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Bringing Poetry to Communities: A Behind-the-Scenes Look from Two NEA Big Read Poets

Happy National Poetry Month! We thought this would be a great time to introduce the two newest poets added to our NEA Big Read library: Adrian Matejka and Alberto Ríos. Both poets are poet laureate of their state (Matejka in Indiana and Ríos in Arizona). They’re fierce believers in poetry’s place in contemporary society and they have a reputation for enriching their communities with poetry. We asked them a few questions about the importance of poetry and how they undertake introducing it to their communities.

NEA: As Poet Laureate of your state, how do you approach your role as a public figure for poetry?

ADRIAN MATEJKA: It is such a pleasure to serve as Poet Laureate of Indiana. The position is an opportunity to give back to the communities that have given me so much. One of the main jobs of the Poet Laureate (as I imagine it anyway) is to remind our citizens that poetry is here, poetry is vital, and everyone is welcome to join us—as creators or listeners of poems.

One of the ways I’ve tried to do this is by setting up monthly community workshops in conjunction with the Center for Black Literature and Culture (CBLC) at the Indianapolis Public Library. I’m trying to create opportunities for my neighbors to engage with poetry as writers, while also getting them around collections of poetry. The CBLC is home to a wonderful archive of poetry books from the African diaspora.

I’m also working on a project with the Indiana State Library to create an online archive of Indiana poetry. I’m trying to make Indiana’s rich poetic history and tradition more immediate and accessible. It’s my hope that the archive will include Indiana poets past and present and will create a living testament to poetry in my state. These are just a couple of the things I’ve been working on, but the primary goal is to make poetry more present for my fellow Hoosiers wherever they may be in the state.

ALBERTO RÍOS: I take this as a responsibility and a joy both, approaching the position and all its myriad duties with high seriousness but trying never to let high seriousness be the show. I was born in [Arizona] and have lived and traveled professionally all around it, so this role gives me an opportunity to renew conversations I started many years ago in so many previous arts incarnations—Poets in the Schools, national poetry month [celebrations], One-Book Arizona, and so on. Being able to visit communities, schools, libraries, organizations again, then again: this helps to suggest that the arts are not just a one-time visit—they’re a life. I have characterized my poet laureate tenure as the poetry of a thousand encounters. In this sense, I treat my visits not as performances, but as the much harder and far more rewarding work of ongoing kitchen table conversations of substance with friends I have found.

NEA: What purpose can poetry serve that other forms—fiction, film, visual art—can’t?

MATEJKA: I’m a big fan of film, visual art, and music, and these mostly non-textual art forms are a great inspiration for my writing. But poetry is a completely different kind of art with a different agenda, one that begins and ends with empathy. Poetry distills empathy in a way that no other art form can approximate. It goes immediately from the brain to the heart. It literally gives readers chills.

It’s also one of our oldest art forms. Poetry was used to historicize, entertain, or make political statements long before there were novels, radio, or movies. Poetry still does all of these things while managing to remain mostly egalitarian. There is room in poetry for everyone because it’s inexpensive to create and easily available. Once people accept that there is no right or wrong in poetry and there are no secret handshakes or initiation rituals necessary to writing poetry, creation naturally follows. As much as I love art across disciplines, other art forms simply can’t do the things poetry can do.

RÍOS: Poetry so often is used as a word for the best—the surgeon is a poet with her hands, the electrician who is a poet of electricity. Well, people may not actually say those things, but the meaning is clear—the poets of anything are the best at what they do. The twist is that poetry is never one thing—poetry stretches us, stretches language, stretches thought, and in very diverse ways. It makes us think from choice instead of habit. Poetry, old as we may think it is, is often a new way of talking. It is never one language—it is all languages, in the sense that its realm, instead, is ideas, not simply words. Poetry’s best rule of artful gifting is stated succinctly: show, don’t tell. Poetry doesn’t simply lecture, but instead leaps to what a lecture is struggling to deliver. Poetry is the there. We may or may not like where we land when we follow an idea into its own country, and hear that new language of new ideas, but we know we are somewhere. And poems imagine much, freeing us from constraint. Dream is the science of yes.

NEA: What place do you think poetry has in the 21st Century?

MATEJKA: If my last response didn’t make me sound biased in favor of poetry, this one will. I think poetry is the perfect art for the 21st century. It’s concise, portable, and easily sharable via the various social media platforms.

Poetry can’t change legislation, reduce gun violence, or right electoral maleficence, but it can offer a way to speak out against these kinds of institutional or systemic oppression. Poetry is also a great enabler of voices—the art has empowered many people who were previously disenfranchised, silenced, or otherwise ignored in the larger public discourse. Poetry has the power to amplify the natural voice of protest. 

I think that’s especially true for performance poetry programs geared toward the youth like Young Chicago Authors and Brave New Voices. Or programs like Poetry Out Loud in which young people are given the opportunity to memorize and recite verse from a range of time periods and styles. To see younger people embracing poetry gives me hope for all of us. This is a great time to be a poet, especially with alliances like the Poetry Coalition creating new opportunities for verse and the NEA Big Read bringing people together around books.

RÍOS: Poetry’s place in the 21st century is the same as it was in the 19th or the 15th centuries, or even before that, and I think it will find a place in the 22nd century. People in all these time periods weren’t and will not all be poets or persons writing poetry, but it’s the poetry that we remember and so often revere—not the shopping lists or instruction manuals. Poetry gets to the heart of a matter, not the left leg. Poetry, so curiously, may explain the tweet and the comedic one-liner and the one incessant line we remember in a song. At its best, poetry gets to something science cannot explain that is inside us, and in that way becomes wording personally worthy of remembrance.

NEA: How can a community benefit from reading a poem or collection of poems together?

MATEJKA: Writing poetry can be a great act of expression and connectivity, but poetry gets its real power from being heard, read, and shared. The power of poetry doesn’t come from the poet. It comes from the readers and readers get their power from the act of reading. Reading has been scientifically proven to increase intelligence and empathy. It also helps people relax and communicate with each other more effectively. So reading poetry can enhance community by offering a shared space of language and ideas that improve the individual readers.

Just because the ideas are shared doesn’t mean they are agreed upon. One of the great attributes of a poem is it can be intensely personal while also meaning many different things to different people. When a community comes together around a collection of poems, they bring all of those different meanings with them to the table. That’s what we need right now—not just to read poetry, but to come together, to connect and to speak with each other in the open and empathetic way poetry expects of us.

RÍOS: People come together to create—a quilting bee, a barn-raising, a vigil to honor someone. Community, in its best suit of clothes, makes more of its best self—more story, better living, human remembering. When a community gathers to listen, to hear poetry in whatever form it presents itself—and it is a trickster all the time—words, those small Frankensteins, come alive by the electricity of meaning. We hear the words, we recognize the power of their meaning, and we get out of the way of good ideas. Reading and hearing poems together, whether standing together in an audience or sharing a common book, gives us a common intimacy, an acknowledgment that, whatever else is going on, we share emotion, vision, experiences. In this moment, we move from community to the personal. Community imprints itself on the person.

NEA: How do you present poetry to someone who doesn’t regularly read poetry?

MATEJKA: I think that most people are fans of poetry, but they don’t know it yet. Poetry has unparalleled mystique—which might be a gentler way of saying confusion—surrounding it. Poetry can sometimes be intimidating because it has its own expectations for music and creativity and it can sometimes feel like a party we’ve crashed without an invitation.

At the same time, poetry often uses traditional building blocks for English—words, syntax, allusions, even punctuation—that are familiar to many of us. So I try to build on that familiarity by giving the reader a way into the poem, whether it’s subject matter or sounds or pop culture references. I try to share poetry that offers up stories and circumstances that I hope will be both recognizable and surprising to the reader.

RÍOS: Poetry is all around us, and in the most surprising places—never simply books. I always try to approach an audience of new listeners with this in mind. I may have a poem in hand to read, but in introducing it I have already delivered something of the poem, burnished its strangeness. In this way, the poem is now already familiar in some personal regard to the audience—familiar and, therefore, not scary. It’s not that one gives away the poem in an introduction—rather, in contextualizing it, you help an audience to understand where we are all going in the next few minutes, where the front door of the house is, and where to ring the doorbell. We like surprises, but we want them familiar to our world. This is something poets wrestle with all the time—finding an edge in the middle. Advertisers have neon and raised volume, car salespeople have shiny colors and new-car smell, while poets are stuck with the regular. But this is a gift. It is a gift and a challenge to move the listener from where they’re standing to what they’re actually feeling.

NEA: Which new poets are you excited to share with communities during National Poetry Month?

MATEJKA: I’m spending most of National Poetry Month in Indiana doing workshops and giving reading and talks, so this year I’m focusing on the work of Indiana writers. There are so many wonderful poets in my state, but this month I’m using the work of three Indiana poets with new books: Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Alessandra Lynch’s Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment, and Mitchell L.H. Douglas’s dying in the scarecrow’s arms.

Each of these wonderful collections raises questions about community and identity and how we navigate those things based on our own needs. They are very open books, too, and offer the kind of points of access that will invite readers into the various worlds of the poems. I’m really excited about traveling the state with these beautiful collections.

RÍOS: I’m not sure what poets to celebrate but poetry itself, and the many who tread its waters as either composers or readers, this is the celebration. Poetry, I think, is bigger than any one of us, because poems are us together. They require a creator and an understander. Don’t despair in an answer like this, simply because I’m not naming names or offering a top ten list. The discovery of great poetry and poets is for each of us to make on our own, with encouragement. It’s a good thing there are so many poets—everybody likes something different. That’s why there isn’t just one book in the world, which a peek into a library shows us. All those books, all those voices: the library is the least quiet place on earth. The thing is, we hear all that noise with something other than our ears. Looking for the poets and poems you love is a life-long, exquisite search without end. The real truth is that a great poem, once found, suggests another after it, every time. Poems don’t stop us—they start us.

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