This past December, poet Justin Phillip Reed took off his shoes on stage at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Peter B. Lewis Theater—an auditorium in the round, part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s original design—and walked in a circle. As he enacted this “moving meditation,” the audience listened to a loop of his brother reciting an inspirational mantra, interspersed with a recording of his young nephew’s voice and Reed’s own live yogic breathwork.
Phillip’s spellbinding performance was part of “Spirit of Sound,” the final event in a special series that Taylor Johnson, the Guggenheim’s inaugural poet-in-residence, conceptualized and curated last year. An annual position that the Guggenheim has planned through 2024 in partnership with the Academy of American Poets, the museum’s poet-in-residence program flips the script of a typical residency. The poet doesn’t actually live in the museum to focus on their own verse, but rather imagines and executes programs for public engagement—readings, workshops, performances, conversations—promoting cross-pollination among artistic disciplines.
Poet and educator Ama Codjoe has been selected as the Guggenheim’s 2023 poet-in-residence, and she is in the midst of planning programming slated to begin this spring. Codjoe intends to use her residency to explore sensory poetics, “how poetry can also be a primary experience using our other senses: touch, smell, taste,” she says. Her work will be anchored by Audre Lorde’s words: “I feel, therefore I can be free.”
While this focus on verse may seem strange for a visual art museum, the Guggenheim has a long history of engagement with poetry. From the 1960s through the early 1980s, the Academy hosted readings and conversations at the museum thanks to a relationship forged by Betty Kray, the Academy’s director at the time. Programming from that era included gems like the first public performance of John Berryman’s poetic sequence collected in The Dream Songs and an evening featuring Gwendolyn Brooks in conversation with Lucille Clifton. A 1966 letter from Langston Hughes, accepting an invitation to read at the Guggenheim, sounds like it could have been written today: “In these rather dreary times,” Hughes writes, “it might enliven the evening if I chose among a selection of my humorous poems.” But after the 1980s, the steady stream of poetry programming at the museum slowed to a trickle. Although the Academy and the Guggenheim continued to collaborate on occasional events—such as a lecture by Claudia Rankine at the museum in 2017—the poet-in-residence program marks the first sustained partnership between the two organizations in nearly forty years.
Cyra Levenson had the idea to feature more poetry at the Guggenheim soon after she began her role as the museum’s deputy director of education and public engagement in March of 2020. The combination of the pandemic and the expanding Black Lives Matter movement had Levenson reconsidering the nature of a museum’s role in the community. “How do we take our history and move it into the present moment in a way that’s urgent for people?” Levenson asked herself. A museum’s job, Levenson realized, goes beyond hanging art on the walls; the Guggenheim’s larger mission, she believes, is in “convening, amplifying, and bridging disciplines,” she says. Levenson knew about the Guggenheim’s special relationship with poetry in the past, and she saw more public programming at the intersection of these two arts as a natural fit. The following year, public excitement around Amanda Gorman’s reading at President Biden’s inauguration further convinced Levenson of the potential of poetry.
When Levenson approached the Academy about being a partner for the museum’s poet-in-residence program, all were delighted to revitalize the historic connection between the two leading arts institutions. The Academy helped draft the call for proposals and spread the word within poetry communities nationwide and internationally. The poet-in-residence receives a $20,000 honorarium from the Guggenheim and one or more features in publications by the Academy. Designed to emphasize accessibility, all poet-in-residence programming is free to the public, with much of it occurring after regular museum hours.
“I dig museums,” says Taylor Johnson. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Johnson loved wandering in and out of the free Smithsonian museums whenever he pleased. After being chosen as the Guggenheim’s inaugural poet-in-residence, Johnson worked with the museum to help focus the program. Johnson wanted to “alchemize” the energy of the museum to create a collaborative atmosphere. He added poems in interstitial spaces within the museum—hallways, foyers, structural columns, and bathroom stalls. At first glance the poems resemble text on the walls, perhaps explaining the visual artwork: They are formatted in the same simple black-and-white lettering. A closer look, however, reveals poetry. Johnson also organized readings in the museum’s café, workshops with children and teenagers, and the series that concluded with December’s “Spirit of Sound.” That final event featured not only Reed, but also poets Jonah Mixon-Webster, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Simone White, who were tasked with exploring the relationship between language and auditory experience. Philip showed a video montage of live readings from her poetry collection Zong!, while White invited a dancer to perform as she read to the audience.
The Guggenheim’s poet-in-residence program is part of a larger trend of art museums centering poetry, says Michelle Campagna, the Academy’s advertising and marketing director. In 2015, for example, the Museum of Modern Art invited Elizabeth Alexander to commission poets to respond to painter Jacob Lawrence’s series of panels exploring the Great Migration, the movement of millions of Black Americans out of the South to escape Jim Crow–era violence. A recent show at the Whitney Museum—“no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria”—took its title from a poem by Raquel Salas Rivera and included a poetry reading as part of the exhibition.
“How can the poetry be ‘in residence’ at the Guggenheim?” Codjoe is asking herself as she considers her new role. “If it shows up in a lot of different ways, maybe it will feel like it’s dwelling there. That’s why I want to activate different spaces and layers.” Like Johnson, Codjoe is interested in interstitial spaces. For one of her projects, she intends to activate the line: not only the poetic line, but the queue outside the Guggenheim, where people wait to enter the building. Codjoe envisions bringing readings, dance performances, and food trucks to engage with the line. “That’s my most dreamy of the dreams,” Codjoe says. “Make that space feel meaningful.”
Adrienne Raphel is the author of Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures With Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them (Penguin Press, 2020) and the poetry collections What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017) and Our Dark Academia (Rescue Press, 2022).