Tracy K. Smith’s Final Event as U.S. Poet Laureate

>>Good evening, please welcome
Shari Werb director of Center for
learning, literacy and engagement
[Applause]>>Hello, I’m delighted to
welcome youto Tracy K Smith closing up in as
our 22nd poet laureate consultant in poetry. Tracy was the first laureate
appointed by our current librarian of Congress, Carla
Hayden. And in September 2017 the
librarians stood on this stage and welcomed her to the
position. My introduction to Tracy came
last fall when I began as director of the library’s new
Center for learning, literacy and engagement. Just a few weeks into the job, I
found myself traveling to the Black Hills of South Dakota to
join one of our laureates seven American
conversation project trips around the country along with
Rob Casper, director of the poetry Center and Guy Lemelin are olinara with the Center for the
book, we visited the guy foolish center and Opera center in
Spearfish and the Sturgis public library. In each place, Tracy read poems
from her anthology, American Journal, 50 poems for our time.
And asked a simple question. What did you notice? Through that unassuming yet
powerful question and with humility, warmth and an openness to whatever
responses she received, Tracy helped audiences
connect to one another through poetry. American conversations as well
as the slowdown, Tracy’s additional
laureate project of weekday podcasts and broadcasts have proven the
poetry can help us, whoever we are in our day-to-day lives. By sharing in the safe space
that Tracy, her poems and laureate projects create, we are
encouraged to reflect, discuss and empathize. To deepen our connection to our
community, and even be part of a new community. This does more than prove the
power of the art. It helps strengthen civic society. Tracy has shown me the
transformative power of this work and has given
me a sense of what the Library of Congress should aim for. Just as I am thankful she
brought me to South Dakota, I’m thankful she has chosen to share the stage night
with poets laureate representing Hawaii, Indiana, Clark County
Nevada, Brooklyn New York and Oklahoma. All of whom have done
their own amazing work. Tracy will begin the event with
an address, then welcome her fellow
poets laureate on stage. Joining them will be Jennifer
Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of
American poets, who will lead a moderated discussion. I want to note that in just nine
days, for the first time, the Academy of American poets will
award over $1 million to 10 to 20 poets
serving as laureates of states, cities,
counties, US territories or tribal nations
to recognize literary excellence and fuel civic projects. Please
join me in congratulating Jennifer and the Academy. [Applause]>>Before I turn the microphone
over to Tracy, I want to take a moment
to acknowledge our dear poet laureate as one of our country’s
national treasures. At many American conversation
events, Tracy began by reading from her
most recent collection, Wade in the water. The found poem sequence, I will
tell you the truth about this, I will tell you all about it featuring
letters from African-American soldiers petitioning the
government for their pensions often elicited
audible responses from the audience. Tracy called the experts from to Burks, families and freedom,
a documentary history of African-American kinship in the Civil War era
drawn from the Friedman and Southern Society project at the University of
Maryland, and voices of emancipation, understanding slavery, the Civil
War and Reconstruction through the US pension Bureau files. I can think of no better example
of promoting civic literacy and giving voice to a past often ignored or
forgotten while showcasing the importance of research and
primary source documents. And I will tell you the truth about
this. I will tell you all about it,
Tracy models how such documents can inspire each of us. How we too can engage with the
library, reach in and explore its wealth of collections and
find our connection to the past. In the title poem from Wade in
the water, Tracy connects the past to her own story. The poem begins, one of the
women greeted me. I love you, she said. She didn’t know me,
but I believed her. And a terrible new ache rolled
over my chest like a room where the drapes have been swept back. There’s so much to unpack in
these opening lines that shows us poetry’s power, to situate us in the
world as well as within our fears and
desires, to capture the complexity of an overwhelming
moment through simile. And to plainly and powerfully
act with love and grace. When Tracy read this poem during
her American conversation events, she would also describe
the process of writing it. The poem is dedicated to the
Guiche Golla ring showers as you return
to the greeting as a kind of rumination while describing their performance and
layering it in image after image with history. When she could no longer
describe, Tracy’s mind and imagination leapt. As only those
of poets can. And she arrived at these last lines. Oh Woods, a dog, a tree, oh gun,
oh girl, run. All miraculous mini gone, a
Lord, Lord, Lord, is this the trouble you promised. This is the kind of poem we
need. A poem that gives shape to what
we cannot otherwise say in ways we can all feel. If we are to
get past our differences and share our most profound, most painful and beautiful moments of
living, poems such as Wade in the water show us a way. On behalf of the Library of
Congress, I would like to say thank you, Tracy for serving as
the nation’s poet laureate. And thank you for the opportunity
you have given me, the library, and
everyone you have met these last two
years to connect with you through poetry. Please join me
in welcoming Tracy K Smith. [Applause]>>Thank you. [Applause]>>Thank you and thank you Sheri
for that wonderful and moving introduction. I’d like to begin these remarks
with thanks for Dr. Carla Hayden, who changed my
relationship both to poetry and to America. The profound honor of being
named poet laureate has urged me to think deeply and ongoingly about why poetry
matters and to enter into life-changing encounters with
other Americans from Alaska to Louisiana. Via poetry. I would also like to thank the
staff of the poetry and I would also like to thank the staff of
the poetry and Literature Ctr. , Anya Cratyny Rob Holmes and
Casper for moving quickly and
magnificently to facilitate my poet laureate project, American conversations,
celebrating poetry in rural communities. Can we clap for
them? [Applause]>>I had an idea of what I’d
hoped to do. But I had no idea how such a
thing might happen and they together with the guy Lemolinara from the national
Center for the book shepherded my wish into exhilarating
reality. I feel indescribably lucky to
have benefited from their vision, their know-how, their
wisdom and enthusiasm, and if you know Rob, you know what I
mean by enthusiasm. [Applause]>>I also owe a tremendous
thanks to Jeff shots and Fiona McRae at
Grable’s P Gray Wolf press and much more than thanks to my
wonderful husband Rafael Allison [Applause]>>Who kept our home and our
children both afloat and anchored during
these two years of nonstop travel. So thank you. My hope for the American
conversations project was twofold. On one hand as a poet who
typically reads in university communities
and encounters audiences at literary festivals, I was eager
to venture beyond campuses and urban centers in my
engagement with poetry and poetry audiences. I wanted to travel to places
that aren’t typically targets for a
great deal of literary programming. But on the other hand, I was
also very determined to push back against the pervasive
narrative of America as a divided nation. The narrative that says people
in the rural heartland have nothing in
common, not even a shared language with those of us in
urban centers. I harbored the hope that if
anything could defy this notion of an on
cross of all national divide it would surely be poetry. Which jostles us out of our rote
engagement with the world and opens us up with humility and curiosity
to other perspectives on experience. I believed that poetry fosters a deepening relationship with
reality, a more conscious and deliberate engagement with the
lives of others, and with the inner life that each of us
houses. I believed that reading poetry
builds in us a reserve of perspectives and strategies for
living. I believed that poetry reminds
us to think of life as dynamic rather than static, mysterious and rich
rather than flat or Pat. And the poems open our minds to
the realness and the usefulness of others experiences. That they instill in us a sense
of participation in a long and
ongoing history of human joy, struggle and hope. That was my
theory. And what I found in practice on
each of our journeys was incredibly heartening. Together with my crew from the
library, we’d land in a new place, gather our bearings in a local restaurant,
gate in all at the power and the particular beauty of the particular
landscape on what might be a two or 3 Hour Dr. and and up in a public library
or community center or some other venue full of strangers miraculously willing
to read poems with me and enter into candid on
Goddard conversation unguarded
conversation. Condition by media exposure to
expect a sense of difference or division I felt and feel indescribably lucky to
have found my way to a counter narrative of
thoughtful listening and mutual respect as fostered by poetry. Reading poems with others and
talking in ordinary rather than critical or analytical language about what
poems cause us to notice, remember, wonder and feel, has been a way of
getting to know one another and accessing
vital feelings in a space of safety. Poems have been these amazing
tools for reminding us no matter who we are of the things we
share. And that’s not all. Poems also highlight the
differences between us, advocating
implicitly for the validity of differing perspectives. I am aware of what we were able
to impart on these trips. Some people discovered the ways
that poems offer a means of capturing and examining the
strange and remarkable features of our lives. Like a nine-year-old girl in New
Haven Kentucky who came by herself to a Saturday morning
conversation at her local public library, which was her home away
from home. She sat by herself in the front row. And I could see her taking
everything in carefully. When finally she raised her
hand, she asked when did you realize that you had stories to
tell? I told her I was just about her
age when I tried to write my first poem. Do you feel like you
have stories to tell I asked her? And she told us one that
surprised and worried many of us. You can grow up to be a writer
if you want to, I told her. And after I got home I sent a box of books to that small branch,
thinking about what might make a difference to a kid like her. Others reclaimed a long
neglected level of poetry. After an event at old Somerton
high school in South Carolina, a group of women who were members
of the first integrated graduating class described how
they had written poetry back when they
were students and how our conversation had inspired them
to return to the practice. Others discovered a new sense of freedom in being able to talk
about poems using the language they live in everyday. A man in the audience at a class
I was invited to give in Wyoming
raised his hand midway through a conversation about a poem to say
I get it. When you read a poem you’re just
kind of pouring it through your own filter to see what gets
caught there. My filter is different from your
filter and different things will get caught in your filter at
different times depending on who and where you are when you read
the poem. Still others, like in a youth
juvenile detention center near Juneau Alaska sought out poems
on themes deeply relevant to their lives, but difficult to
broach in everyday conversation. Themes like suicide, trauma and
addiction. But I also want to emphasize
what the people in these communities gave, what the
people in these communities gave to us is of equal importance to
what they might have taken away. American conversations was not
about cityfolk going into educate rural folk. It was about the way the poetry
changes everyone’s view of the world and
how it changes our view of ourselves. Returning to cities for readings
and events over these last two years
I have become increasingly aware of the kinds of unwitting urban
bias present in many of the questions, well-meaning questions like so
what is the rural experience like, or what is rural’s
America’s reaction to poetry or did you encounter any resistance
or hostility on these trips. Questions with thought
affirmation that the many different rural communities in
this nation are alike. Characterized by one easily
summarize a trait and uniformly wary or
suspicious of outsiders. In fact, I was shocked early
into my first term to be asked point-blank, were
you surprised by the intelligence of people’s
responses in rural communities. If there is indeed a divide in
this nation perhaps it is perpetuated
by unthinking assumptions like these. Assumptions rooted in the wish
to summarize or characterize the unknown other as something single,
unified, predictable, measurable. I like to believe these kinds of
other defining questions didn’t come
up during in the actual American conversations tour
because in every setting participants were engaging in a
new configuration of momentary community. I was there with
staff members from DC. People from neighboring towns were present, sometimes creating an
unexpected or unlikely cross-section of community. Sometimes audience member drove
from hours away out of an existing
love of poetry or they thought it was important for their kids
to see someone speaking in an official capacity, who, as they
often said look like them. One Kentucky mother said the
exact opposite, that she wanted to expose her children to the
viewpoint of someone who looked nothing like them. The concept of we was different
from gathering to gathering. Which means there wasn’t enough
of a certainty about who we together
were for participants to seek a certainty about who we weren’t, or how we
were different from another specific group or demographic. I
think that’s important. I think placing ourselves in new
configurations of community is something we ought to seek out
more often. Because it helps to unsettle the
feelings of confidence and authority that cause us to
forget how much we can learn from others who are not like
ourselves. I will never forget the powerful
uncertainty I felt at a home for veterans and pioneers about an
hour outside of Anchorage Alaska., Apart from one or two
members of the audience nobody volunteered to speak. I would read a poem and ask a
question, what do you notice, and it would be followed by a
longer than was comfortable period of silence. Sometimes as I was reading, and
audience member would audibly moan. It was a reaction I wasn’t used
to and it was difficult at times to sit with the long stretches
of unfilled silence. But afterward, staff members
were visibly excited. It turned out that a sizable
portion of the audience was made up of nonverbal members of the facility’s
Alzheimer’s wing. Those moans and the inaudible
movements that sometimes accompanied them or palpable
indicators of the ways poems had spoken to or even woken up
audience members. Without realizing it, I had been
in the presence of a remarkable response to the power of poetry and it was an
unforgettable recalibration of my own sense of what it means to
engage with poetry. One thing that stays with me from that evening is the fact that it
wasn’t about me performing well or hitting it
off with people in these different places, rather
American conversations was about giving people space to engage with poems in
their own ways and in the terms most meaningful for them. If there’s anything the
experience of this project had onemade me want to change about how I engage with poetry and the other spaces I
move through, spaces like cities and literary festivals and
college campuses, it is this. I wish we could be more
consistently willing to let go of our own
need for certainty and for the desire to demonstrate our claims
to authority. I wish we could turn down the
volume on our egos and get past our own
impulse to judge, rate and assess, and impulse fueled,
I suspect by the many consumer based interfaces
we have gotten used to engaging with. Forms that ensure us that are
instantaneous unfiltered deeply biased and often unfounded
reactions are of enormous value. I wish that we could more often
let go of the need to be seen as
exceptional and authoritative in our
reactions, the need to garner responses that demonstrate our
exceptional and authoritative status. And simply submit to
experiencing powerful and difficult to summarize feelings
together with others. I wish that together in whatever versions of community we
represent we would more often allow ourselves to wander a wile
through the wilderness of new feelings and the wilderness
of old feelings in new forms without needing to know and
declare where we are and how we got there. In other words, I wish we could
muster a willingness to get lost together. , which is essentially the state
poems offer their readers and the poets who write them. Poems invite us to move on pre-meditatedly in a question or
state of our people through a series of spontaneous
observations and responses, some of which are conscious, others
unconscious. To something that feels like revelation. Poems draw us deliberately past
our certainties and our assumptions and into something startling and
consoling or chastening and enlarging. In order to most emphatically
experience poems we have to surrender authority, pay close
attention and let the poem itself lead us to a
place where a new kind of sense prevails. I
have long believed this was good for the individual mind and
spirit. Now more than ever I believe it
is good for the collective, the
community, even something resembling the nation. During my travels I have
encountered many regional poets laureate
working with energy and generosity to strengthen their
communities with the things poetry offers. And so it is my great honor
together tonight with them for conversation about the ongoing
work of poets laureate and the ongoing work of poetry so
I’d like to welcome the poets to the stage now. [Applause]>>Okay so hopefully we can kick
this off and we will get some other perspectives on what it has
meant, what it means to be sharing and engaging with others
via poetry, starting from the right side of the stage Vogue
Robinson is poet laureate of Clark County Nevada. [Applause] >>She is a dynamic community
builder, a galvanizing force in the Las
Vegas literary community. When I visited, she was very clear to
tell me, it’s not the strip. That’s not Vegas. Vegas is
people. Vegas is writers. Vegas is neighbors, Vegas is
people who are building something together. So she’s a
booster for the cities and counties cultural riches. She hosts workshops, writers
gatherings and serves the community with poetry programs
like the workshop she conducts for people who are living with
Alzheimer’s. And next to her is Tina Chang
who is poet laureate of Brooklyn New York. [Applause]
>>Tina and I grew up together. We were classmates as graduate
students back when we were just dreaming of maybe making a life together as poets,
so it’s a really so very beautiful to be
here direct together and celebrate the work that she has
been doing in her capacity. One of the major emphases of her
time, and she’s been poet laureate of Brooklyn for 10 years, has been children.
She’s created a program to bring authors in the public schools,
and she’s also led workshops with all age
groups, from elementary school kids to adults and retirement centers and
facilities. Her laureateship has been going
on for 10 years like I said and throughout the time she’s found
powerful ways to celebrate and promote poetry as a life-saving
tool. [Applause]>>Next to her is Kealoha, who
is poet laureate of Hawaii. [Applause]>>I have mind and envy. Kealoha holds a degree of
nuclear engineering from MIT and one of the things he has used the laureateship to do is
expand the vocabulary and methodology that we associate
with poetry. He has epic performance poems
that like the story of everything, right? That explore the universe from
the Big Bang to the present, or native
culture and different debates about what that means, or
feminism. And he uses discourse from
science, storytelling and social justice to create these really
dynamic pieces. [Applause]>>Next to Kealoha is Jeanetta
Calhoun Mich who is poet laureate of
Oklahoma her work in the world celebrates
Oklahoma history literature and culture and has led her to
communities and schools throughout the state, she spends
a lot of time in rural communities as well so I’m
excited to hear how our experiences match up with one
another. She’s also taken it as her
mission to encourage Oklahomans to write their states history and explore their
own stories via poetry. [Applause]>>And Adrian Matejka is poet
laureate of Indiana. [Applause]>>In this role, he has
tirelessly traveled back and forth across
his state, hosting workshops and readings with visiting writers,
and I have traveled a lot, but when I visited Indiana twice,
and when I catch wind of what Adrian is doing, it’s really
tireless. Like I am deeply humbled by the
generosity and dedication. He’s also building an archive of
poets with ties to the state of Indiana, which is far-reaching. And we visited a small library in Franklin
Indiana, a school in Shelbyville, and there’s a
really beautiful sense of stewardship that he brings to the world. So
welcome, Adrian. [Applause]>>And we will be led in
conversation by Jennifer Benka who is president
and Executive Director of the Academy of American poets
[Applause]>>… and as you heard, she is a
powerful advocate for Po poets, poetry
and poetry organizations nationwide.
[Applause]>>Well I want to start my
first, Tracy, thanking you again on behalf of all of us for your brilliant brilliant
work serving our nation is poet laureate. [Applause]>>I know very clearly that you
have touched the lives of so many
people on your visits. I also want you to know that you
have influenced the work of poetry organizations across the
country. One of the things that I’m lucky
enough to be able to do is work in
partnership with 25 poetry organizations across the US who
are collaborating and have formed an
alliance called the poetry coalition and because of you and
the work that you have done we have begun a conversation about how we are serving rural communities in our poetry
programming and that is not something we have talked about
before. So I want to thank you for that.
[Applause]>>You have been a model and
been such a reminder in your work of how
poetry can be a commons and it can also be common ground. Your work reminds me of another
poet who championed poetry’s social possibilities, Muro Rukeyser who
writes in her very influential collection of essays the life of
poetry a number of relevant things, but
one about how civilizations, in order to survive, draw on all
sources of knowledge. Any source of
knowledge that they can find, history, inventions, science,
and yet somehow throughout the ages,
poetry sometimes has not been used as
much as maybe it could have been. And yet, she says that when communication seems to break
down, it is then that we need to tap the roots of communication
and that is where poetry dwells. Because it is an poetry that one
source is speaking to another source. And that’s where, and how
personal and maybe communal transformation can be sparked. And perhaps that’s why there are
in addition to the national poet
laureate position, a growing number of
states and cities who have created poets laureate
positions. The first state that had a poet
laureate was Colorado in 1919. And over the decades a number of
states have created that position. Now we have 45 states
across the country that have poets laureate. And interestingly, now we have
many many cities that also do. And also US territories and
tribal nations and that is something that my organization
has been following. And watching and tracking. The
first city I believe that had a local laureate position was
Mattis Madison Wisconsin for 1977, for the badgers in the
audience. There you go that was for you, Mr. Casper. But most of the poets laureate
positions that have launched on the city level have been since
2000 and 2001. Interesting, right? There’s a part of me that
wonders if there’s a connection between what happened on 9/11
and the need that cities have to understand those
tragic events and find important and
meaningful ways to have conversations that
can help heal and move forward. So I’d like to start there. The important civic role of the
laureate. Why does it matter that states have poets laureate
positions and that cities do. What is it in your role that
you’re able to do in terms of sparking dialogue. I’m looking
at you, Adrian.>>Okay well the great state of
Indiana, the 19th state in the union has a very long history of
poets laureate. We’ve had a 72 years of poets
laureate, but I’m only the second one who was not white. So the case at least in my
laureateship one of the civic duties is to do some of the work that I think the woman
from Kentucky was talking about, like getting a conversation
going that is not from the same
perspective of those who’ve they have been speaking with. This
has nothing to do with a really wonderful poets who have been
doing the work before I got there. They
all care deeply about the state of Indiana. The state of Indiana is
a very diverse state. It’s a very problematic state in a lot
of ways racially and economically. So it is at least in my
experience it has given me an opportunity to
expand the conversation just a little bit, to show them that in
fact there are a lot of different stories that need to
be told, not just the ones that had
been going on the last 17 years.>>I was thinking about the
question because you sent it to us earlier, and for me, poetry functions on the
boundary between the private and the public. It functions when I’m writing it
because I’m engaging with other things and I think it also
functions that way for people when they hear it, and I’m not
sure… some kinds of ritual used to do
that and we don’t have a lot of ritual left in our communities
anymore. And I think that two-way street
between your internal self and your
Celtic se civic self that is activated in poetry is where the magic happens and
for me I want to share that with everyone. Poetry saved my life
in many ways. I want to take that, and also I
want to make sure that the rural areas
where actually they are more diverse
in Oklahoma, the rural areas are more diverse in
then that cities, Native Americans, African Americans,
Vietnamese, all kinds of people, much more than people
think, and I want to make a way for them to enter the civic
conversation through the poetry that I help them right in
workshop.>>In my experience, in my
brain, the way that I see all the different things we do with all our outreach and the way we
approach our poetry, it’s really what it bubbles down to is making poetry
accessible every day for people. And that not something that is
intangible but something they can interface with. And it is there for them and it
is present and our job is to bring not only our work out and
share that, but also to bring up other people throughout our communities and make their work
visible as well. So I think when we combine those things then we start to have a dialogue
between different folks from different communities and
pockets and that way we can further along as a society.>>I have so many thoughts based
on what everyone is saying. Just to go back, I’m the port
laureate a of Brooklyn and Brooklyn is so
already so rich in history and culture. Poetry is a pretty easy
sell where I come from because everybody who wants to be a poet or who has a very rich
artistic life seems to find themselves there, oftentimes I
wonder why. Of course it’s physically
beautiful but also just a kind of go back to something Adrian
was saying about the history of poets laureate in Brooklyn,
there were three poets laureate before me and they were all male, so I was the
first woman and also the first person of color. So with that comes great
responsibility, I think. I often ask myself, because Rob Casper
and a few others that were on that poetry committee who I was
really lucky enough that they reached out to me to apply for this position, I often ask
myself as I’m sure some of the other poets laureate have asked
themselves too, is why me? And when I think back on it I
think about the role of how important it is to be a person of color and how I
want to address not only diversity, and
I think we can all speak to this, but also diversity is so
different from integration. New York, specifically Brooklyn
is known as a very diverse place . Often that is the first word
that comes to mind when people speak of Brooklyn. And I think
in the various communities that I have just been honored to
just be welcomed into, I think that one
of the greater challenges that I feel
is how do we find, within the US overall true integration, and
does that truly exist? And I think poetry is really one
of those very rare spaces, and
maybe it goes back to some of the things that Tracy was
mentioning in many of her beautiful stories, it has so
much to do with vulnerability. We are each of us so very
vulnerable at the core and I think many of us walk around
trying to keep it together, trying to have an armor because
the armor protects us and helps us to function. So I think in
the civic work that we all do, it takes a great amount of time and effort to be able to break
down those walls and I find that
poetry has the capacity to do that and I think that a lot of
it has to do with the silences that
poetry just welcomes in. I think in the state where we are right now within the US, so much of it
is about how much noise we can make and how much we can sort of
show what it is that we know. But I think poetry kind of lays
out the space of how much we don’t know and how much beauty
there is and how much we want to answer to all the
curiosities in the world and I think that civic
engagement and that curiosity have so much to do with each
other.>>I think the role of Port
laureate, I’m the second one to hold the
position and it’s not state or city but the entire county so
it’s a very weird position to hold as far as what
area are you in charge of, if you will. I think that it validates the
idea of following your passion. When I go into classrooms and I
go speak with students the idea of being a writer is a valid
thing. Especially when teaching, if it is a workshop in the community or in
the classroom it’s also about allowing people the space to
express their feelings and let them know that their story is
valid. And I think that Las Vegas as a
city is also building its identity and wants to tell its
own stories. Lots of people come in, write a
story based on one or two years of living there, the people who are born
and raised in the county or city or area tell you how it is
developed, how this casino went down and came up and got
rebuilt. How the street is still under construction. But the changes now where like a
lot of the legislation and the people in power shifted and
there are a lot of women in power right now in Nevada and
it’s cool. So I think the yearning to tell
your own story but also the permission to tell your city’s story, your
county’s story, your states story and going forward with
that and I think that encouragement that writing is
valid and that people still read books.
[Laughter]>>So, poets make excellent role
models. And all of you are excellent role models. And hopefully as we are all appreciating more deeply, poetry
has this incredible capacity to spark conversation that can help
strengthen communities. Vogue, you were talking about
the importance of storytelling, preserving stories. What’s interesting about the
role of poets laureate is that it sort
of puts a poetic twist on Shelley’s notion that poets are
the unacknowledged legislators of
the world by acknowledging that fact. You know, right?
.>>by legislating. [Laughter]>>Were there civic themes that
you were interested in addressing during your term? Issues that you cared about in
addition to diversity and representation?
Can you talk a little bit about that and how you went about
addressing those issues?>>Yeah, I mean one of the major
things I have been concerned with is the ways in which poetry is undervalued as a
teaching tool and as a historical document and is an
opportunity for expression in the ways we have been talking
about. So I came into it with the
agenda that I wanted to try to get in front of his many young
people as I could and in front of as many people who
couldn’t afford a workshop as I could, as many people who never
thought that poetry was for them as I could. To allow them to sort of dictate
what poetry could be. Of course in the great state of
Indiana I don’t know if I’m supposed to share this, but
whatever… [Laughter]
>>… it’s a government position so I
had to sign a document that said I wouldn’t criticize the state
government. And so I’m not….
[Laughter]>>… especially since the governor
went to my high school. But you know there are some ways
in which it has actually been in all seriousness very useful to
me, the state organizations have been a great help in trying to
get to some of the communities that I don’t have the
wherewithal to get to. So I don’t know if that is
exactly what you’re asking but that is what my plan was.>>I meant to say a while ago,
Oklahoma was the fifth state to have a
poet laureate. Violet McDougall was named poet laureate in 1923
so I need to recognize her. Many of you may have seen the
huge coverage last year of the school teacher strikes in Oklahoma and one of
the things that came out of that is that their union sold them
out. And there’s still 25-year-old
Chuck’s books. I went to a school in Eve on Oklahoma where
you can look down the floorboards through the
crumbling foundation and see the dirt beneath the school and
that’s where they were trying to teach and work. And that was not
unusual. Ceilings falling down. Flooded classrooms. The teacher’s had a good reason,
and they were not just striking for pay. The teachers list pay was on the
last even though we lost 30,000 teachers in the last five years
because they cannot make enough to eat on, what they wanted was to have decent
buildings and money spent on the children. So I do a lot of work in
schools, but when I’m at the schools I also, if I can get
time to have an in-service with the teachers and even if there’s
not time for an in-service I leave them
handouts or lists of resources like
teachers and writers collaborative, in order to do
what I could do to support them in their great
mission in educating a populace whose
parents don’t really want them to be educated or maybe the state doesn’t want them to be
educated. I didn’t have to sign anything.
[Laughter]>>… and so that’s what I try to do
by working with schools is actually leave more for the teachers to help to
bring poetry.>>I have to choose two because
throughout poetry we have to address all kinds of issues, but
the two that I think have bubbled up in the
recent years have been particularly our science
literacy and our ability to address climate change. So that
is something I’ve been really focused on in my work, is laying
out the issue, defining and laying out these solutions and
how we can move forward. So I think that has been like a
serious focal point and in addition to
that I have also been focusing on
returning to source, going back to the indigenous stories of Hawaii and
one in particular that I just wanted to highlight. There was
this creation chance that was imposed in the 1800s, so I’m
sorry it was the 1700s, and what it said basically was at first was born
darkness and then was born see slime
which is basically bacterial and then there was the coral ponds and starfish as well as plans and then born
crustaceans and insects and then the fish you know where it’s
going, then were born the reptiles and mammals and finally
humans so it’s basically evolution theory told in the
1700s through native Hawaiian chant oral traditions. , Just on the note of history,
Darwin’s origin of species was published
in the 1800 so we are talking about roughly 100 years before
the Western world got a hold of it. So, but the cool thing is when I
go into the schools or into these
auditoriums and I tell that story, we begin to realize that native
cultures have very significant stories to tell and they are
very much on point with science and mental, logical capacities.
And so it is the celebration of all different kinds of stories that
have allowed, has been another focus
I guess in my work.>>So I became a mother for the
first time at right around the time I
became poet laureate, and so I think
that those two worlds really, they had to speak to each other.
For example, the night that I was inducted as the poet laureate of
Brooklyn I was actually carrying my baby in a baby Bjorn. So when I looked at, I still had
another child but when I looked at my children I really wanted
the role that I was fulfilling as a poet laureate to speak to not just them, but all
children. Because when you are raising a
child you get to grow along with them. You get to see the joy of
them forming and understanding words for the first time, and the joy that is. And
so I started to think about what is it that I could do for children
in many different communities and one of the things which kind of goes back
to something which was already stated is that I thought about teachers,
and I thought about their jobs and how often and how much they gave
over their resources to try to provide
books, to try to provide everything needed so that these
children could fortify their language, fortify communication. So I developed programs to be
able to bring authors into schools. But not only that I
developed also diversity funds, so that these
teachers don’t have to spend money out of their own pockets
to be able to get students books that they felt that they needed
that would diversify what they were reading. And those authors also tried to
diversify as well. There is one author called Kelly
Starling Lyons who also is a founding member of the Brown bookshelf, which really promotes
the work of African-American writers and African-American stories, and
she had this wonderful story which she shared with the
children that when she was eight years old she read a book for
the first time called roll of thunder hear my cry and she said, it was the
first time that she saw an
African-American child on the cover of a book and
it convinced her that she too could be an author. And so I
think just hearing those stories in many communities I
think helps to really promote this idea that these children
can live this kind of life, that it is not outside of their
reach. So I think in the work that I do
I’m also thinking about the children and providing books for
them as well, and a lot of that has to do, as
everyone knows here, has to do with fundraising. So much of the
arts now, as it always did, I think suffers from not having
enough funding. So a large part of the work that
I do, and which I think actually that you have addressed at the
Academy of American poets is really trying to find
funding in all corners and talking to
people and I think that we haven’t really gotten to that
yet, but that’s also a large part of our job, is not
being only a speaker for an toward the community but also
how are we going to realistically envision a project
and put it into actual being and push it forth into the world.>>To piggyback off of that, a
lot of my internal missions were finish Bruce’s work, which
is the previous poet laureate of Clark County, finish what Bruce
started, one of them is bringing the California schools program
to Nevada in it was how are we going to get the funding for this where we are
making it so that poets can live, can have a sustainable lifestyle in which
they are going to classrooms, teaching poetry, being paid for
their time and the lesson plans they are creating and also
living their lives and writing books as well. And so it was the
one thing that Bruce didn’t fully finish but all the
proposals were there and I was like I’m going to take in and figure out
where to submit it and get funding for this particular
program. And I thought about the proverb of lifting [inaudible] climb
that I’m able to go in different places as a result of the
position, this title, people either know what it is or they
cannot pronounce the word. One of the other. So the places where they know
what it is then more doors open for me. Cool, you let me in. If you want
me to speak at this I think we should also bring this poet. Can we bring another poet in
who’s going to do this and it’s going to be this much, and being unafraid to
request funds and being unafraid to say no, this person spent
time prepping before, during and after, we are having meetings
and discussing how these lessons will play out. And I thought about my
grandmother and my grandmother at the time was
living in California still and we cannot convince her to move. And I was like well I need to
get my grandma fix. So I’m going to take poetry into nursing
homes. And I found a project that was founded by Gary Gleason, Glassner, so Gary already had a program in
place funded by the NEA that brought
poetry into nursing homes and retirement homes, and they had
research there about nonverbal communication, about
how sometimes people aren’t able to speak but they are still able
to listen, about how a person can hear a poem that they had to remember if they
don’t remember the street they grew up on or their daughter’s name or a poem of
their daughters if they hear it will come back and that moment
you know, is a priceless moment and my poetry
staff, that’s really I don’t know, like the building of community and
creating this close-knit community where we
are all cheering for each other I can name you 10 authors in the
past two years who have published books in my community.
That had the guts to go forward and said okay I’m going to put a
book out but everyone was editing everyone else. Did you
read Rodney’s book, did you read the first book, did you see
Angela’s cover. What? everyone was cheering for each other and
these poets came into my home and read poets to my grandmother and
my grandmother moved into a home
and she made one of my friends read his poem again. She said it
was too short, read it again. And it was after a really rough
day and she came back, she was back that day. So that integration of family, community and working artists
creating something more for ourselves and connecting.>>I just wanted to follow up on something that Vogue said, first
of all that is so great what you were
saying but I was thinking about this idea of creating access,
right? Like the way that one of the opportunities that we are given
is to open up doors around us I was
talking about these various organizations that are kind
enough to support me, and they don’t know
the performance community in Indianapolis necessarily but
they do now. They don’t know of these various
different community groups that are doing writing at the library
on Tuesdays but they are starting to learn about them
now. So one of the things that we are able to do as we get wired in this to
bring everybody, rising tides. I’m so glad that you mentioned
that.>>I want to underscore
something Tina, you said, but also first appreciate what we are hearing
about poets in civic positions making
a difference in the lives of teachers, making a
difference in the lives of seniors who are in
institutional settings, making a difference in the lives of
people trying to understand environmental devastation. The work that laureates are
doing, poets laureate are doing on the state and local level is
largely unfunded. I’m just curious. How many of you have a stipend
supporting the work that you are doing? And I’m guessing Tracy not
included that it is around five to $10,000. No?
>>It’s 250 per month.>>It is now 2500… 2500 is your personal stipend
and 7500 is for programming.>>Most of the positions across
the US don’t have an honorarium attached, as you have seen, and
if they do it is externally modest. Nonetheless again as you are
hearing folks are traveling around the state. They are doing
outreach. They are buying books, they are supporting teachers. Just a public service
announcement… [Laughter]>>These positions are run
through the governor’s office, the mayor’s
office, the state humanities Council. I encourage you to reach out,
find out who is running the poets laureate positions near you where your
family members might live, get involved, support them. They
need it. But now to some good news. I’m sure, and I hope that you
may have heard that poetry is booming. I think we have some friends
from the national endowment for the arts in the house
[Applause]>>There they are. [Applause]>>I know in the work that I do
that in the past five years the interest in poetry has been
growing year over year. We run a website poets. org and have a daily poetry
series and a day that Tracy is curating this month for us.
Double digit growth year after year. And yet, we would still see
these bleak headlines about poetry. No one cares. Poetry is
dead. And we are thinking… not from
what we can see. Well, thanks to the national
endowment for the arts, no one has to believe me. We actually have a study, and
arts participation study that was released in the fall that demonstrated in
the past five years poetry readership in the US has
doubled. Doubled. [Applause]>>And what’s very exciting
about this is that the largest growth is with young people,
particularly young people of color, and I should note, the
growth in readership is the same in urban
and rural communities. Can I be fact checked on that. Jessica?
Yeah. So to Tracy’s point, when people
are asking questions, well do people really read poetry?
People are reading poetry everywhere. I wonder in your roles, if you
are feeling the swell of excitement, and if you feel like your work
has contributed to this over the past couple years?>>Yeah, what’s funny about that
question that poetry is still working or still alive, they
never ask poets that. It’s sort of thrown out to
somebody else kind of thing. One thing that I actually think
is true and in Indiana certainly I would love to take credit for
the work that is happening but it’s already happening when I
get there. There are already people waiting
to write poems, already people
interested in reading poems and have just been creating spaces to help them do that. You
know how quickly somebody will snatch the mic when they have
something they want to say. It’s like the under 30 crowd or
something. They found poetry and they have invested in it in this
really beautiful way. So like I said, I will take all the credit I can get but it was
sitting there in Franklin already. It was in Bloomington
already. It was in Indianapolis already waiting for an outlet.>>I have to say the Oklahoma
poetry community has been strong since about 1972. And that’s not just in the urban
areas. There’s always writers groups, there are five or six monthly open
mics with featured readers in Tulsa,
Oklahoma City, Shawnee, Lawton, all around the state and we all
know each other. We are family. Tracy just attended our family
reunion at the creative writing conference in Oklahoma. And so I had that to build from. But I have seen something
different, is I don’t have to start by convincing people they
don’t have to be afraid of poetry anymore. That used to be
the opening part of my thing. Well I can’t… they would show up for some
reason, they are curious but my whole thing is you don’t have to
be afraid of poetry. So I think it is being taught better. But I’m also going to give a
huge amount of props to librarians. I think a lot of the comeback of
poetry is from librarians and I wouldn’t even be a poet if I
hadn’t fallen in love with a librarian. I see them they are not just putting out
fiction anymore, they put it out front, they put kids poetry out
front and hand it out. So thank you librarians, all of you.
[Applause]>>I absolutely feel the same
energy. And for a number, all these
different programs out there whether it is
poetry out loud, whether it is the slam poetry scene , whether it’s poets in the
schools, artists in the schools and teachers taking it into their own hands
when they know that there are like standards they have to
adhere to, did I miss any programs okay… teachers taking it into their
own hands, when poetry isn’t really
like a standard that is highlighted in what they have to
teach they go ahead and take the opportunity, they really take it
upon themselves to teach this stuff and when we get brought
into the schools it’s like an extra special thing for the kids
because they have been already immersed in it
and we can take them even deeper. So I have noticed just
the spirit of poetry is very much alive and we
are very much a part of it and like
you were saying though, we are just writing the wave. I mean, the energy is already
there and it’s breaking, where do you want to be on the wave.
You want to carve it up, do you want to be in front or on the back in
the barrel, what pose are you making, so for me it’s like I do
this poetry show every month, it’s like a poetry slam and I
rarely perform at it. Maybe like three times out of the year. And everybody always asks me how
come you don’t really perform all that much and I’m like did
you see the sign-up sheet? there isfor me. I want other people to get the
chance to be at the mic because it’s about them. It’s about the
voices of our community and highlighting that. And so that is how strong the
scene is of poetry. Don’t listen to those other
folks who are saying poetry is dead. You know.
>>Yeah, I mean I completely agree. I feel if anybody hasn’t been to
the Apollo theater yet in Harlem, you really have to go because I think the
ways in which I grew up with poetry as like a typical sort of studious person you know,
pouring over my books, writing it in a
notebook and I think when I started becoming very active in
this role I was invited to so many different spaces so when I
went to the Apollo theater ISA poetry lifted up in a way I
haven’t seen before even sometimes in the most
established situations where established poets were appearing
we would see like 50 or 60 and consider it packed. When I went
to the Apollo theater there were hundreds of people and
everybody was dancing. This was before the show started.
Everybody was dancing in the aisles and everybody was in
these choreographed dances and I had never seen that before, and
then since that time I have seen more and more working with
organizations such as urban Word NYC and the community word
project. There are so many organizations that when I go
back to your question was how much of it really has to do with
the poet laureate and their role, so much of it, as everybody seems to be
saying it all kind of existed before I was there. I’m really just witnessing all
of it and absorbing it and hoping to take that kind of
energy and bring it somewhere as they are sharing their story. But I go back to this, I don’t
know why this s story has stuck with me I went
to visit China a while back on a literary trip to visit different communities in
China and we were talking about memorization and reciting poems
and one person said every Chinese person really has a poem
in their head. And I wouldn’t say that that, I
would not say that was the case wherever I traveled but she felt
that in China that it was the case. And I said why do you think, why
do you think that is the case? Is it because in any place where
we experience hardship really one of the only things that we
have to keep us going is the written word? Is the word? That is the thing even beyond
money and resources we have that one thing. So I think about that now in
terms of the question, why is there a surge,
especially in the last few years we are experiencing a
particularly challenging time in our history,
and eyewitness, and I work with so many young people who feel no shame.
No holds barred. Just want to express themselves now. They
feel that it’s the time and they feel really emboldened to be
able to push back and be able to open up about what they are
feeling right now and I think it has everything to do with the
moment we are living in now.>>There’s also the magic of
social media. So you know, right now if you
walk into a Barnes and Noble Ruby is on
the end. You have to walk past her to get
her books. And I had students who are like you know who Ruby core is and I was
like what are you talking about. This is a couple years ago. So my students put me onto these
writers who had major followings, who were extremely
secretive. I still have not seen a picture
of [inaudible] Heed. I want to know what she looks
like. I want her to have a Wikipedia page that has more
information on it. But she exists. So these small
bites, these micro poems are saying what people need for the quick moment and the fact that these baby commute
computers that we walk around all day in our pockets and your
scrolling through but at a certain moment you catch a line
that speaks to you. And I think actually it’s
technically make people do close reading because if you only have
this line that is the only line you can look at and you’re like yeah, this is
deep, okay why I’m going to send this to, you show it to your
friend, but it’s one line. The poem is probably longer. But you
know, you got that one line. So I think about that and that
the world of publishing has changed, soapself-publishing has
become a more respected thing. The audiobook. I have friends who are recording
books right now like you want to read one of my poems and I’m
like yeah I will read a poem for your audiobook. Cool. But we can
do with our phones. Or you can buy materials, like
poetry has already been a really accessible artform. Pen and paper. It’s not the same
way as painting or other things like I scribbled my poem that
I’m going to read tonight on my paper because my phone was
dying. Because of poetry. And it’s always there. And it’s in the dialect and the
conversations we had and the metaphors we use every day. Your
grandma’s language, your great grandma’s language and Oklahoma,
even the simple phrases of longtailed
cat over a rocking chair. These are all images that live
in so I think, yeah, publishing has changed, accessibility, the
magic of social media and poems are everywhere. Everywhere. It’s so great.>>Before we close out, we’d
love for each of you to share a poem if you would. [Applause]
>>Whatever you feel like.>>All right, so I’m not going
to share one of my poems. I want to share a poem by an
Indiana poet named Etheridge Knight that I think is really
important. And if you don’t know, Mr.
Knight, I brought his book, one of his books so you could get a prop,
it’s called haiku. And there are nine of them but
I’m not going to read the numbers. Haiku. Eastern guard tower
glints in sunset, convex rest like lizards on rocks. The piano man is stingy at 3 AM,
his songs drop like plum. Morning sun slants sell. Drunks stagger like cripple
flies on jailhouse floor. To write a blues song is to
regiment riots and pluck gems from Graves. Hebert pecan trees slips a
pencil shadow down a moonlit snow slope. The falling snowflakes cannot
blunt the heart aches nor match the steel stillness. Under moon shadows a tall
boy/his knife and slice Starbright ice. In the August grass struck by
the last rays of sun the cracked teacup
screams . Making jazz swing in 17
syllables ain’t no Square poets job. Thank you. [Applause]>>I was a actually asked to
write a civic poem upon my appointment as poet laureate.
That’s what I brought to read. You may need to know only one
thing. There is a word in here, wewoka
from the Muscogee Creek language from my hometown and it means barking
water. Directive, you birth me land of
arrow and home, your red wrought fossilized deep in my bones. Near a roll mailbox a young or
whatever calls sweethearts kiss under
mistletoe, a tire swing spins in a shadowed
Grove searching horizon for a child long gone. Down a trail on the Prairie worn
by Buffalo glimpse of a gray fox at
the bottom of a slope Hunter sets
his sights on a white tail dough, venison’s
better than poverty’s half loaf scissor tail things on a
branch of black willow, coyote yips in the hills, a comical
robe. Alone in sere pastor under skies
blue bowl crow call a code that catches in my throat. Under a flat Yellowstone up a
dusty red road plant my ashes near Wewoka
on a dusty plateau [Applause]>>So this was inspired by the
movement toward planting food in our
gardens and also the sustainability movement.
>>We’ve been growing a garden around our place. We don’t have much space but
we’ve been working the soil beneath our feet watching the
green sprout over the concrete watching the vines
rewrite the graffiti on the walls. And we know that this garden is
a simple symbol that there is so much more to be done in this
world and sometimes it gets
overwhelming but we’re taking responsibility for what we can
control and so we are starting by planting seeds and
caretaking, making the ecosystem thrive, watching the earth come
alive, reflecting on the way we are living our daily lives. See we’ve been growing a garden
overtime so when we step outside we can visualize what green
energy looks like to remind ourselves that we know different
from the trees. That all the energy we need can
come from the sun, the wind, the sea and the infinite warmth of geothermal heat. And
we know another world is possible and no matter how
hopeless anyone of us feels this movement is real that
our convictions lead to legislation, lead to conservation that technology must serve
ecology and so this garden is how we redefine the boundary
lines between us and the global community. We have come to learn
that there’s no separation that every nation on this blue planet
is symbiotically fused that everything we do affect some
part of you so we have been inspired to limit our impact, to
leave our surroundings, sorry about that, leave our
surroundings better off then when we arrived. We have vowed
to reverse the destructive tide before we die. See we’ve been
growing a garden for our children, leaving a better world
for them to live in, teaching them to care
take what they have been given. Show them to take a stand for sustainability how to find the
balance between progress and preservation, guide the way to
self reliant revolution you see this garden is for our children,
this garden is our pledge to them. [Applause]>>So, this poem is also by
another poet, named Eileen Mylesfor the
work that she does and I found and I wanted to thank Jenna had
of time this poem actually on the
Academy of American poets site and ever since I found it it’s
been on my desktop and I read it every day. Notebook, 1981. I was so willing to pull a page
out of my notebook, a day, several
bright days and live in them as if I was
only alive, thirsty, timeless, young enough
to do this one more time, to dare to have nothing so much to lose and to feel that potential
dying of the self in the light as the only thing I thought that was spiritual
possible and because I had no other way to call that mind, I
called it poetry, but it was/and time and bread
and friends frightened and free
enough to want to have another day that way, tear another page.
Thank you. [Applause]>> It’s how you get funding. This poem is called when the
poem is done. When the poem is done. Never. When you say so. When a stranger calls it can. When it’s inspiration lives
behind its eyelids, under its tongue. When the poem is lifted by a
self-made breeze becomes aspiration in a
room of your peers when it illuminates you, midline, when
the poem is rooted in itself, fruit bearing, Apple
Blossom filling the wind beckoning hello and its leaves all live as midday Boons [Applause]>>So thinking about the notion
of how we might choose to get lost together and thi listening to us I realized
maybe I will rephrase that. We are lost. We are lost and I think poetry
is a way of acknowledging that and working
together. So this is a poem I think that comes out of that
realization. An old story. We were made to understand it
would be terrible. Every small want , every niggling urge, every
hate, swollen to a kind of epic wind,
livid, the land and ravaged like a rageful dream, the worst in us having
taken over and broken the rest utterly down along age pastsed, when at last
we know how little would survive us, how
little we had mended or built that was not now lost , something large and old awoke
and then our singing brought on a different manner of weather. Then animals long believed gone
crept down from trees, we took new
stock of one another. We wept. To be reminded of such color.
Thank you. [Applause] [Cheers and applause]>>Well, thank you to all of our
poets laureate and of course to Tracy and thank you to Jen
Benka. I’m Rob Casper, the head of the
poetry center, and special thanks to Vogue for doing my job
for me. You should fill out those forms, those surveys, they
will help us out. You can leave them on your
chairs, you can leave them on the tables in the back. Speaking of the back, as you
walk out to your left you can go to the when a pavilion, our poets laureate
will be signing books, so get some books, have them sign them,
tell them how much you loved them and loved tonight. We hope
to see you back here in September when we have a 23rd
poet laureate consultant and poetry.
If you want to find out about that event and all the events
that we do to celebrate poetry and literature
year-round at the library around Washington DC and
around the country, visit our website, www.LOC and around the
country, visit our website, Thank you
and good night. [Applause]

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