NEA and its programs as something ‘just for artists.’ It is a vital educational resource, which doesn’t quit after our school years are over. We are educating our citizenry in the rich literary resources of this great country and helping them evolve and develop their own expressive tools. An informed citizenry means a stronger, more united, compassionate, and educated America. The individual grant I received from the NEA in 1987 allowed me to take time from full-time teaching and work on the stories that would eventually become my first published novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, based on my family’s immigrant experience after escaping the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1960. The novel now forms part of the curriculum in many schools and universities—the NEA at work again, enabling the creation of a diverse culture that enriches us all. Finally, in 2015, it was the NEA that nominated me for a National Medal in the Arts. For a little immigrant girl to end up receiving an award from the president of the United States was the American Dream come true. But none of us get where we want to go by ourselves. Along the way we encounter helpers, fairy godmothers. The NEA has served that role for me and so many others. I don’t have a magic wand to wave, but I do have a pen to write down this plea: Keep this incredible national treasure endowed and vital for the next generations of students, artists, writers, and readers, so that they can continue creating the country we all dream this can be.” —Julia Alvarez, NEA fellow, 1987; author of twenty-two books, including the children’s book Where Do They Go? (Triangle Square, 2016)

 

 

“I was lucky enough to receive NEA fellowships in 1998 and 2016. Both enabled me to write for a year. Both provided a considerable morale boost. Both made possible the books I was working on. That much is likely true for most recipients, of course. In my case, though, as an immigrant to this country, both also felt like an embrace from my adopted home. The emotional significance of the $25,000 grants, in other words, far exceeded their already handsome monetary value. The NEA also cemented my bond to the U.S. in another way. In between my two awards I had the privilege of serving on the panel that selects NEA fellows, which is how I found myself in a federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue at 9 AM on September 11, 2001. We saw smoke rising from the Pentagon through the windows of our conference room. Shortly thereafter, we were evacuated. That afternoon, back at the hotel, we decided, in spite of shock and sorrow, to continue our work. A small gesture, of course, but it felt like something worthwhile, a modest assertion of life and hope, of creativity, in the face of destruction, and one only made possible by dedicated NEA staffers. That night I walked down to the White House, which was floodlit like a beacon, and stood with the hushed crowd gathered before it. There’s been much talk of patriotism in the years between then and now, much talk about what the country stands for. The NEA, representing as it does a nation’s faith in the arts, seemed to me that day and ever since, an institution any country could and should be proud of. The federal building where the NEA was based on 9/11, incidentally, was the Old Post Office Pavilion, now the Trump International Hotel. The cost for a night in its largest suite on September 11, 2017: $25,000.” —Peter Ho Davies, NEA fellow, 1998, 2016; author of four books, including the novel The Fortunes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

 

 

“My wife and I were married in 2000, but we couldn’t figure out how to live in the same town. She was working for Hewlett-Packard in Boise, Idaho, and I was hopscotching around the Midwest chasing teaching gigs and fellowships. We were paying two rents, spending all our money on airfare and telephone bills, and multiple times a year I cajoled my Subaru across Wyoming and Nebraska with our goldfish in a gallon water jug beside me. Every night I asked myself, ‘How important is it to me to be a writer? Important enough to spend anniversaries and Valentine’s Day and random Tuesdays apart? Just because I want to chase a silly dream?’ Then I won an NEA fellowship. I promptly sold the kitchen table, gave away most everything else, drove two thousand miles west, and moved in with my wife. For the first time since we were married, we got to wake up together every morning on a consistent basis. And after she went to work, I got to turn on my computer and face down the dragon of my next book. Years later, serving as a judge on a panel to award those same fellowships, I discovered that all over the country, writers and their loved ones were weighing similar choices: Make a car payment, or write an essay? Take a second job so a partner can finish her novel? The National Endowment for the Arts allows artists and their families to prioritize creativity, even if only for a few months, and sometimes those months are all an artist needs to give back to the country a piece of work that will outlast us all.” —Anthony Doerr, NEA fellow, 2002; author of five books, including the novel All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner, 2014)

Benjamin Percyfrancine j. harrisKathryn Nuernberger | Monica Sok

“If I could have any superpower, it would be to stop or stretch time. And whenever someone asks me what I want for my birthday or Christmas, I say, ‘Time.’ There is never enough of it. Here is the math of 2011: Two young kids, one still in diapers; two teaching gigs—at a traditional and a low-res MFA program—which translates to maybe a thousand manuscript pages in need of editing; one leaky roof; one totaled car; one novel under way; twelve speaking gigs; ten book reviews; six short stories; $40,000 in student loans; a five-hour flight to one set of grandparents; a five-hour drive to the other. There’s nothing startling or appalling about these numbers; I was responsible for many of them, and I was building the life I wanted. But working sixty hours a week and chasing bills and scrambling from one speaking engagement to the next and trying to be there for my family sometimes added up to a schedule that made me feel stretched so thin you could see through me. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I’m not sure I can keep up this pace,’ and she said, ‘I don’t want you to.’ The NEA fellowship allowed me to slow down and carve out time so that I could properly research and pour all of my creative energy into a book that I couldn’t have written in such a harried, exhausted state. Time. That’s what these grants give their recipients. The gift of time, which is in such short supply for all of us. And, of course, money: to hire a babysitter. To fly out a grandparent for help. To teach fewer classes or take on fewer freelance assignments—or escape whatever other obligations are keeping us away from the page, the canvas, the studio, the darkroom. And here is the lovely, complicated calculus of the NEA: Those dollars become hours, and those hours become novels, memoirs, sonnets, sonatas, landscapes, photo essays, documentaries that have an incalculable effect on enriching and expanding the lives of their audience.” —Benjamin Percy, NEA fellow, 2012; author of seven books, including the novel The Dark Net (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

 

 

“Being awarded the NEA Fellowship changed the direction of my life. At the time it was awarded, I was teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a secondary school in northern Michigan. I enjoyed the job but wasn’t writing enough. While a brilliant few are able to meet the time demands of high school teaching loads and still write, I didn’t have that stamina. Additionally, northern Michigan, though beautiful, was culturally isolating. Short on money and time, I worried I might get stuck in a career that would have meant limits on my writing. Winning this fellowship allowed me to accept my current residency at Washington University in St. Louis. It also gave credibility to my work. For poets, that’s a big deal. While, as artists, we all want to make work that is satisfying on its own merit, most poets do not survive on their work alone. As important as the work is to our audiences, I believe part of the reason harsh critics of the genre can get away with claiming poetry has no social poignancy is because we stand to make so little money in our field. Book contracts offer smaller advances than in other genres, so publishing does not always equal income. People who love poetry often depend on this community of reading and performance, and those events are generally free to the public. With our short form, we have a vibrant and accessible presence online. But it means the power of this art is not in its capital. We do what we love, and fellowships, such as the NEA’s, are monetarily crucial. The National Endowment for the Arts fellowship has, quite simply, allowed me to continue my work.” —francine j. harris, NEA fellow, 2015; author of two poetry collections, including Play Dead (Alice James Books, 2016)

 

 

“The recipient of an NEA grant sits precariously at the nexus of contradictory forces: art, government, and money. Great art ought to have nothing to do with money or power, and so paradoxically it comes to have a great deal to do with both. The philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer suggested the distinction between entertainment and art is that entertainment has purpose (to inspire people to pay for it), while art has ‘purposiveness.’ Purposiveness is the feeling that a work of art is accomplishing something beyond its own ends. By providing financial support and putting a spotlight on my recently released collection, The End of Pink, the NEA grant encourages me to focus more on purposive writing and less on a purposeful hustle to find readers, royalties, and otherwise ‘succeed’ in the literary marketplace. I’m able to use this year of grant funding to finalize a third book of poems, Rue, which considers eighteenth- and nineteenth-century botanical expeditions and folklore surrounding plants historically used for birth control through a lens of intersectional feminism. The grant has also allowed me to plan poetry readings in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado, often in rural areas that are disconnected from more urban literary hubs. How bold and brilliant a democracy is to invite paradox and dissent into its agencies, its budget, its apparatuses of power and control. Governmental support for the arts, which by their nature challenge the government that funds them, is a mechanism that inculcates within itself a relentless seeking after deeper understandings of what a democratic government should do and be for its people. Though not everyone who deserves these grants receives one, the presence of the NEA reminds all of us that our creative work is essential to the advancement of a great nation with even greater as-yet-unfulfilled ideals.” —Kathryn Nuernberger, NEA fellow, 2017; author of two poetry collections, including The End of Pink (BOA Editions, 2016)

 

 

“My manuscript needs work. It’s full of myth-making and family narratives in the context of the Khmer Rouge regime. Lately, I’ve been allowing myself to dwell in my dream space longer, to take more risks in my poetry. With the support of an NEA fellowship, I feel more confident about the imaginary world I’ve been trying to create over the last three years. Every week I continue my process of world-building. I spread out all my drafts and swim in the poems I’ve started. At this time in my personal life, I want to create new structures within my craft, to be wildly imaginative, to survive better in my search for love and healing. Without the financial burdens of rent and utilities, monthly student loans, credit card bills, and medical expenses, I can rest and practice more self-care while dealing with the difficult subject of genocide and intergenerational trauma. The award will also help me travel to Cambodia over the course of writing my first book. When I learned that the NEA might be defunded and then eliminated, I thought about the Khmer Rouge and its horrific transition into power, one where hundreds of thousands of artists and intellectuals were targeted in the early days of the regime. I’ve always been aware of myself as a poet in this country. The urgency to write remains the same for me, but I renew my desire to hone the subversiveness that my craft relies on so heavily. In 1990, the NEA also supported my grandmother Em Bun, a weaver, through a National Heritage Fellowship. My grandmother was a refugee. Over the course of three generations, the NEA has helped two women artists in my family. I strongly believe that it must continue to do the necessary work of preserving the arts.” —Monica Sok, NEA fellow, 2017; author of the poetry chapbook Year Zero (Poetry Society of America, 2015) 

 

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.

Photo credits: Joy Harjo: Karen Kuehn; Kimiko Hahn: Beowulf Sheehan; Julia Alvarez: Bill Eichner; Peter Ho Davies: Dane Hillard; Anthony Doerr: Todd Meier; Benjamin Percy: Arnab Chakladar; francine j. harris: Cybele Knowles; Monica Sok: Sy J. Abudu

Tracy K. Smith Named U.S. Poet Laureate

by

Dana Isokawa

6.14.17

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden has named Tracy K. Smith the next poet laureate of the United States. Smith, who will take on the role in the fall, will succeed Juan Felipe Herrera, who has served as poet laureate since 2015. “It gives me great pleasure to appoint Tracy K. Smith, a poet of searching,” said Hayden in a press release. “Her work travels the world and takes on its voices; brings history and memory to life; calls on the power of literature as well as science, religion, and pop culture. With directness and deftness, she contends with the heavens or plumbs our inner depths—all to better understand what makes us human.”

Smith, forty-five, is a professor at Princeton University, where she directs the creative writing program. She has written three poetry collections, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars (Graywolf, 2011), and a memoir, Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015). “As someone who has been sustained by poems and poets, I understand the powerful and necessary role poetry can play in sustaining a rich inner life and fostering a mindful, empathic and resourceful culture,” said Smith in the announcement. “I am eager to share the good news of poetry with readers and future-readers across this marvelously diverse country.”

Smith is the first poet Hayden has appointed to the position, which was established in 1936 as the “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” and later renamed the “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” in 1985. Each poet laureate serves for at least one year and is responsible for raising national awareness and appreciation of poetry. Charles Wright, Natasha Trethewey, Philip Levine, W. S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, and Charles Simic have all served as the poet laureate in recent years.

Each poet approaches the role, which comes with a $35,000 stipend and minimal specific duties, with a different focus. Robert Pinsky, who served as poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, launched the Favorite Poem Project, through which more than eighteen thousand Americans shared their favorite poems. Several laureates have focused more on bringing poetry into the classroom: Billy Collins curated 180 poems for high school teachers to share with their students every day in the school year as part of the Poetry 180 project, while Kay Ryan strengthened poetry’s presence in community colleges through a national contest and videoconference. Other laureates have opted to raise awareness poetry by collaborating with the media, such as Natasha Trethewey with her Where Poetry Lives video series with PBS NewsHour, and Ted Kooser with his weekly newspaper column, American Life in Poetry.

Smith will have plenty of inspiration to draw on when she starts her term in the fall. She is the first poet laureate appointed under the Trump administration, a time that has highlighted the political divisions in the country. If there’s anyone who can remind the American public of the power of poetry to give people a more nuanced way of thinking and understanding one another, though, it’s Smith. “It makes sense to me that the world of commerce and the world of politics would be invested in convincing us that we can each be one thing only: loyal to one brand, one party, one candidate,” she said in an interview with Yale Literary Magazine in 2015. “Too often we forget that we can say no to such false thinking, that nobody is single-sided, two-dimensional…. Poems activate and affirm our sense of being individuals, of having feelings, of having been affected powerfully by the events and people that touch us.”

Read more about Tracy K. Smith in “Far From Ordinary: A Profile of Tracy K. Smith,” written by Renée H. Shea and published in the March/April 2015 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Tracy K. Smith (Credit: Christy Whitney)

Far From Ordinary: A Profile of Tracy K. Smith

by

Renée H. Shea

2.10.15

Tracy K. Smith was twenty-two when her mother died in 1994. Nearly a decade later, she published The Body’s Question, her first book of poetry, in which she reflected on that loss. In “Joy,” which carried the epigraph “In Memoriam KMS 1936–1994,” Smith writes to her mother, longing to “pick up the phone / And catch your voice on the other end / Telling me how to bake a salmon / Or get the stains out of my white clothes.” Another decade later, she returns to that wrenching loss in the memoir Ordinary Light, published this month by Knopf. Smith’s first book of prose, it is a book of excavation and navigation: The poet revisits her mother’s passing in light of her father’s death in 2008, the year her daughter, Naomi, was born, and in light of the birth in 2013 of her twin sons, Atticus and Sterling. 

Smith, who characterizes herself as having been “still an adolescent” when she lost her mother, believes “it took losing my father to help me come to better grips with that first loss and think about what I needed to believe my mother’s life and her death had imparted.” And now, with three children of her own, Smith wishes her mother were nearby to consult about practical parenting concerns, but of course that wish goes deeper: “I want to think actively about the continuum to which I belong—the one that includes my mother and her mother and sisters and their ancestors—and also my children. In my mother’s absence, I want to cement that connection, and words are the best glue I know.” 

But why prose? She’s already written poems about her mother, and her Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars is, in many respects, an elegy for her father. A memoir in verse offered an intriguing form, one that is familiar territory—Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (1986) and, more recently, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the 2014 National Book Award, are exemplary—but Smith credits the influence and encouragement of the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, her mentor in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, for emboldening her to venture into prose. Smith had never heard of the mentorship program, which pairs older masters with younger artists under forty, until 2008, when she was nominated and flown to Munich along with two other finalists. Each had an interview with Enzensberger and then all four went to dinner, an experience that Smith insists turned into more camaraderie than competition. 

She and Enzensberger have become great friends after what sounds like a jet-setting year of being flown to many of the places where he had speaking engagements: “We rendezvoused in Tenerife and Paris, and gave a reading together at the public library in London. We spent much of a summer in Munich, where he lives, working on the book and getting to know each other.” In addition to face-to-face meetings, the two e-mailed back and forth, with Smith sending him parts of her work for comment. The idea she began with was, by her own description, “a big, ambitious mess” about a whole range of experiences, but Enzensberger urged her to focus discrete memories toward “a narrative with characters that moved beyond the private realm to take in and consider the relevant public history.” 

From the beginning, Smith says, she knew she wanted to write “genuine prose,” possibly because some of what she wanted to explore had already been unearthed in her poetry. “But I also wanted to embrace a fuller sense of myself as a writer,” she says. And she wanted to work within “sentences, clauses, paragraphs, the whole to-do,” since, as she writes in Ordinary Light, “Being able to tell a good story was currency in my family.” Prose gave her a certain amount of freedom to explain and elaborate. She realized how much she relies on metaphor in her poetry to evoke “a strange, powerful sameness between two otherwise disparate things.” In prose, she initially felt reluctant to elaborate on an image or interrogate statements she made, but soon discovered her expansive abilities. “I learned that prose can bear the weight of much more explication,” she says. “I can think and rethink, even second-guess or analyze something on the page in prose without going overboard. The sentence, in prose, can be as tireless as an ox.”

Enzensberger recognized, perhaps before Smith herself, that her story was about her family, with her mother as the central character. Smith opens Ordinary Light with her mother’s deathbed scene, the family’s vigil during the final hours of her mother’s life, remembered twenty years later:

Then we heard a sound that seemed to carve a tunnel between our world and some other. It was an otherworldly breath, a vivid presence that blew past us without stopping, leaving us, the living, clamped in place by the silence that followed. I would come back to the sound and the presence of that breath again and again, thinking how miraculous it was that she had ridden off on that last exhalation, her life instantly whisked away, carried over into a place none of us will ever understand until perhaps we are there ourselves.

From that solemn moment, Smith circles back to her childhood as the adored and indulged baby in a family of five children and, further back, to her parents’ coming of age in Alabama at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Dedicated to her daughter, Naomi, Ordinary Light began as a way for Smith to bring her parents back to life, “to reconstruct them,” as characters for Naomi. “At least that was my intention,” Smith says, “though in the execution it has become a book about me—about excavating my own experiences, anxieties, and evolving beliefs.” 

When asked about the title, she hesitates, musing that “maybe it’s the feeling of wholeness and safety and ongoing-ness that we slip into sometimes in our lives.” But after Smith settled on Ordinary Light as her title, she added an opening quote from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” one of her favorite short stories. As Baldwin’s narrator recalls the perfect family Sunday afternoons of his childhood when all’s right with the world, he cautions: “But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light.” In her new memoir, it is this moment that Smith explores for herself and her own children—the moment when we hear the tiger at the door.

***

In many ways, Smith seems to have lived a charmed life. Her father retired from the Air Force at forty-five because he did not want to uproot the family once again by accepting an overseas post. Trained as an electronics engineer, he found a job in Silicon Valley, eventually working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her mother, while active in her church and community, did not work outside the home except for a short stint as an adult-education teacher. Tracy, eight years younger than her closest sibling, recalls a childhood when “all of my siblings doted on me, then left for college. So I had this abundance of attention for a time, and then a period of abundant solitude.” A participant in gifted programs throughout her public school education, she graduated from Harvard College in 1994 with a BA in English and American Literature and Afro-American Studies. After an extended return home following her mother’s death, Smith attended Columbia University, earning an MFA in 1997; she went on to a two-year stint as a Stegner fellow at Stanford University. She taught at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, and at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the faculty at Princeton University in 2005, where she is currently a professor of creative writing. 

Smith has published three collections of poetry—The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Life on Mars (2011), all with Graywolf Press—each receiving critical acclaim and significant literary prizes. In the introduction to her first book, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, poet Kevin Young, the contest judge, heralded an exceptional new voice:  “Smith is a maker, a wordsmith of the first order.” In 2012, Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Two years later Smith received an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Among her other awards and fellowships are the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, an Artist’s Residence at the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain, and an Essence Literary Award. 

Smith had a series of mentors even before her time with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, as she developed her identity as a poet. A reader from the outset (one of the chapters in Ordinary Light is titled “My Book House”), she experienced a sort of epiphanic moment in college when she read Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging.” She describes how everything in that poem—the male speaker, the Irish setting—should have been completely foreign to her, yet, she says, “I felt so much a part of the landscape and the family he was describing that I realized this was what I wanted to do with language.” Ultimately, she got to know Heaney as one of her teachers. At Columbia, Mark Doty became, and remains, an important influence and mentor to her, someone who she says is “so generous and present” to his students. 

Yet the seemingly idyllic life of Smith’s nuclear family—“us as an invincible unit,” is how she describes them in Ordinary Light—can prepare, though never entirely protect, its members from the loss of certainty and security and, especially, the realities of racial politics. Smith is known for sharpening a political edge in her poetry, whether she’s writing about science fiction, pop culture, or current events, and this memoir is no exception. “In writing this book, I was forced to speak about and into many of the silences that ran through my life: silence about race, silence about the painful features of African American history, silence about my own choice to turn away from or reenvision the religious faith I was raised in,” she says.

One of the side effects of the memoir, Smith discovered, is that her adult perspective remained active even when she was writing about childhood: “So Tracy the citizen was allowed to engage with these private stories, just as Tracy the mother was allowed in at times,” she says. What she calls “shifting subjectivities” becomes especially clear when she writes about returning as a child to Alabama, where her parents grew up, to visit her large extended family (her mother was one of thirteen siblings): 

I was ten years old, living with a vague knowledge that pain was part of my birthright, part of what was meant by a word like Home. It was not the kind of beautified self-inflicted angst that can transform a girl into a swan or a doll or an ice princess in the ballet…. No, what I felt, what I feared and discerned, even from my rather far remove, was the very particular pain that was tied up in blood, in race, in laws and war. The pain we hate most because we know it has been borne by the people we love. The slurs and slights I knew were part and parcel of my parents’ and grandparents’ and all my aunts’ and uncles’ lives in the South. The laws that had sought to make people like them—like us, like me—subordinate. 

“Growing up black in America is inherently political,” Smith says, and her own experience proved that collision with that reality is not limited to the South. In Ordinary Light, she remembers the sting she felt when one of her high school teachers in Northern California offered faint praise as encouragement by pointing out, “You’re an African American woman. You should take advantage of the opportunities that will bring you.” Even as she received one acceptance after another to impressive schools, including Harvard, Smith writes that this man’s “voice whispered in the back of my mind whenever the word diversity was printed among the catalogue copy.” 

Through writing Ordinary Light Smith has also come to some peaceful terms with the fierce religious faith that guided her mother’s life. Even as a child, she struggled to understand her mother’s devotion, especially regarding the concept of salvation, “when the world of my family was the only heaven I needed to believe in.” As an adolescent and young college student, Smith felt the growing distance from her mother in her sense of religion as something imposed, even oppressive. Writing Ordinary Light has helped her appreciate the key role of the African American church of her parents’ era in fostering a sense of family, community, and discipline “in a world full of disparities.” Even her father, with his systematic, orderly mind, Smith says, prayed with and read the Bible to his children. He was a man grounded in both the worlds of science and faith. In Ordinary Light, we meet the meticulously ordered world that her parents, especially her mother, created for their children, inspired, in many ways, by their religious beliefs: “a life that would tell us, and the world, if it cared to notice, that we bothered with ourselves, that we understood dignity, that we were worthy of everything that mattered.” 

Smith believes that the process of writing the memoir helped her codify some of her own beliefs and anxieties about religion and to speak “honestly” about how she sees God—something she needed to do for herself but that has also helped her decide what elements of her religious inheritance she wants to offer her children. “I hope they will bring their own ideas and feelings to the conversation,” she says. “I don’t want to subject them to the hard-and-fast, top-down approach to belief that repelled me.” Would her mother, who grew more religious after her cancer diagnosis, approve? Smith’s not sure, though her siblings have responded positively to the book, and she believes that “much of what the writing has urged me to discover along the way would make perfect, familiar sense to my mother.”

***

Coming at a difficult time in her life, when her first marriage had ended, the offer of a position at Princeton was, Smith says, “a benediction that my life would go on, that everything would be okay.” So far, it’s been more than okay. She relishes teaching: “Let’s just be honest and say that we academics have the best, most humane work schedule in the world, and I get to spend my workdays talking to smart young people who are devoted to the very same thing I love.” Admitting that Princeton’s faculty roster of luminaries is “pretty daunting,” she characterizes her colleagues as “happy and fulfilled and therefore very generous” and feels part of the family: “I feel that I’ve grown up at Princeton. I came here with one book. I was a child. That’s a paradigm I’m comfortable with, being the youngest of five kids, and so the eminence of my colleagues felt right, familiar. I’ve always been in the position of admiring the people around me and striving to play catch-up.” Her colleagues apparently agree. Poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, who invited Smith to do her first public reading of Ordinary Light last December at the Irish Arts Center in New York City, describes her as “a truly exceptional poet, with an eye for the arresting image that puts most of us to shame,” noting also her commitment to teaching: “My office is right beside hers, so I have a sense of her being a teacher who is at once diligent and delighting in her work.”

Last summer Smith became a full-fledged member of that community in a more rooted way when she and her family moved from Brooklyn, New York, where she had lived for fifteen years, to Princeton. She doesn’t really miss the city, and she’s a bit surprised. Apart from the practical reality that she and her husband, Raphael Allison, a literary scholar and poet, were driving to New Jersey to teach every day while their children were in Brooklyn, she says she was emotionally ready to leave: “I have so much more mental space and more patience, now that we’re living in a house and surrounded by so many trees. I used to pity New Yorkers who moved to the suburbs: I had the smug idea that they were ‘giving up,’ but now I think how much of an inherent struggle it assumes, and I chuckle.” Tina Chang, one of Smith’s best friends and poet laureate of Brooklyn, understands, though she says she went through her own “mourning” process when her friend moved. “As always, we write letters and allow our writing to lead us through our friendship,” Chang says. “What has always been interesting to me is that Tracy can occupy any physical space, and her mental space follows. Whether her body occupies India, Mexico, Brooklyn, or Princeton, her poetry fills up that geography, illuminates it, and makes it more alive.” 

So, with most of the boxes unpacked, full-time teaching under way, and three young children in tow, Smith is already contemplating another prose work, and she’s on to more poetry projects. New poems are included in a folio that accompanies a Smithsonian exhibition of Civil War photos called Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, Poems and Photographs, Past and Present and in an anthology about Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello that is forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press. She is also working on a translation of poetry by contemporary Chinese author Yi Lei and has signed on as librettist for an opera about the legendary 1960s battle between the disparate visions for New York City of urban planner Robert Moses and journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. Although most would be content to accomplish in a lifetime what Smith has already achieved, she considers herself at the end of the first part of her career, and she’s thinking ahead. She’s always been drawn to questions of what we leave behind, what it means to survive, to endure. In her poem “Letter to a Photojournalist Going-In,” from Duende, the speaker wonders if all we do is “kid ourselves into thinking we might last.” But Smith seems more like the tiny creature in “Flores Woman,” who defies the inevitability of her own extinction: “Like a dark star. I want to last.” 

Renée H. Shea is the coauthor of a series of textbooks for Advanced Placement English, most recently Conversations in American Literature: Language, Rhetoric, Culture (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014). She has profiled many authors for Poets & Writers Magazine, including Julie Otsuka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

Tracy K. Smith (Credit: Christy Whitney)

Q&A: Hayden Leads America’s Library

by

Dana Isokawa

12.14.16

Nominated by President Obama this past February, Carla Hayden took office in September as the nation’s fourteenth Librarian of Congress. She is the first woman, and the first African American, to hold the position, which involves overseeing the library (a collection composed of more than 162 million books and other items) and its three thousand employees, as well as the nation’s law library, the office of the poet laureate, and the U.S. Copyright Office. Just a little over a month into her term, Dr. Hayden spoke about her plans for making the library more accessible, and a typical day in the life of the Librarian of Congress.

How are you hoping to make the library more accessible to the public?
We’re working on a digital strategy to make the collections available to everyone online. The collections range from comic books to the papers and memorabilia of Rosa Parks to the manuscript collections of twenty-three presidents. We just launched our new home page. It’s more active—you can really get a sense of what the collections are. We’ve also been tweeting every day, one or two things I find in the collections. The response has already been pretty wonderful because I’m tying it to what’s going on in the world. During the World Series we tweeted the baseball-card collections we have. On Halloween we posted the collection of Harry Houdini’s memorabilia—his personal scrapbooks and his funeral program—because he died on Halloween, in 1926. So we’re using social media and technology to touch as many people as possible in interesting ways.

How else do you envision people engaging with the library?
We’re really excited about the possibility of traveling exhibits that can go to local communities, including an eighteen-wheeler that can pull up in a rural area or on a reservation. We want people to be able to get on that truck and have an experience they might not have had if they can’t visit Washington, D.C. We’re hiring a new exhibit designer who has museum experience, and we’re hitting the road and drawing people in. And raising general awareness of the fact that it’s the nation’s library, it’s America’s library.

What do you see as the role of the poet laureate?
Our current laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, shows how to bring poetry into people’s lives in an active and everyday way. He’s demystifying it, and working with teachers, librarians, and people who work with young people to get them excited about poetry and to recognize it around them and in themselves. He wants poetry to be more spontaneous. As he has said, it shouldn’t be something you labor over—you should feel it and write it. He has this activity where he has the kids line up, like a soul-train line—the kids go down the line and write down words they’re hearing. They come out with a poem at the end.

What happens during a day in the life of the Librarian of Congress?
One month in, it is a period of discovery and getting to know not only the collections and the resources, but also the people who care for those collections. That’s been one of the greatest joys and discoveries—the curators are so knowledgeable at the library. So I go from budget meetings to visiting a collection to having the head of the British Library visit to participating in the National Book Festival and things like the poetry slam at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival.

What are you reading now?
Mysteries. I also just picked up The Gershwins and Me by Michael Feinstein; I got a chance to meet him, and got him to sign it, which was really cool. I have so many books stacked in my home—I have baskets of books waiting, just waiting. I try to think of them as pieces of candy, that they’re treats. If you walked into my apartment, you’d probably think, “This person likes to read,” and be able to find a few things to pick up.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Tracy K. Smith’s Poetry Podcast Goes to Radio

by

Sarah Ahmad

1.28.19

Since its launch in November of last year, U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith’s podcast, The Slowdown, has been bringing five minutes of carefully curated poetry to subscribers each day. Starting this month the podcast is expanding its reach, airing on local public radio stations in several cities across the country, including San Francisco, Honolulu, Toledo, Lexington, Charleston, Spokane, and Southampton, New York.

Each episode of The Slowdown features a poem selected, introduced, and read by Smith. Featured poems have ranged from work by well-known contemporary poets—such as Patricia Smith’s “Hip-Hop Ghazal,” Ada Limón’s “The Raincoat,” and Aracelis Girmay’s “On Kindness”—to the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert’s “Love (III).” A full archive of episodes is available, and radio listeners can find the show’s specific airtime by visiting their local public radio station online.

Produced by American Public Media in collaboration with the Poetry Foundation and the Library of Congress, The Slowdown was created “to make a daily space for poetry in an increasingly busy and chaotic world, a way of slowing things down, looking at them closely, mining each moment for all that it houses,” and to explore the ways in which poetry can help us better understand one another. Through its expansion as a syndicated radio program, the show will reach a wider audience, which speaks directly to Smith’s mission as the country’s ambassador of poetry.

Currently serving her second term as the nation’s twenty-second poet laureate, Smith has launched several initiatives during her post that focus on increasing poetry’s accessibility and readership, specifically in rural America: Her 2018 American Conversations tour, for instance, involved traveling to different cities and towns across the country, giving poetry readings and leading discussions about poetry with communities at libraries, senior centers, churches, and elsewhere. “I’m excited to continue the work I’ve done as poet laureate in celebrating poems and the conversations they foster,” Smith said of the podcast in a press release. “And thanks to technology’s ability to collapse the distance between people—to give you the feeling that there is one person out there speaking directly and only to you—geography is no longer a barrier to participation. I think this is a perfect medium for talking about the very real and natural ways that poems speak to the daily experience of being alive.”

Apart from her work as poet laureate, Smith teaches creative writing at Princeton University and is the author of four books of poetry, including most recently Wade in the Water (Graywolf, 2018) and Life on Mars (Graywolf, 2011), which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her memoir, Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015), was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in nonfiction. Read a Poets & Writers Magazine profile of Smith, “Far From Ordinary,” on the release of her memoir. 

 

Sarah Ahmad is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.

Tracy K. Smith (Credit: Christy Whitney)

Three Poets Laureate: Lightning Rods for Poetry

by

Nick Narbutas

6.17.15

The title of poet laureate is one of the highest honors a poet can hold, but beyond the honor, the post can mean a variety of things. The United States has a national poet laureate, forty state poets laureate, and countless more at the local level, in dozens of cities and towns across the country. All of these offices are overseen by different organizations, from the Library of Congress to local arts councils, and almost none of them have a universally agreed-upon definition of the title. Some have launched initiatives to bring poetry to the classroom, while others have sent poets themselves to the schools. Robert Pinsky asked Americans to send him their favorite poems, while Ted Kooser told the country about his favorites. We talked to three poets laureate—Luis J. Rodriguez, the current poet laureate of Los Angeles; Joseph Bathanti, the former poet laureate of North Carolina; and Natasha Trethewey, the former poet laureate of the United States and current poet laureate of Mississippi—to find out exactly what the title means to them. While they each have a different take, all three shared a common mission: to go out into the community (whether that be a city, a state, or the entire country) and talk to people about poetry and explore the influence it can have on our lives.

Luis J. Rodriguez
Los Angeles Poet Laureate, 2014–2016

The author of nine books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, most recently the memoir It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing, published by Touchstone in 2011. His most recent poetry collection is My Nature Is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, published by Curbstone Books in 2005.

Before becoming the second poet laureate of Los Angeles, you founded a cultural center, helped start an organization for at-risk youth, worked in gang intervention, and campaigned for urban peace, actually helping to broker peace agreements between warring gangs. As poet laureate, what do you envision as your main project? How will this differ from the extensive work you’ve done in the past? Does the position afford you resources you didn’t have before?
I have forty years of experiences working with troubled youth, in gangs and outside of gangs, for urban peace…for a healthy and clean environment, against poverty, and for social justice. This makes me a unique addition to the poet laureate tradition. Poets laureate are supposed to sing the praises of rulers, kings, queens, or the state; I [want to] sing the beauty and bounty of Los Angeles, but also point out its faults, such as income inequality, [how it is] both the poorest county in the country and one of the richest. My goal is beauty, truth, and the good.  

But to do that I have to address the darkness as well as be a beacon for what’s possible, to consider new ways of thinking, living, and relating. An aim then is to use words, images, sound, and movement to convey the parameters of a just, equitable, and free world. However, I don’t want to make this position a “bully pulpit.” While I have a lot to say, and much to decry, I will do this with dignity, responsibly and artfully. There is far more good in Los Angeles, and from here the threads of a caring, cooperative, and fully conscious governance and economy should be imagined and created. 

All this informs what I plan to do as poet laureate, including establishing and/or taking part in at least six city-wide events a year; facilitating workshops with youth and neglected communities; visiting and incorporating as many venues, open mics, and important spaces as possible; and, of course, writing poems. I will also work with others—the Mayor’s office, the City Council, the Department of Cultural Affairs, the L.A. Public Library system, community organizations, and more—to help poetry and the arts explode everywhere. I have always been doing this; now I can continue and magnify my life’s work by other means. I’m eager to use whatever resources this position may afford me to do just that.

You’ve also run for public office—including governor of California—a couple of times. Do you consider the office of poet laureate to be a political position? Do your personal politics inform the way you plan to operate as poet laureate?
Everything I do is intertwined with politics. But I can discern the difference between running for political office, which is ultimately about governance, and being a poet laureate, which I see as being representative of a vast and diverse city with many voices, stories, flavors, and tongues. Mayor Eric Garcetti is moving in the right direction by addressing minimum wage, the environment, and the arts. Politically we may agree. But I’m aware that I have to be careful of how I use this position—neither to be the mayor’s “water boy” nor to seek occasions to attack him. Mostly I want to look outward, to people and their everyday concerns. 

By its nature, poetry can address any and all issues, including governance. It is also a highly personal and revealing art form. I aim to help bring poetry to the center of our culture. Presently, poetry in our city, state, and country is highly marginalized, concentrated in a few hands; it’s not promoted and mostly unused. People are much more engaged in popular culture, sports teams, video games, reality shows, celebrity gossip—which is all entertaining, but very much pushed on the rest of us. There’s big money in this. Poetry is not that easily appropriated. You don’t need an industry to do poetry. Anyone is capable. Poetry, like most art, is internal. Provide skills, mentoring, and cultural spaces, and poetry can come alive for anyone. 

Poetry is deep soul talk, truth derived, and therefore immanently scary. It’s a prophetic act, not in the sense that poetry or art “predicts” the future, but that it pulls from the threads of the past, the dynamics of the present, to point to a future free of uncertainties and inequities. I [want to use] my assignment as poet laureate to emphasize the healing and revolutionary qualities of poetry to a city hungry for authenticity and personal authority. Therefore, my politics, ideas, and experiences inform this position; I’ve also taken into account the particular limits and requirements of being poet laureate. They are not contradictory.

I’m curious about this idea of poetry being both healing and revolutionarycan you say more about that?
I found poetry to be healing in my life. Without pressures from teachers, I wrote my heart out as a teenager in jails, in the street, but mostly in a small room next to the family garage that I stayed in until age eighteen. I became expressive, emotive, revealing—unlike the stammering and inarticulate noises of a sensitive and shy child. For me, writing became inseparable from spiritual and psychological growth. As a raging young man, writing provided a powerful outlet. All rage ultimately has roots in deep grief. I tapped into this as well. That’s why many therapists use writing in their treatments. I don’t claim that poetry is a full treatment program, but it’s therapeutic nonetheless. And in thirty-five years of doing workshops in schools, prisons, juvenile lockups, migrant camps, homeless shelters, Native American reservations, universities, and colleges, I’ve seen the power of writing and poetry to awaken the dream of one’s life.

Later when I decided to make writing a profession, I went back to school to learn grammar, spelling, and syntax. These are invaluable. These helped me sharpen the three aspects of any great art: clarity, gravity, and integrity. These are also aspects of a developed life. Yet they are not necessary to draw stories, imaginings, fears, and hopes from the most reticent of audiences.

The revolutionary nature has much to do with poets being the truth-tellers of the culture. They are the first to point out that the “emperor has no clothes”—or that a society at its core is bankrupt. Poets do this artfully—with powerful images, interesting language, and a musical sense. In addition, expanding any concept of revolution, it is also of the mind, the heart, and culture. Revolution is for the right kind of change to re-balance the right kind of inequity. Not simply ideological, but tied to objective and palpable needs. Poetry, like all art, can be politically and humanly charged. I’m for that, challenged also by the nature of the art.

You also mentioned the limits and requirements of being poet laureate. What do you consider those limits and requirements to be?
So far the requirements are basic: Enhance the presence and appreciation of poetry and the literary arts in Los Angeles by engaging with the community in all its diversity, [through] a number of readings, workshops, and events; honor historic L.A. writers; and create new work. There’s a plan for a monthly blog on the city’s website, and I can write one or more commemorative poems to Los Angeles. Of course, I can do more—anthologies, publications, social media outreach, my own blogs and podcasts. My aim is to go broader and deeper. I [want to] be keenly aware of social mores, differences, and a general sense of propriety. I personally won’t use inappropriate language or insulting and divisive images. As long as I’m in this position, I won’t lend my name to political office seekers or be used for commercial purposes. Be that as it may, I will address as many issues as I can with dignity. I will assert my voice and help create spaces for more voices, ideas, and stories to be heard. I will continue to speak out, but as delicately and artfully as I can. This is a great responsibility and opportunity, not to be squandered or misused. And as I’ve stated before, this position should also not be so limiting that I can’t be who I’ve been most of my life—a revolutionary thinker, activist and truth-teller.

In terms of writing poems to Los Angeles, is there any pressure on you to write poems portraying the city in a positive light, to gloss over its problems? Or, in a more general sense, is there an expectation that you write a certain kind of poem?
Mayor Eric Garcetti chose me knowing I’ve spoken my heart, written about hard, dark things, run for office, and fought for a just world. There is no pressure to write poems that make L.A. appear more—or less—than what it is.

Though you’ve spent most of your life in Los Angeles, you also lived in Chicago for a number of years. How do you view the two cities? Did you see similarities between the communities? Is the role of poetry different in Chicago than in LA?
I see Chicago as my second home. I was enmeshed in Chicago politics, youth work, and poetry for fifteen years. I started Tia Chucha Press, a small cross-cultural poetry publisher, in Chicago—it’s now the publishing wing of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. Even my most famous “L.A.” book, Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., was published while I was in Chicago. On the surface, Los Angeles and Chicago are as different as two cities can be. Chicago is Midwestern, compact, flat, old, with three-story flats, and home to amazing blues, jazz, and the now world-renowned poetry slams. But the similarities are striking. They are both the largest manufacturing centers of the country. Chicago is known for its meatpacking yards, steel mills, and trains. But L.A. also had meatpacking, steel mills, auto plants, aerospace industries, a massive harbor, garment plants, canneries, and more (I worked in many of those industries as a young man).

Unfortunately, most people think L.A.’s industry is solely in Hollywood. During the de-industrialization that first struck the U.S. in the mid-1970s, picking up steam in the 80s and 90s, both cities got hit hard. For four decades, L.A. and Chicago have been the country’s gang capitals, mostly generating armies of economically strapped youth during this de-industrialization process when the trade in drugs and guns took the place of industrial-based work. Chicago today has more gang violence, but for years L.A. led in this area. Both Chicago and L.A. have been active in “squeezing” black and brown communities through versions of gang injunctions, gentrification, and high rents, forcing many poor to move to suburbs or outlying communities and states. But L.A. has been more successful at this, including massive deportations of Mexicans and Central Americans. Because of these two cities, I’m working-class in my ideology, writings, work ethic, and make-up—in my blood.

As for poetry, Chicago sparked a literary explosion in the mid-1980s that has moved across the country and other parts of the world, including slam poetry. I took part in this phenomenon not long after it began at the Green Mill Lounge in Uptown. I moved to Chicago in 1985 and in three years I became integral to this, as cofounder of the Guild Complex and cofounder of the Neutral Turf Poetry Festival, which at one time brought three thousand people to the city’s lakefront. I was even on the first slam poetry tour of Europe in 1993. I was at the heart of this particular brand of performance poetry that also included poetry bands, poetry videos, poetry theater, and more.

I also did writing workshops in homeless shelters, prisons, and juvenile lockups. And I worked as a journalist and editor, primarily in community newspapers, magazines, and radio. In addition, I pioneered gang intervention work through Youth Struggling for Survival, the Increase the Peace Network, and the Humboldt Park Teen Reach Program. When I returned to Los Angeles in 2000, I took this spirit and experience with me. This became the catalyst for the creation of Tia Chucha’s—in thirteen years we’ve raised more than a million dollars for community-based multi-arts training and presentation.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement—as a writer, an activist, or a community organizer—so far?
I can’t say any area is more valuable or more appreciated. I am every one of these—writer, activist, organizer—and I’ll add father, husband, elder, teacher. However, I incorporate them as a whole. For example, my writing cannot exist outside of activism, family, and community. Because I’ve been largely fractured, with various aspects of myself at odds with one another, it’s important for me to be keenly aware of this process. Any achievement I’ve had as a writer is integrated with revolutionary ideas and actions. Being L.A.’s poet laureate, given to me largely because of my development as a poet, my discipline, my contribution to spreading the power of poetry, is inextricable from being a long-time change agent. Not change [as in], “Let’s do something different” (though this can be part of it), but what needs to be changed in order to align. In my personal life it was for my emotional, spiritual, psychological, creative, and physical aspects to align to the dream of my life—to my gifts, my passions, what I was inherently born to do. I had to change addictive, raging, and impulsive dispositions in my nature. For society it’s aligning to the regenerative capacities of the earth and of people—which means having the right relationships so both can thrive. Presently we are not aligned this way in society or in our governance. This means changing those characteristics of the post-industrial capitalist world that tear away at the healing qualities of earth and people. So while I may emphasize poetry these next two years, including the vitality of poetry in anyone’s life, the underlying motives are these alignments—both for the short and the long range; for the immediate demands, and for our future.

Joseph Bathanti
North Carolina Poet Laureate, 2012–2014

The author of fourteen books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, most recently the novel The Life of the World to Come, published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2014. His most recent poetry collection is Concertina, published by Mercer University Press in 2013.

You initially moved to North Carolina as part of the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. How did this experience shape the sort of poet and teacher—and, by extension, poet laureate—you would go on to become?
When I arrived as a VISTA volunteer in North Carolina, in 1976, recently out of graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, I was burning to write, though I hadn’t really engaged in it with the kind of steadiness necessary to pile up pages. By happenstance, I was assigned as a VISTA to the North Carolina Department of Corrections and spent the next fourteen months, more or less, in a cell block or on a prison yard—mainly at Huntersville Prison, about twelve miles north of Charlotte—immersed in the tangle of things related to incarceration and reentry.

Prison is a place of extremes where very dramatic things happen by the moment. Young writers often harp about not having anything to write about, but suddenly I was handed a trove of material. Thus I started writing, rather obsessively, about the surreal world of prison. What’s more, my first foray into teaching began in prisons. One of the first things I did as a new VISTA was to organize informal writing workshops in the trailer [connected to] the prison that served as the de facto classroom. I’d supply the guys with a prompt, they’d read what they wrote, and then we’d kick it around. I was also able to put together a couple of saddle-stitched anthologies that featured their poems, stories, and artwork.

I wasn’t thinking at all, back then, that those weekly sessions in that too-hot or too-cold trailer might be therapeutic for the prisoners. It hadn’t occurred to me in those terms, nor had the big conversation about the indisputable benefit of writing in dealing with various sorts of trauma been initiated on a widespread scale. I initiated those sessions because I saw them as extensions of my own desire to write and as a way to contribute to the VISTA project. I became, of course, mystified and intoxicated by the stories those men had to tell and the manner in which they told them. I also launched into reading everything I could get my hands on about prison, especially poetry and fiction.

When asked to recapitulate my career, I always say that my first teaching job was in a prison, and in the narrowest sense this is true. More importantly, my VISTA assignment and teaching in prison were not only the beginning of my own education, but the true genesis of my writing life.

I discovered in VISTA that prisons are but one shackle in the ponderous chain of group homes, halfway houses, soup kitchens, mental hospitals, women’s shelters, juvenile detention centers, and homeless shelters. The same characters show up in each script. It’s no secret that all social ills are intimately connected, but it’s something I had to learn by seeing for myself. I became not only aware of the vast subculture of poverty and affliction, but also of the often invisible network of agencies, organizations, and socially [engaged], charitable individuals committed to helping the kinds of folks who find themselves in such places.

The philosopher and theologian Thomas Moore said, “Deep changes in life follow movements in imagination.” As a result of being not only with prison inmates daily, but also in close proximity to the community of mercy which inevitably responds to suffering, I experienced a radical shift in my imagination. Revealed to me was a rare and secret world and I was an eyewitness to it. Not only was it consciousness-raising, it was life-changing.

As North Carolina’s poet laureate, I was interested in getting in front of every citizen of the state I could manage to visit, but I was also especially keen on visiting those people and those regions of the state—very rural and/or underserved—that did not have regular access to writers and literature, including the populations my service in VISTA revealed to me.

It seems like the act of teaching writing lay at the heart of your work as poet laureate, especially in your signature project of working with returning veterans and their families. How did this go for you? Did you have any specific goals or hopes in mind for the project, and were they achieved?
Ultimately, teaching is at the heart of a poet laureate’s service. A solid poet laureate, certainly at the state level, has to be a teacher, an educator. It’s a job that demands a decided pedagogical range to work with all kinds of folks in unimaginably diverse locales—not to mention all the planning and preparation that goes into it all. Traditionally North Carolina poets laureate spend a considerable amount of time in K–12 schools, cheerleading not only for the children, but for those embattled, dedicated, hard-working teachers who ensure that writing and reading endure. That same kind of teaching by the poet laureate also occurs in county libraries, community colleges, universities, churches, shelters, and hospitals. The laureateship in North Carolina remains, I’m pleased to say, a grass-roots service position.

When I declared my signature project as poet laureate—to work with military veterans, those returning from combat and others, and involve their families whenever possible, to tell their stories through poetry and other genres—I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I’m dramatically smarter today about the issues plaguing veterans and their families than I was thirty-two months ago, when I declared my aim to pursue that work, but I’m still very much on the front end of that apprenticeship.

Since then, I’ve taught at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, the Veterans Writing Project summer workshops at George Washington University, and a number of other venues. But, primarily, my work with vets and their families has been in North Carolina. There is nothing terribly fancy about what I do. In the main, I walk into those places and simply talk to those folks for a while, then ask them to talk, and then I ask them to write—not necessarily about their wartime experiences, but inevitably that’s exactly what they end up writing about. And the writing these sessions yield is always breathtaking.

At the outset of my project, I had hoped to launch a statewide initiative, to create a model that would be perpetuated beyond my tenure as poet laureate. I don’t think anything quite that ambitious was ever achieved, in a codified sense. Yet—because of my work, in part, and the attention the North Carolina Arts Council focused on it, and other like-minded agencies and committed folks that rallied to the cause—I do think there was a certain amount of concentrated attention devoted to vets and their families and how writing and other arts can be implemented to not only bring to light their stories, but also to assist them as they deal with the often debilitating fallout associated with deployment.

Again, I cannot at all take credit for this. So many terrific initiatives were already in place or in the process of taking hold when I was appointed poet laureate in 2012. I more or less became a focal point for the crucial intersection among vets, their families, and writing. The North Carolina Arts Council took up that torch, spread the word, and paved the way. Essentially, I mimicked what others had hatched before me. And I reached out initially for help, notably and especially to Ron Capps, founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project in D.C., and Donald Anderson, editor of War, Literature & the Arts, at the Air Force Academy.

In your essay “Ghostwriting,” you mention an aspect of teaching creative writing in prisons that I would think carries over to working with veterans as well: “In prison there are certain stories you simply do not criticize; to do so would be an epic breach of etiquette. Disrespect. Like you didn’t get it.” This can sometimes feel true even in more traditional creative writing settings, when someone shares a piece that is too real, too much from the heart, to be given the normal workshop critique. In these situations, what services are left for a writing teacher to provide?
There are times when a writing teacher’s number-one task is to get the heck out of the way. I’m thinking primarily of the work I’ve done with prisoners and veterans—and I taught for a year in a battered women’s shelter—but also students of mine at the university. These folks might be taking their very first crack at articulating how they really feel about subjects that are often explosive and intimate—things they’ve kept hidden inside, possibly for years—in language, on paper, with strangers in the room.

They are suddenly exposed. It’s terrifically dangerous terrain. The teacher’s initial job is to get them to write anything, to assure them they have something to say in the first place, that they indeed have stories worthy of being told and listened to. Worrying about whether it’s good or not can come later—the assessment part, the craft part. Critical appraisal at this point is irrelevant. What’s more, their presence in such a class—especially in the case of vets and prisoners (and other immured populations)—might be a one-shot deal. The teacher has to ensure, through his very measured response, that he does not convince them that they were fools to put pen to paper in the first place.

The fact that certain folks even show up in a class or workshop strikes me as poignant. It’s not about style. It’s like being in church. You don’t criticize the style of someone’s prayer. You don’t tell someone who’s learning to talk again after a four-decade silence—as in the case of some Vietnam vets I’ve had in classes—that he’s going about it improperly. A hush pervades the room when one of these silent sealed vets—or anyone—elects finally and mysteriously to open up. The first draft sometimes is a wail, a keen—what Whitman called that barbaric yawp—and it tends to look very different on the outside than it did on the inside. And once it’s out, it can’t be called back. The teacher’s crucial goal with beginning writers, in any setting, is to keep them talking, keep them writing—until what’s too raw, too hot, seasons and cools. So you have to be pretty darned careful with any kind of knee-jerk qualitative judgment. The teacher’s job, initially, in these instances, is to back off, and get invisible in a hurry, and simply listen.

When Valerie Macon was appointed as your successor, there was an uproar over her perceived lack of qualifications and the governor’s rejection of the traditional nomination process, causing her to step down less than a week later. One positive that came out of the situation was the revelation that North Carolina really does care about its poet laureate. It’s obviously much more than a ceremonial role or an empty political gesture. What about the state and its poets do you think fosters that attitude?
The uproar that ensued as a result of Valerie Macon’s appointment was triggered by a number of things, chiefly the fact that the long-standing process that had been in place to select North Carolina’s poet laureate was completely ignored. A great deal has been written about that fiasco, and everybody, everywhere, knows about it, so I won’t beat that straw man anymore. However, there was a terrifically positive side to that uproar. North Carolina poets and writers and readers sent out the message loud and clear that the poet laureate post in North Carolina matters very much to them and, by extension, and more importantly, that the cherished integrity of North Carolina’s legacy of writing and literature is something very much worth fighting for.

We often hear the word community used to describe a body of writers; and, in truth, the community of North Carolina writers is the real thing, not merely a rhetorical community. The writers of this state tend to know one another and support one another and care about one another; and, without getting too saccharine, there’s much about that community that’s familial. It’s a big state, but the literary community is very connected. It’s like a union. What’s more, the legacy of North Carolina and its writers, current and past, are supported and celebrated in every county in the state, in large places and very small places—in public schools, colleges and universities, community colleges, public libraries, local arts councils, and bookstores.

Of course, as in any other state, there are tiers and hierarchies among the writers here, but nothing elitist or hegemonic, nothing cutthroat. When I first arrived in North Carolina, thirty-eight years ago—a Pittsburgh Italian Yankee—the only writing credential I had was my yearning. I could not have been treated any more generously, any more graciously, by the established writers here. They nurtured me. They welcomed me into their ranks. And I really do believe that spirit of generosity, of inclusiveness, has continued to earmark North Carolina as the best place to be a writer. That’s certainly been my experience.

What rankled me more than anything during the flap over Valerie Macon’s appointment were the charges—from those folks who thought having a poet laureate was superfluous—that the post was “honorary,” “ceremonial,” “symbolic.” These were three words used to describe the appointment. Nothing is further from the truth. Poets laureate in North Carolina get in their cars and travel to the people. They show up everywhere. I made upwards of three hundred appearances during my tenure as poet laureate. I’ve said before that I don’t want a medal. It was my honor. But I do want to underscore that I took all my cues from my North Carolina poet laureate predecessors, the tradition of pride and service they exemplified, and the trails they blazed ahead of me.

In recent years, there’s been a proliferation of poet laureate positions in the country. Most states appoint a poet laureate, and many cities do as well. What do you think is behind this surge in the desire to name an “official” poet of a region?
The surge in poet laureate posts has been prompted, I’d assume, by the surge in poetry, of all stripes, all across the country. Such proliferation is another indication of the health of poetry and its democratization among, hopefully, the working class and the most marginalized citizens, folks who perhaps do not have ready access to poetry—and here I’m thinking about my own childhood and the very working class, ethnic neighborhood in Pittsburgh where I grew up.

State poets laureate work very hard, but realistically can reach only so many people; and, again, my chief concern is that poets laureate maintain a vibrant visible presence among public school children as well as various immured populations—among everyone. The appointment of city, town, and county poets laureate certainly instigates dialogue and activities (workshops, readings, classes, you name it) that zero in on poetry in specific communities and spread the benefits of poetry as avenues to the obvious art of reading and writing and performing poetry, its timeless culture and appreciation, the enjoyment, the fun, that it provides. But those kinds of activities and dialogue also underscore essential keys to life enhancement: literacy, critical thinking, cultural awareness, community solidarity, and the groundedness and self-esteem that familiarity with one’s own stories—in one’s own language—and their importance brings.

Poets laureate who are from—in every sense of the word—those communities that appoint them (urban and rural, enormous and tiny)—who know and live among their target audiences—have a cachet that creates extraordinary groundswells around poetry in a particular locale. What’s more, the nominal dollars invested in launching these grassroots poet laureate programs repay those dollars exponentially in healthier, safer, and more rooted communities.

 

 

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Natasha Trethewey
United States Poet Laureate, 2012­–2014
Mississippi Poet Laureate, 2012–2016

The author of five collections of poetry, most recently Thrall, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2012.

Could you talk about your signature project as the U.S. poet laureate, “Where Poetry Lives?” What were your goals behind that project?
Well, just what the title says: to show how and where poetry lives in the United States. How people are making use of poetry in their everyday lives in order to contend with all sorts of social issues. For example, we went to the juvenile detention facility in Seattle and looked at a program called Pongo there that uses poetry with incarcerated teens, as well as with homeless teens who are often coming to the homeless shelter after being released from a juvenile facility.

Do you feel like the project was a success? Or was there anything you would do differently now?
Oh, I think it was wonderful. We hit such a wide variety of places, from a juvenile detention facility to Harvard Medical School, where the poet [and physician] Rafael Campo believes in teaching poetry to interns because it helps make better doctors. It helps make physicians better able to treat the whole patient—physicians who have more empathy. We also [visited] an MFA program in Los Angeles that has a service component as part of its curriculum where the graduate students go out and find ways to bring poetry into their communities.

Could you talk a bit about your office-hours project? It had been a while since a poet laureate had held office hours before, right?
Right, not since the position was a consultantship, before it became the laureateship [in 1985]. I thought of it because, when I was named poet laureate, one of the things that happened was newspapers called and asked, “What’s your project going to be?” And I doubt that most people are sitting around thinking, “When I get named poet laureate, this is what I’m going to do.” So of course I didn’t have a project in mind, and it occurred to me that since the Library of Congress thinks of the poet laureate position as a “lightning rod” for poetry in America, and that the role that they like to see the laureate take on is to bring poetry to a wider audience, I wanted to figure out how best to do that. And it seemed to me that one of the best ways was to talk to people about the role of poetry in their lives and to see how they imagined poetry could be brought to a wider audience in the country. And so that’s why I decided to open my office and invite people in to talk to me about just that.

And through these meetings, by talking to people about poetry in this way, did you feel like you learned about what was happening in poetry in America?
I did. You know, every few years an article comes out in the Wall Street Journal or other places about how nobody cares about poetry and it doesn’t mean anything. We hear that again and again, and yet that was not the case at all when I met with people, from all walks of life, who came in to talk about what poetry means to them, and how it is important. And so I learned with even more conviction that poetry is alive and well and matters to people in this country.

What kinds of people were coming in to meet with you?
Everybody, really. I had everybody from groups of schoolchildren to senior citizens, writing groups who either got together because of a fellowship program at their church or at their senior community center. I think someone who was a lobbyist in Washington came. I should have made a list of all the different kinds of people, but it was just people who did all sorts of things. Sometimes it was researchers or people writing about poetry, or other poets themselves, or college students. It was a big list of people who were very different. But all lovers of poetry.

You once said in an interview for PBS NewsHour that you considered the role of poet laureate to be as a “cheerleader for poetry.”
[Laughs.] Oh, yes, I did say that, didn’t I?

I was wondering if you could expand a little more on what you meant by that. You also said that part of the role is to be a promoter. How do you feel like you as a poet laureate can promote or be a cheerleader for poetry?
Yeah, you know, that’s one of the funniest things I think I ever said. If only I’d said ‘advocate,’ or ‘ambassador,’ or something more dignified. [Laughs.] But I just had to come on record and say that the University of Georgia, when I was in college, I was head cheerleader. Yes I was. And I think I had been talking to Rob Casper right before I went in to speak with [PBS NewsHour’s] Jeff Brown—Rob is the head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. He is, to use another one of those phrases, like an Energizer bunny. He has so much energy that he gets me kind of hyped. And so we were sitting there, getting excited about what we were going to do about poetry, and then I go in [to the interview] and say, “I want to be a cheerleader for poetry!”

But I guess in some ways it’s not that silly. It’s a very plain way of saying that I have great enthusiasm for poetry and I want to share that with other people in ways that gets them enthusiastic about it, too. That’s what a cheerleader does.

During your tenure as U.S. poet laureate, you had also begun serving your four-year term as the state poet laureate of Mississippi. How do those two roles differ, in your experience?
Well, because I was doing both at the same time, a lot of my focus was drawn to the national level. And so I did the kinds of things that I did on the state level, which are of course ongoing, because I have two more years on my term. I participated in, for example, going to the state house, the capital, in Jackson on the day that they promote the arts, where various arts groups come to talk to the state senators and people in the house about the roles of arts in our lives. And so I was there to participate in that and to promote the arts and poetry in the state of Mississippi. I’ve also done other events, readings and other kinds of visits in the state. Not as much as what I was doing on the national level.

What has been your greatest challenge during your time as poet laureate?
Oh, goodness. That’s a good question. I’ve only had the opportunity to talk about the things that have been the greatest rewards of it. Well, I suppose the greatest challenge for me would have been that, because I wanted to be an advocate and because I wanted to see the role as a public service position, I occupied a very public place for those two terms and I traveled a lot and I did a lot of things and it made it harder for me to have the quiet time that a poet needs to write poems. So my biggest challenge was finding time to also still be a poet—not just an advocate for poetry, but a working poet who could sit down and have some time to write poems.

Nick Narbutas is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.

Three Poets Laureate: Lightning Rods for Poetry

by

Nick Narbutas

6.17.15

The title of poet laureate is one of the highest honors a poet can hold, but beyond the honor, the post can mean a variety of things. The United States has a national poet laureate, forty state poets laureate, and countless more at the local level, in dozens of cities and towns across the country. All of these offices are overseen by different organizations, from the Library of Congress to local arts councils, and almost none of them have a universally agreed-upon definition of the title. Some have launched initiatives to bring poetry to the classroom, while others have sent poets themselves to the schools. Robert Pinsky asked Americans to send him their favorite poems, while Ted Kooser told the country about his favorites. We talked to three poets laureate—Luis J. Rodriguez, the current poet laureate of Los Angeles; Joseph Bathanti, the former poet laureate of North Carolina; and Natasha Trethewey, the former poet laureate of the United States and current poet laureate of Mississippi—to find out exactly what the title means to them. While they each have a different take, all three shared a common mission: to go out into the community (whether that be a city, a state, or the entire country) and talk to people about poetry and explore the influence it can have on our lives.

Luis J. Rodriguez
Los Angeles Poet Laureate, 2014–2016

The author of nine books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, most recently the memoir It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing, published by Touchstone in 2011. His most recent poetry collection is My Nature Is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, published by Curbstone Books in 2005.

Before becoming the second poet laureate of Los Angeles, you founded a cultural center, helped start an organization for at-risk youth, worked in gang intervention, and campaigned for urban peace, actually helping to broker peace agreements between warring gangs. As poet laureate, what do you envision as your main project? How will this differ from the extensive work you’ve done in the past? Does the position afford you resources you didn’t have before?
I have forty years of experiences working with troubled youth, in gangs and outside of gangs, for urban peace…for a healthy and clean environment, against poverty, and for social justice. This makes me a unique addition to the poet laureate tradition. Poets laureate are supposed to sing the praises of rulers, kings, queens, or the state; I [want to] sing the beauty and bounty of Los Angeles, but also point out its faults, such as income inequality, [how it is] both the poorest county in the country and one of the richest. My goal is beauty, truth, and the good.  

But to do that I have to address the darkness as well as be a beacon for what’s possible, to consider new ways of thinking, living, and relating. An aim then is to use words, images, sound, and movement to convey the parameters of a just, equitable, and free world. However, I don’t want to make this position a “bully pulpit.” While I have a lot to say, and much to decry, I will do this with dignity, responsibly and artfully. There is far more good in Los Angeles, and from here the threads of a caring, cooperative, and fully conscious governance and economy should be imagined and created. 

All this informs what I plan to do as poet laureate, including establishing and/or taking part in at least six city-wide events a year; facilitating workshops with youth and neglected communities; visiting and incorporating as many venues, open mics, and important spaces as possible; and, of course, writing poems. I will also work with others—the Mayor’s office, the City Council, the Department of Cultural Affairs, the L.A. Public Library system, community organizations, and more—to help poetry and the arts explode everywhere. I have always been doing this; now I can continue and magnify my life’s work by other means. I’m eager to use whatever resources this position may afford me to do just that.

You’ve also run for public office—including governor of California—a couple of times. Do you consider the office of poet laureate to be a political position? Do your personal politics inform the way you plan to operate as poet laureate?
Everything I do is intertwined with politics. But I can discern the difference between running for political office, which is ultimately about governance, and being a poet laureate, which I see as being representative of a vast and diverse city with many voices, stories, flavors, and tongues. Mayor Eric Garcetti is moving in the right direction by addressing minimum wage, the environment, and the arts. Politically we may agree. But I’m aware that I have to be careful of how I use this position—neither to be the mayor’s “water boy” nor to seek occasions to attack him. Mostly I want to look outward, to people and their everyday concerns. 

By its nature, poetry can address any and all issues, including governance. It is also a highly personal and revealing art form. I aim to help bring poetry to the center of our culture. Presently, poetry in our city, state, and country is highly marginalized, concentrated in a few hands; it’s not promoted and mostly unused. People are much more engaged in popular culture, sports teams, video games, reality shows, celebrity gossip—which is all entertaining, but very much pushed on the rest of us. There’s big money in this. Poetry is not that easily appropriated. You don’t need an industry to do poetry. Anyone is capable. Poetry, like most art, is internal. Provide skills, mentoring, and cultural spaces, and poetry can come alive for anyone. 

Poetry is deep soul talk, truth derived, and therefore immanently scary. It’s a prophetic act, not in the sense that poetry or art “predicts” the future, but that it pulls from the threads of the past, the dynamics of the present, to point to a future free of uncertainties and inequities. I [want to use] my assignment as poet laureate to emphasize the healing and revolutionary qualities of poetry to a city hungry for authenticity and personal authority. Therefore, my politics, ideas, and experiences inform this position; I’ve also taken into account the particular limits and requirements of being poet laureate. They are not contradictory.

I’m curious about this idea of poetry being both healing and revolutionarycan you say more about that?
I found poetry to be healing in my life. Without pressures from teachers, I wrote my heart out as a teenager in jails, in the street, but mostly in a small room next to the family garage that I stayed in until age eighteen. I became expressive, emotive, revealing—unlike the stammering and inarticulate noises of a sensitive and shy child. For me, writing became inseparable from spiritual and psychological growth. As a raging young man, writing provided a powerful outlet. All rage ultimately has roots in deep grief. I tapped into this as well. That’s why many therapists use writing in their treatments. I don’t claim that poetry is a full treatment program, but it’s therapeutic nonetheless. And in thirty-five years of doing workshops in schools, prisons, juvenile lockups, migrant camps, homeless shelters, Native American reservations, universities, and colleges, I’ve seen the power of writing and poetry to awaken the dream of one’s life.

Later when I decided to make writing a profession, I went back to school to learn grammar, spelling, and syntax. These are invaluable. These helped me sharpen the three aspects of any great art: clarity, gravity, and integrity. These are also aspects of a developed life. Yet they are not necessary to draw stories, imaginings, fears, and hopes from the most reticent of audiences.

The revolutionary nature has much to do with poets being the truth-tellers of the culture. They are the first to point out that the “emperor has no clothes”—or that a society at its core is bankrupt. Poets do this artfully—with powerful images, interesting language, and a musical sense. In addition, expanding any concept of revolution, it is also of the mind, the heart, and culture. Revolution is for the right kind of change to re-balance the right kind of inequity. Not simply ideological, but tied to objective and palpable needs. Poetry, like all art, can be politically and humanly charged. I’m for that, challenged also by the nature of the art.

You also mentioned the limits and requirements of being poet laureate. What do you consider those limits and requirements to be?
So far the requirements are basic: Enhance the presence and appreciation of poetry and the literary arts in Los Angeles by engaging with the community in all its diversity, [through] a number of readings, workshops, and events; honor historic L.A. writers; and create new work. There’s a plan for a monthly blog on the city’s website, and I can write one or more commemorative poems to Los Angeles. Of course, I can do more—anthologies, publications, social media outreach, my own blogs and podcasts. My aim is to go broader and deeper. I [want to] be keenly aware of social mores, differences, and a general sense of propriety. I personally won’t use inappropriate language or insulting and divisive images. As long as I’m in this position, I won’t lend my name to political office seekers or be used for commercial purposes. Be that as it may, I will address as many issues as I can with dignity. I will assert my voice and help create spaces for more voices, ideas, and stories to be heard. I will continue to speak out, but as delicately and artfully as I can. This is a great responsibility and opportunity, not to be squandered or misused. And as I’ve stated before, this position should also not be so limiting that I can’t be who I’ve been most of my life—a revolutionary thinker, activist and truth-teller.

In terms of writing poems to Los Angeles, is there any pressure on you to write poems portraying the city in a positive light, to gloss over its problems? Or, in a more general sense, is there an expectation that you write a certain kind of poem?
Mayor Eric Garcetti chose me knowing I’ve spoken my heart, written about hard, dark things, run for office, and fought for a just world. There is no pressure to write poems that make L.A. appear more—or less—than what it is.

Though you’ve spent most of your life in Los Angeles, you also lived in Chicago for a number of years. How do you view the two cities? Did you see similarities between the communities? Is the role of poetry different in Chicago than in LA?
I see Chicago as my second home. I was enmeshed in Chicago politics, youth work, and poetry for fifteen years. I started Tia Chucha Press, a small cross-cultural poetry publisher, in Chicago—it’s now the publishing wing of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. Even my most famous “L.A.” book, Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., was published while I was in Chicago. On the surface, Los Angeles and Chicago are as different as two cities can be. Chicago is Midwestern, compact, flat, old, with three-story flats, and home to amazing blues, jazz, and the now world-renowned poetry slams. But the similarities are striking. They are both the largest manufacturing centers of the country. Chicago is known for its meatpacking yards, steel mills, and trains. But L.A. also had meatpacking, steel mills, auto plants, aerospace industries, a massive harbor, garment plants, canneries, and more (I worked in many of those industries as a young man).

Unfortunately, most people think L.A.’s industry is solely in Hollywood. During the de-industrialization that first struck the U.S. in the mid-1970s, picking up steam in the 80s and 90s, both cities got hit hard. For four decades, L.A. and Chicago have been the country’s gang capitals, mostly generating armies of economically strapped youth during this de-industrialization process when the trade in drugs and guns took the place of industrial-based work. Chicago today has more gang violence, but for years L.A. led in this area. Both Chicago and L.A. have been active in “squeezing” black and brown communities through versions of gang injunctions, gentrification, and high rents, forcing many poor to move to suburbs or outlying communities and states. But L.A. has been more successful at this, including massive deportations of Mexicans and Central Americans. Because of these two cities, I’m working-class in my ideology, writings, work ethic, and make-up—in my blood.

As for poetry, Chicago sparked a literary explosion in the mid-1980s that has moved across the country and other parts of the world, including slam poetry. I took part in this phenomenon not long after it began at the Green Mill Lounge in Uptown. I moved to Chicago in 1985 and in three years I became integral to this, as cofounder of the Guild Complex and cofounder of the Neutral Turf Poetry Festival, which at one time brought three thousand people to the city’s lakefront. I was even on the first slam poetry tour of Europe in 1993. I was at the heart of this particular brand of performance poetry that also included poetry bands, poetry videos, poetry theater, and more.

I also did writing workshops in homeless shelters, prisons, and juvenile lockups. And I worked as a journalist and editor, primarily in community newspapers, magazines, and radio. In addition, I pioneered gang intervention work through Youth Struggling for Survival, the Increase the Peace Network, and the Humboldt Park Teen Reach Program. When I returned to Los Angeles in 2000, I took this spirit and experience with me. This became the catalyst for the creation of Tia Chucha’s—in thirteen years we’ve raised more than a million dollars for community-based multi-arts training and presentation.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement—as a writer, an activist, or a community organizer—so far?
I can’t say any area is more valuable or more appreciated. I am every one of these—writer, activist, organizer—and I’ll add father, husband, elder, teacher. However, I incorporate them as a whole. For example, my writing cannot exist outside of activism, family, and community. Because I’ve been largely fractured, with various aspects of myself at odds with one another, it’s important for me to be keenly aware of this process. Any achievement I’ve had as a writer is integrated with revolutionary ideas and actions. Being L.A.’s poet laureate, given to me largely because of my development as a poet, my discipline, my contribution to spreading the power of poetry, is inextricable from being a long-time change agent. Not change [as in], “Let’s do something different” (though this can be part of it), but what needs to be changed in order to align. In my personal life it was for my emotional, spiritual, psychological, creative, and physical aspects to align to the dream of my life—to my gifts, my passions, what I was inherently born to do. I had to change addictive, raging, and impulsive dispositions in my nature. For society it’s aligning to the regenerative capacities of the earth and of people—which means having the right relationships so both can thrive. Presently we are not aligned this way in society or in our governance. This means changing those characteristics of the post-industrial capitalist world that tear away at the healing qualities of earth and people. So while I may emphasize poetry these next two years, including the vitality of poetry in anyone’s life, the underlying motives are these alignments—both for the short and the long range; for the immediate demands, and for our future.

Joseph Bathanti
North Carolina Poet Laureate, 2012–2014

The author of fourteen books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, most recently the novel The Life of the World to Come, published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2014. His most recent poetry collection is Concertina, published by Mercer University Press in 2013.

You initially moved to North Carolina as part of the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. How did this experience shape the sort of poet and teacher—and, by extension, poet laureate—you would go on to become?
When I arrived as a VISTA volunteer in North Carolina, in 1976, recently out of graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, I was burning to write, though I hadn’t really engaged in it with the kind of steadiness necessary to pile up pages. By happenstance, I was assigned as a VISTA to the North Carolina Department of Corrections and spent the next fourteen months, more or less, in a cell block or on a prison yard—mainly at Huntersville Prison, about twelve miles north of Charlotte—immersed in the tangle of things related to incarceration and reentry.

Prison is a place of extremes where very dramatic things happen by the moment. Young writers often harp about not having anything to write about, but suddenly I was handed a trove of material. Thus I started writing, rather obsessively, about the surreal world of prison. What’s more, my first foray into teaching began in prisons. One of the first things I did as a new VISTA was to organize informal writing workshops in the trailer [connected to] the prison that served as the de facto classroom. I’d supply the guys with a prompt, they’d read what they wrote, and then we’d kick it around. I was also able to put together a couple of saddle-stitched anthologies that featured their poems, stories, and artwork.

I wasn’t thinking at all, back then, that those weekly sessions in that too-hot or too-cold trailer might be therapeutic for the prisoners. It hadn’t occurred to me in those terms, nor had the big conversation about the indisputable benefit of writing in dealing with various sorts of trauma been initiated on a widespread scale. I initiated those sessions because I saw them as extensions of my own desire to write and as a way to contribute to the VISTA project. I became, of course, mystified and intoxicated by the stories those men had to tell and the manner in which they told them. I also launched into reading everything I could get my hands on about prison, especially poetry and fiction.

When asked to recapitulate my career, I always say that my first teaching job was in a prison, and in the narrowest sense this is true. More importantly, my VISTA assignment and teaching in prison were not only the beginning of my own education, but the true genesis of my writing life.

I discovered in VISTA that prisons are but one shackle in the ponderous chain of group homes, halfway houses, soup kitchens, mental hospitals, women’s shelters, juvenile detention centers, and homeless shelters. The same characters show up in each script. It’s no secret that all social ills are intimately connected, but it’s something I had to learn by seeing for myself. I became not only aware of the vast subculture of poverty and affliction, but also of the often invisible network of agencies, organizations, and socially [engaged], charitable individuals committed to helping the kinds of folks who find themselves in such places.

The philosopher and theologian Thomas Moore said, “Deep changes in life follow movements in imagination.” As a result of being not only with prison inmates daily, but also in close proximity to the community of mercy which inevitably responds to suffering, I experienced a radical shift in my imagination. Revealed to me was a rare and secret world and I was an eyewitness to it. Not only was it consciousness-raising, it was life-changing.

As North Carolina’s poet laureate, I was interested in getting in front of every citizen of the state I could manage to visit, but I was also especially keen on visiting those people and those regions of the state—very rural and/or underserved—that did not have regular access to writers and literature, including the populations my service in VISTA revealed to me.

It seems like the act of teaching writing lay at the heart of your work as poet laureate, especially in your signature project of working with returning veterans and their families. How did this go for you? Did you have any specific goals or hopes in mind for the project, and were they achieved?
Ultimately, teaching is at the heart of a poet laureate’s service. A solid poet laureate, certainly at the state level, has to be a teacher, an educator. It’s a job that demands a decided pedagogical range to work with all kinds of folks in unimaginably diverse locales—not to mention all the planning and preparation that goes into it all. Traditionally North Carolina poets laureate spend a considerable amount of time in K–12 schools, cheerleading not only for the children, but for those embattled, dedicated, hard-working teachers who ensure that writing and reading endure. That same kind of teaching by the poet laureate also occurs in county libraries, community colleges, universities, churches, shelters, and hospitals. The laureateship in North Carolina remains, I’m pleased to say, a grass-roots service position.

When I declared my signature project as poet laureate—to work with military veterans, those returning from combat and others, and involve their families whenever possible, to tell their stories through poetry and other genres—I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I’m dramatically smarter today about the issues plaguing veterans and their families than I was thirty-two months ago, when I declared my aim to pursue that work, but I’m still very much on the front end of that apprenticeship.

Since then, I’ve taught at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, the Veterans Writing Project summer workshops at George Washington University, and a number of other venues. But, primarily, my work with vets and their families has been in North Carolina. There is nothing terribly fancy about what I do. In the main, I walk into those places and simply talk to those folks for a while, then ask them to talk, and then I ask them to write—not necessarily about their wartime experiences, but inevitably that’s exactly what they end up writing about. And the writing these sessions yield is always breathtaking.

At the outset of my project, I had hoped to launch a statewide initiative, to create a model that would be perpetuated beyond my tenure as poet laureate. I don’t think anything quite that ambitious was ever achieved, in a codified sense. Yet—because of my work, in part, and the attention the North Carolina Arts Council focused on it, and other like-minded agencies and committed folks that rallied to the cause—I do think there was a certain amount of concentrated attention devoted to vets and their families and how writing and other arts can be implemented to not only bring to light their stories, but also to assist them as they deal with the often debilitating fallout associated with deployment.

Again, I cannot at all take credit for this. So many terrific initiatives were already in place or in the process of taking hold when I was appointed poet laureate in 2012. I more or less became a focal point for the crucial intersection among vets, their families, and writing. The North Carolina Arts Council took up that torch, spread the word, and paved the way. Essentially, I mimicked what others had hatched before me. And I reached out initially for help, notably and especially to Ron Capps, founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project in D.C., and Donald Anderson, editor of War, Literature & the Arts, at the Air Force Academy.

In your essay “Ghostwriting,” you mention an aspect of teaching creative writing in prisons that I would think carries over to working with veterans as well: “In prison there are certain stories you simply do not criticize; to do so would be an epic breach of etiquette. Disrespect. Like you didn’t get it.” This can sometimes feel true even in more traditional creative writing settings, when someone shares a piece that is too real, too much from the heart, to be given the normal workshop critique. In these situations, what services are left for a writing teacher to provide?
There are times when a writing teacher’s number-one task is to get the heck out of the way. I’m thinking primarily of the work I’ve done with prisoners and veterans—and I taught for a year in a battered women’s shelter—but also students of mine at the university. These folks might be taking their very first crack at articulating how they really feel about subjects that are often explosive and intimate—things they’ve kept hidden inside, possibly for years—in language, on paper, with strangers in the room.

They are suddenly exposed. It’s terrifically dangerous terrain. The teacher’s initial job is to get them to write anything, to assure them they have something to say in the first place, that they indeed have stories worthy of being told and listened to. Worrying about whether it’s good or not can come later—the assessment part, the craft part. Critical appraisal at this point is irrelevant. What’s more, their presence in such a class—especially in the case of vets and prisoners (and other immured populations)—might be a one-shot deal. The teacher has to ensure, through his very measured response, that he does not convince them that they were fools to put pen to paper in the first place.

The fact that certain folks even show up in a class or workshop strikes me as poignant. It’s not about style. It’s like being in church. You don’t criticize the style of someone’s prayer. You don’t tell someone who’s learning to talk again after a four-decade silence—as in the case of some Vietnam vets I’ve had in classes—that he’s going about it improperly. A hush pervades the room when one of these silent sealed vets—or anyone—elects finally and mysteriously to open up. The first draft sometimes is a wail, a keen—what Whitman called that barbaric yawp—and it tends to look very different on the outside than it did on the inside. And once it’s out, it can’t be called back. The teacher’s crucial goal with beginning writers, in any setting, is to keep them talking, keep them writing—until what’s too raw, too hot, seasons and cools. So you have to be pretty darned careful with any kind of knee-jerk qualitative judgment. The teacher’s job, initially, in these instances, is to back off, and get invisible in a hurry, and simply listen.

When Valerie Macon was appointed as your successor, there was an uproar over her perceived lack of qualifications and the governor’s rejection of the traditional nomination process, causing her to step down less than a week later. One positive that came out of the situation was the revelation that North Carolina really does care about its poet laureate. It’s obviously much more than a ceremonial role or an empty political gesture. What about the state and its poets do you think fosters that attitude?
The uproar that ensued as a result of Valerie Macon’s appointment was triggered by a number of things, chiefly the fact that the long-standing process that had been in place to select North Carolina’s poet laureate was completely ignored. A great deal has been written about that fiasco, and everybody, everywhere, knows about it, so I won’t beat that straw man anymore. However, there was a terrifically positive side to that uproar. North Carolina poets and writers and readers sent out the message loud and clear that the poet laureate post in North Carolina matters very much to them and, by extension, and more importantly, that the cherished integrity of North Carolina’s legacy of writing and literature is something very much worth fighting for.

We often hear the word community used to describe a body of writers; and, in truth, the community of North Carolina writers is the real thing, not merely a rhetorical community. The writers of this state tend to know one another and support one another and care about one another; and, without getting too saccharine, there’s much about that community that’s familial. It’s a big state, but the literary community is very connected. It’s like a union. What’s more, the legacy of North Carolina and its writers, current and past, are supported and celebrated in every county in the state, in large places and very small places—in public schools, colleges and universities, community colleges, public libraries, local arts councils, and bookstores.

Of course, as in any other state, there are tiers and hierarchies among the writers here, but nothing elitist or hegemonic, nothing cutthroat. When I first arrived in North Carolina, thirty-eight years ago—a Pittsburgh Italian Yankee—the only writing credential I had was my yearning. I could not have been treated any more generously, any more graciously, by the established writers here. They nurtured me. They welcomed me into their ranks. And I really do believe that spirit of generosity, of inclusiveness, has continued to earmark North Carolina as the best place to be a writer. That’s certainly been my experience.

What rankled me more than anything during the flap over Valerie Macon’s appointment were the charges—from those folks who thought having a poet laureate was superfluous—that the post was “honorary,” “ceremonial,” “symbolic.” These were three words used to describe the appointment. Nothing is further from the truth. Poets laureate in North Carolina get in their cars and travel to the people. They show up everywhere. I made upwards of three hundred appearances during my tenure as poet laureate. I’ve said before that I don’t want a medal. It was my honor. But I do want to underscore that I took all my cues from my North Carolina poet laureate predecessors, the tradition of pride and service they exemplified, and the trails they blazed ahead of me.

In recent years, there’s been a proliferation of poet laureate positions in the country. Most states appoint a poet laureate, and many cities do as well. What do you think is behind this surge in the desire to name an “official” poet of a region?
The surge in poet laureate posts has been prompted, I’d assume, by the surge in poetry, of all stripes, all across the country. Such proliferation is another indication of the health of poetry and its democratization among, hopefully, the working class and the most marginalized citizens, folks who perhaps do not have ready access to poetry—and here I’m thinking about my own childhood and the very working class, ethnic neighborhood in Pittsburgh where I grew up.

State poets laureate work very hard, but realistically can reach only so many people; and, again, my chief concern is that poets laureate maintain a vibrant visible presence among public school children as well as various immured populations—among everyone. The appointment of city, town, and county poets laureate certainly instigates dialogue and activities (workshops, readings, classes, you name it) that zero in on poetry in specific communities and spread the benefits of poetry as avenues to the obvious art of reading and writing and performing poetry, its timeless culture and appreciation, the enjoyment, the fun, that it provides. But those kinds of activities and dialogue also underscore essential keys to life enhancement: literacy, critical thinking, cultural awareness, community solidarity, and the groundedness and self-esteem that familiarity with one’s own stories—in one’s own language—and their importance brings.

Poets laureate who are from—in every sense of the word—those communities that appoint them (urban and rural, enormous and tiny)—who know and live among their target audiences—have a cachet that creates extraordinary groundswells around poetry in a particular locale. What’s more, the nominal dollars invested in launching these grassroots poet laureate programs repay those dollars exponentially in healthier, safer, and more rooted communities.

 

 

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Natasha Trethewey
United States Poet Laureate, 2012­–2014
Mississippi Poet Laureate, 2012–2016

The author of five collections of poetry, most recently Thrall, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2012.

Could you talk about your signature project as the U.S. poet laureate, “Where Poetry Lives?” What were your goals behind that project?
Well, just what the title says: to show how and where poetry lives in the United States. How people are making use of poetry in their everyday lives in order to contend with all sorts of social issues. For example, we went to the juvenile detention facility in Seattle and looked at a program called Pongo there that uses poetry with incarcerated teens, as well as with homeless teens who are often coming to the homeless shelter after being released from a juvenile facility.

Do you feel like the project was a success? Or was there anything you would do differently now?
Oh, I think it was wonderful. We hit such a wide variety of places, from a juvenile detention facility to Harvard Medical School, where the poet [and physician] Rafael Campo believes in teaching poetry to interns because it helps make better doctors. It helps make physicians better able to treat the whole patient—physicians who have more empathy. We also [visited] an MFA program in Los Angeles that has a service component as part of its curriculum where the graduate students go out and find ways to bring poetry into their communities.

Could you talk a bit about your office-hours project? It had been a while since a poet laureate had held office hours before, right?
Right, not since the position was a consultantship, before it became the laureateship [in 1985]. I thought of it because, when I was named poet laureate, one of the things that happened was newspapers called and asked, “What’s your project going to be?” And I doubt that most people are sitting around thinking, “When I get named poet laureate, this is what I’m going to do.” So of course I didn’t have a project in mind, and it occurred to me that since the Library of Congress thinks of the poet laureate position as a “lightning rod” for poetry in America, and that the role that they like to see the laureate take on is to bring poetry to a wider audience, I wanted to figure out how best to do that. And it seemed to me that one of the best ways was to talk to people about the role of poetry in their lives and to see how they imagined poetry could be brought to a wider audience in the country. And so that’s why I decided to open my office and invite people in to talk to me about just that.

And through these meetings, by talking to people about poetry in this way, did you feel like you learned about what was happening in poetry in America?
I did. You know, every few years an article comes out in the Wall Street Journal or other places about how nobody cares about poetry and it doesn’t mean anything. We hear that again and again, and yet that was not the case at all when I met with people, from all walks of life, who came in to talk about what poetry means to them, and how it is important. And so I learned with even more conviction that poetry is alive and well and matters to people in this country.

What kinds of people were coming in to meet with you?
Everybody, really. I had everybody from groups of schoolchildren to senior citizens, writing groups who either got together because of a fellowship program at their church or at their senior community center. I think someone who was a lobbyist in Washington came. I should have made a list of all the different kinds of people, but it was just people who did all sorts of things. Sometimes it was researchers or people writing about poetry, or other poets themselves, or college students. It was a big list of people who were very different. But all lovers of poetry.

You once said in an interview for PBS NewsHour that you considered the role of poet laureate to be as a “cheerleader for poetry.”
[Laughs.] Oh, yes, I did say that, didn’t I?

I was wondering if you could expand a little more on what you meant by that. You also said that part of the role is to be a promoter. How do you feel like you as a poet laureate can promote or be a cheerleader for poetry?
Yeah, you know, that’s one of the funniest things I think I ever said. If only I’d said ‘advocate,’ or ‘ambassador,’ or something more dignified. [Laughs.] But I just had to come on record and say that the University of Georgia, when I was in college, I was head cheerleader. Yes I was. And I think I had been talking to Rob Casper right before I went in to speak with [PBS NewsHour’s] Jeff Brown—Rob is the head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. He is, to use another one of those phrases, like an Energizer bunny. He has so much energy that he gets me kind of hyped. And so we were sitting there, getting excited about what we were going to do about poetry, and then I go in [to the interview] and say, “I want to be a cheerleader for poetry!”

But I guess in some ways it’s not that silly. It’s a very plain way of saying that I have great enthusiasm for poetry and I want to share that with other people in ways that gets them enthusiastic about it, too. That’s what a cheerleader does.

During your tenure as U.S. poet laureate, you had also begun serving your four-year term as the state poet laureate of Mississippi. How do those two roles differ, in your experience?
Well, because I was doing both at the same time, a lot of my focus was drawn to the national level. And so I did the kinds of things that I did on the state level, which are of course ongoing, because I have two more years on my term. I participated in, for example, going to the state house, the capital, in Jackson on the day that they promote the arts, where various arts groups come to talk to the state senators and people in the house about the roles of arts in our lives. And so I was there to participate in that and to promote the arts and poetry in the state of Mississippi. I’ve also done other events, readings and other kinds of visits in the state. Not as much as what I was doing on the national level.

What has been your greatest challenge during your time as poet laureate?
Oh, goodness. That’s a good question. I’ve only had the opportunity to talk about the things that have been the greatest rewards of it. Well, I suppose the greatest challenge for me would have been that, because I wanted to be an advocate and because I wanted to see the role as a public service position, I occupied a very public place for those two terms and I traveled a lot and I did a lot of things and it made it harder for me to have the quiet time that a poet needs to write poems. So my biggest challenge was finding time to also still be a poet—not just an advocate for poetry, but a working poet who could sit down and have some time to write poems.

Nick Narbutas is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.

Q&A: Hayden Leads America’s Library

by

Dana Isokawa

12.14.16

Nominated by President Obama this past February, Carla Hayden took office in September as the nation’s fourteenth Librarian of Congress. She is the first woman, and the first African American, to hold the position, which involves overseeing the library (a collection composed of more than 162 million books and other items) and its three thousand employees, as well as the nation’s law library, the office of the poet laureate, and the U.S. Copyright Office. Just a little over a month into her term, Dr. Hayden spoke about her plans for making the library more accessible, and a typical day in the life of the Librarian of Congress.

How are you hoping to make the library more accessible to the public?
We’re working on a digital strategy to make the collections available to everyone online. The collections range from comic books to the papers and memorabilia of Rosa Parks to the manuscript collections of twenty-three presidents. We just launched our new home page. It’s more active—you can really get a sense of what the collections are. We’ve also been tweeting every day, one or two things I find in the collections. The response has already been pretty wonderful because I’m tying it to what’s going on in the world. During the World Series we tweeted the baseball-card collections we have. On Halloween we posted the collection of Harry Houdini’s memorabilia—his personal scrapbooks and his funeral program—because he died on Halloween, in 1926. So we’re using social media and technology to touch as many people as possible in interesting ways.

How else do you envision people engaging with the library?
We’re really excited about the possibility of traveling exhibits that can go to local communities, including an eighteen-wheeler that can pull up in a rural area or on a reservation. We want people to be able to get on that truck and have an experience they might not have had if they can’t visit Washington, D.C. We’re hiring a new exhibit designer who has museum experience, and we’re hitting the road and drawing people in. And raising general awareness of the fact that it’s the nation’s library, it’s America’s library.

What do you see as the role of the poet laureate?
Our current laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, shows how to bring poetry into people’s lives in an active and everyday way. He’s demystifying it, and working with teachers, librarians, and people who work with young people to get them excited about poetry and to recognize it around them and in themselves. He wants poetry to be more spontaneous. As he has said, it shouldn’t be something you labor over—you should feel it and write it. He has this activity where he has the kids line up, like a soul-train line—the kids go down the line and write down words they’re hearing. They come out with a poem at the end.

What happens during a day in the life of the Librarian of Congress?
One month in, it is a period of discovery and getting to know not only the collections and the resources, but also the people who care for those collections. That’s been one of the greatest joys and discoveries—the curators are so knowledgeable at the library. So I go from budget meetings to visiting a collection to having the head of the British Library visit to participating in the National Book Festival and things like the poetry slam at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival.

What are you reading now?
Mysteries. I also just picked up The Gershwins and Me by Michael Feinstein; I got a chance to meet him, and got him to sign it, which was really cool. I have so many books stacked in my home—I have baskets of books waiting, just waiting. I try to think of them as pieces of candy, that they’re treats. If you walked into my apartment, you’d probably think, “This person likes to read,” and be able to find a few things to pick up.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

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