Poetry Is Going Extinct, Government Data Show.” “Does Poetry Still Matter?” “Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?” These headlines, the likes of which seem to crop up on the Internet every year, suggest the same thing: Poetry is no longer relevant in America. No one reads it, and no one cares. “Thankfully, they’re wrong,” says Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. “People are turning to poetry, not away. That’s the story the Poetry Coalition plans to tell.”
The Poetry Coalition is a partnership of twenty poetry organizations from across the United States, including the Academy of American Poets, the Wick Poetry Center, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, LAMBDA Literary, and the Cave Canem Foundation, whose goal is to enhance the visibility of poetry and its impact on American culture as well as on the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds throughout the country.
The coalition began to take shape in November 2015, when leaders of fifteen of the twenty participating organizations gathered at the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to explore how they might work together. “We determined that if we leveraged our unique assets as poetry organizations across the nation and collaborated on our actual programming, we would inspire more interest and support in the art form,” Benka says. The time for such a collaboration seems right, as—despite what the headlines suggest—the popularity of poetry appears to be on the rise. “We’re seeing gigantic increases in people subscribing to poetry journals and Listservs,” says Benka, who notes that coalition members’ websites have also seen increased traffic in the past couple of years. “There are more journals than ever…. Everything is trending up. Nothing is trending down.”
The coalition’s first project, “Because We Come From Everything: Poetry & Migration,” launches this month and will present an array of programs on the theme of migration. Throughout the month, each member organization will present a program or project focused on the theme. CantoMundo and Letras Latinas—which both work to promote the voices of Latino and Latina poets—will publish essays and interviews with poets on Latina and Latino poetry and migration on the Letras Latinas blog each day. The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival will address migration through a more environmental lens by copresenting The Birds of May at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, which will be held in Princeton, New Jersey, from March 28 to April 2. The film examines the diminishment of New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore after Hurricane Sandy and the ensuing threat posed to the migratory patterns of the endangered red knot bird. The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers’ National Student Poets Program, meanwhile, will post poems by National Student Poets as well as others that tackle the migration theme to their Tumblr page with the hashtag #WeComeFromEverything.
The list of programs is as innovative as it is socially relevant, especially amid increased national conversations about immigration. “Any way you tackle migration is going to have social relevance,” says Benka, “but it’s particularly appropriate for a collection of nonprofits in support of poetry to be doing it, and we’re excited by the variety of interpretations and mediums of the programs we’re putting together.” Once the initiative is complete, the coalition plans to evaluate its success and organize similar initiatives.
While it’s hard to predict how the coalition will enhance the visibility of poetry among the general public, the organizers believe that working together to promote poetry across shared themes will demonstrate the form’s particular and powerful impact on, within, and across communities. “Poetry uniquely inspires empathy and greater understanding between people,” says Benka. “What better way to build on the popularity of poetry and to tell the true story of the art form than via poetry itself?”
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a freelance writer, editor, ghostwriter, and writing coach. He is the acquisitions editor of Upper Rubber Boot Books, founder and editor in chief of poemoftheweek.org, founder and editor of the Floodgate Poetry Series, and founder of the Little Grassy Literary Festival. His poetry collection, Ghost Gear, was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2014. His website is andrewmk.com.