By Jennifer Sadler
Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture. Communities across the nation will hold readings, competitions, book displays, educational events and other activities in honor of what has become the largest literary celebration in the world. The goals of National Poetry Month are to expose individuals, families and students to the art of poetry and to bring attention to the great works of poets long gone, established and emerging today—and to introduce Americans to the pleasures of reading and writing poetry. Another goal of the celebration is to encourage schools to incorporate poetry into educational programs year-round. National Poetry Month is made possible, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
The United States Library of Congress appoints an official poet, called the Poet Laureate, every one to two years. The current Poet Laureate is two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, William Stanley Merwin. Many of our Poet Laureates have created new ways to celebrate National Poetry Month.
For example, Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (from 2004-2006) had ideas about expanding the reach of poetry when in 2005 he launched American Life in Poetry. Kooser has family in the news business, so his poetry project was connected to the media. Kooser remembered when there was a time when poetry was a usual feature in newspapers and people would cut out poems they liked and save them. To bring back this idea, he started a weekly poetry column provided to newspapers and online media for free using poems by current poets— most of them short and not complex. The hope for the project is to help Americans see that poetry can be accessible and relatable to them.
In April of 1998, our nation’s 39th Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky launched the Favorite Poem Project. Like many poets, Pinsky believes that poetry is a vocal art and meant to be read aloud. According to the program’s Web site, Pinskey has said that reading a poem silently instead of saying a poem “is like the difference between staring at sheet music or actually humming or playing the music on an instrument."
The reader of a poem for Pinskey's project need not be the author or a skilled performer.
"One of the beautiful things about poetry," said Pinsky, "is that the medium is the human body and its voice, but not necessarily the artist's body. When you say a poem aloud by William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes, your voice is the artist's medium." The project is also founded upon Pinsky's belief that, contrary to stereotype, Americans do read poetry; that the audience for poetry is not limited to professors and college students; and that there are many people for whom particular poems have profound, personal meaning. When he began the project, Pinsky had a hunch that poetry already had a vigorous presence in American life. The project has sought to document that presence, giving voice to the American audience for poetry.
Ohio celebrates this concept of poetry appreciation with Poetry Out Loud Ohio, presented by the Ohio Arts Council as part of a national recitation contest but with a highly competitive approach for high school students. Students who participate in the contest memorize and perform classical and contemporary poetry. This exciting program helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence and learn about their literary heritage. Poetry Out Loud uses a pyramid structure that begins at the classroom level. Teachers organize contests with one class or can involve a whole school. Winners from each participating school advance to the state finals in Columbus (held this year on March 12 at Ohio Dominican University). The winner at the state level receives $300 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington to compete for the national championship. The state winner's school receives a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books. Two runners-up receive a cash prize for themselves for their school libraries. Additionally, a total of $50,000 in scholarships and school stipends are awarded to the winners at the National Finals. The winner of this year’s Poetry Out Loud competition is Caira Lee, a student from Shaker Heights. Lee won the competition with her recitations of I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, by William Wordsworth; And Soul, by Eavan Boland; and Celebration for June 24, by Thomas McGrath. Lee will advance to the National Finals in Washington, DC, on April 29.
Columbus is home to a great many accomplished poets, past and present, who have found a supportive environment for creating their work—regardless of their own personal writing and performing style. Columbus’ poetry community continues to foster supreme talent and is alive and bustling with creativity year-round. If you find poetry sometimes inaccessible and exclusive, the relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere created by the Columbus poetry scene will open your mind.
Poetry slam is one type of performance that has taken root in the Columbus poetry community during the past couple of decades. Simply put, poetry slam is the competitive art of performance poetry. It puts a dual emphasis on writing and performance, encouraging poets to focus on what they're saying and how they're saying it.
A poetry slam is a competitive event in which poets perform their work and are judged by members of the audience. Typically, the host or another organizer selects the judges, who are instructed to give numerical scores (on one to 10 scale) based on the poets' content and performance.
Louise Robertson, an accomplished slam poet originally from Virginia, moved to Ohio to attend Oberlin College. Though she didn’t study poetry formally, she did find herself writing it on her own while in college. Her love of writing poetry eventually led her to George Mason University where she had the chance to study under acclaimed poet Carolyn Forche. Robertson eventually settled back in the Columbus area and started a family.
“I sort of stopped writing for 10 years, for lots of reasons” says Robertson. “But when I finally got back into poetry and decided I loved it as an avocation, I started forcing myself to write every day for an hour during lunchtime. I also realized that I needed an audience and a community.”
Robertson eventually stumbled upon the Writer’s Block and got into performing her work. Writers' Block is a poetry group that hosts open mic events, poetry slams and other special events year-round including appearances since 2004 at the Columbus Arts Festival. Robertson says she’s extremely shy, so the transition from writing to getting up and performing in front of a group was huge. “The first time I read a poem in front of an audience, I think I had my hand over my mouth the whole time!”
Robertson is a huge supporter of local poetry forums like the Poetry Forum at Rumba Café and Parapatetic Poets and others. “There’s no local poetry organization or group I’m not for—I try to hit them all,” says Roberston. “I just tend to gravitate more towards Writer’s Block for myself and my own style of work.” Robertson works on staff at the organization, helping out with marketing, Web site and social media.
In addition to performing with Writer’s Block around town and at the Columbus Arts Festival’s Annual Poetry Competition (for which she has taken first place on a couple of occasions), Robertson has presented at the Columbus Writing Conference and directed the Columbus Page Meets Stage series. She is widely published among small presses, as well her own chapbooks projects. Her latest big project involved serving as the Women of the World (WOW) Poetry Slam Host City Chair in 2011, bringing the event to Columbus for the second year in a row.
You can enjoy a live poetry performance by Roberston once again this year at the 50th Annual Columbus Arts Festival’s Word is Art poetry stage. The Festival will take place this June 3, 4 & 5. Check out www.ColumbusArtsFestival.org for performance schedules.
There are plenty of local poets who share their work at readings in a non-competitive style. Columbus native and accomplished poet Maggie Smith is author of Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award; Nesting Dolls (Pudding House, 2005) winner of the Pudding House Chapbook Competition; and The List of Dangers (Kent State University Press, 2010), a Wick Poetry Series Selection. Her work has appeared in such prestigious publications as The Paris Review, The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast and Prairie Schooner, as well as several anthologies.
Though Smith is a full-time editor and mother of a young daughter, she still finds time to write whenever she can—during her daughter’s nap times or breaks at work. (Like Robertson, much of her poetry is created during that magic “lunch hour.”)
A huge boost for Smith’s thriving career came recently when the National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a $25,000 Creative Writing Fellowship. She is one of only 42 poets chosen from more than 1,000 applicants from across the country, and the only Ohio poet to be awarded a fellowship. Smith won the fellowship based on the artistic merit of poems from a book manuscript, tentatively titled Hush Now. Smith is also the recipient of three Individual Excellence Awards from the Ohio Arts Council.
"Columbus is a vibrant, eclectic city for poetry,” says Smith. “Between OSU—with heavyweights like Andrew Hudgins, Kathy Fagan, Henri Cole, and Jeredith Merrin teaching there—and the many other colleges and universities in driving distance, poets and poetry lovers never have far to go for a first-class reading, workshop, or book talk. I feel very lucky to have had support from the Ohio Arts Council and to have so many community resources here, like the Poetry Forum reading series, Pudding House, the Ohioana Library, the Thurber House, and the Southside Settlement House. April may be National Poetry Month, but it is certainly not the only poetry month in Columbus."
You can listen to Smith read her award-winning poetry at two events in April—at Capital University on April 7 and at the OSU Urban Arts Space on April 14. Smith will also be a featured author at the Ohioana Book Festival on May 7. To read some samples of Smith’s work and get more info on her upcoming readings, visit www.maggiesmithpoet.com.
There’s never a shortage of poetry events going on in Columbus, and there are several going on for National Poetry Month through the month of April that will bring masterful local and national poets to the stage to share their work with the public. There are also some great resources out there for individuals, families, book retailers and educators with excellent ideas for exploring and sharing poetry and even tips on how to construct some poems yourself. Whether you are new to poetry or a lifelong fan, we encourage you to celebrate National Poetry Month. To find out what’s happening around town, throughout the state of Ohio and nationally check out the links below.
Local and Ohio events:
Bexley Educational Foundation
Downtown Writers Network
Ohio Poetry Association
Ohio Poetry Association and Antioch Writers' Workshop
Poetry Out Loud Ohio
Write Now Newsletter
Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam
Ideas for participating in and celebrating National Poetry Month:
Academy of American Poets
A to Z Teacher Stuff
Favorite Poem Project
James P. Adams Library
Ohio Resource Center
Poetry a 180 - Poem a Day for American High Schools
Poetry Society of America
Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor
Image courtesy of Louise Robertson, taken by Arrian Wissell at the 2010 WOW Poetry Slam.