Closer Readings Commentary

Academy of American Poets Forum 2015

For the past ten years as the leaves begin to turn in mid-October, poetry lovers from all over the country have converged on New York City for the Academy of American Poets annual Poets Forum. During the event-filled weekend, the public is invited to hear chancellors of the academy, and acclaimed poets, present readings and converse on the state of the art. Billed as an opportunity to explore contemporary poetry and re-fuel one’s reading and writing life, this poet-fest inspires creativity and provokes discussion.

Last Saturday, I attended the final day of the Forum held at The New School in Greenwich Village. As I entered the Theresa Lang Center, I found it packed with poetry enthusiasts from all walks of life—socialites, students, marathon runners, and mavens wedged in shoulder to shoulder, standing room only—to hear America’s top poets hold forth.

National Student Poets

The afternoon sessions opened with a surprise performance by the 2015 class of National Student Poets. To the delight of the assembly these five gifted young poets delivered a wonderful, witty group poem they had composed on the bus on the way up to the event.  

These student poet ambassadors are selected through the National Student Poets Program which showcases their achievements for the national audience. During their year in service, they will promote the appreciation of poetry and the importance of creative expression through readings and workshops at libraries, museums, and schools in communities across the five regions of the country they represent.

Reports from Around the World

Next, two Academy Chancellors, Naomi Nye and Khaled Mattawa, discussed their experiences with poets abroad to answer the questions: What does poetry culture look like beyond the United States? Which books and poets from around the world should we be reading?

Nye and Mattawa believe reading poetry from other parts of the world distills and encapsulates cultural experiences that are foreign to us. It serves to connect us to those cultures. They touched upon world environmental changes and political episodes across the globe which provide a continually changing landscape for world poetry.

Their suggestions for poets from around the world included: The Writers’ World series edited by Edward Hirsch; Saadi Youssef's (Iraqi) Without an Alphabet, Without a Face; Rina Ahani's (Iranian) “Democracy of Sparrows.” A third Academy Chancellor, Arthur Sze, could not attend, but he forwarded three of his favorites: K. Michel (Dutch); Jian Xian (Chinese); Mimi Ye (Taiwanese.)

Their suggestions for organizations involved in promotion of world poetry included:

  • SOAS England, University of London institution combining language scholarship, disciplinary expertise, and regional focus, concerning Africa, Asia and the Middle East
  • Rotterdam, Netherlands festival, The Poetry International Foundation gathering to present quality poetry from the Netherlands and worldwide to an international readership
  • City of Asylum, sanctuary for endangered writers—so that they can continue to write and their voices are not silenced. A broad range of literary programs are also provided.
  • Words without Borders, promotion of cultural understanding through the translation, publication, and promotion of the finest contemporary international literature

Poets Respond

The highlight of the day was a free-flowing discussion by three nationally recognized poets: Elizabeth Alexander; Claudia Rankine; Juan Felipe Herrera who tackled the question: How can poets and the poetry community respond to tragic events and challenges facing our country and the world today?

A recurrent theme in this session was the necessity of timelessness—these poets believe the art of language as it is manifested in poetry should exist outside of time. If one writes a poem as a response to an event, this has the effect of turning away one from it. Good poetry doesn’t respond to events in time, as Rankine states, “To respond is to date the piece.”

Instead, imagination and the experience of “place” should move together toward transcendence. A metaphor from Shakespearean sonnets ('misprision') was used to illustrate how we are unfree. Question: Are we now in a prison of events? Answer: Spectacle is all America can see at this point. We currently have a systematic positioning which comes out of our lives of privilege. Understanding and sustained endurance is what is needed in this country—not responding! Poets should look back to our history and bring in the context behind the event!

Questions: What does it mean when poetry surrenders to social science? What role does that leave for the imagination to play? Where is the material coming from? What is special about this point in time anyway? Answer: Through engagement in social media networks everyone is now pushing the same stories to the forefront. All together we have a new power—to disseminate!

Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, weighed in with his theory that our post 9-11 world has resulted in a split between two domains of creation. A cultural dissonance has evolved between two forms of written language: “Coding” (manifested in big data through numbers, letters, patterns, observation from a distance) and “Story” (manifested in imagination through inspiration, interpersonal relationships, experience).

How to overcome this chasm? Herrera says we have an opportunity through social media to empower the world. He would have readers stand on the shoulders of writers who are dealing with the various forms of oppression as they display models of resistance.

Speaking in a recent NPR interview, Herrera explains:

Poetry is a call to action and it also is action. Sometimes we say, “This tragedy, it happened far away. I don't know what to do. I'm concerned but I'm just dangling in space.” A poem can lead you through that, and it is made of action because you're giving your whole life to it in that moment. And then the poem—you give it to everyone. Not that we're going to change somebody's mind—no, we're going to change that small, three-minute moment. And someone will listen. That's the best we can do.