Art Talk with Academy of American Poets Head Jen Benka
For many working poets, poetry is often sidelined to weekends and evenings, while day jobs in various fields are necessary to pay the bills. But for Jen Benka, poetry is her day job, evening job, and every other time of day job as well. The author of multiple poetry collections and chapbooks, Benka is also president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets, a longtime NEA grantee. Founded in 1934, the organization is dedicated to supporting poets throughout their careers through awards and fellowships, and nurtures an appreciation of contemporary American poetry through programs like their Poem-a-Day series, National Poetry Month, and Teach This Poem, which has helped 40,000 educators introduce their students to poetry.
But when the pandemic led to cancellations of readings, book launches, and literary festivals, Benka recognized that the literary field was facing unprecedented challenges, and was in need of new forms of support. Along with executive directors of other arts organizations, she co-founded Artist Relief and the Literary Arts Emergency Fund, which have since funded hundreds of writers and literary organizations. We recently spoke with Benka about the Academy, the pandemic, and her vision for the future of poetry.
NEA: How did you first fall in love with poetry?
JEN BENKA: My mom, when I was a little one, gave me a copy of Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems, which was a little beyond me at the time, but I found enough things in the poems that captured my imagination to keep me interested in the art form. Then when I was in high school, I had a few English teachers who were wonderful teachers of poetry, having us memorize poems and write poems of our own. I became enamored with the idea of language's power.
NEA: How do you feel your work as a poet helps your work as an administrator of a creative organization?
BENKA: I like to keep the two in kind of different lanes, but I think when you're an administrator of an arts organization, and the art speaks to your core passion and interest, it makes the work and the long hours easier. Not necessarily lighter; maybe not even easier. But it helps provide the fuel to keep you going. To me, nothing is better than having to think about poetry every day, and read poems every day. So yes, I have a job, but it's also a vocation. I feel fortunate every day that I have the benefit and the blessing for that to be true.
NEA: Conversely, does your work as the head of the Academy inform your work as a poet at all?
BENKA: I've been doing more reading than writing—that's always been true for myself as a creative person. I think I have been aided in thinking about my own work by having spent so much time with the work of others, and with so many writers whom I admire. I think all writers need to be great readers. That I've had the opportunity to read daily as part of my job is not something I take for granted.
NEA: One thing I wanted to talk about is the Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowships, which recognize poets who serve in civic positions. What was your motivation for establishing that program?
BENKA: We had a couple of different motivations. One was just watching the trend over the past five plus years of the increased number of poets laureate positions at the state, city, town, and county levels, and understanding that while those roles were increasing, the majority of those roles as far as we were able to tell in our research were not funded. Yet, those poets were doing more than serving in an honorific post. They were conducting programs, doing school visits, etc. One of our missions at the Academy of American Poets is supporting poets, and finding ways to get funds into the hands of poets. And at the same time, operating with an awareness of what our peers and partners are doing and making sure that we're looking for those gaps in service and trying to fill those gaps. This was an opportunity for us to do both of those things. We're also a national organization, and for us to have an opportunity to support poets across the United States who are doing very important work in their communities also spoke directly to our mission.
NEA: How do you think poetry can be a tool to spark community change?
BENKA: I think we've seen throughout history that poetry has played a unique role, and that individuals turn to poetry to both mark special occasions, but also in times of crisis. Poetry helps us make meaning and record events in a way that incorporates emotion and language at its most thoughtful. So I think of poetry as an art form that helps us translate what we're experiencing into the material of the everyday that we share, which is language and words. When I think about the poets laureate we're supporting and that some of the programming they’ll be doing will include writing workshops, I imagine it might be a very, very helpful, cathartic thing for participants to go through a process of putting words to paper, whether or not they’ll ultimately want what they'll produce on the page to be published. Self-expression through writing can be a very powerful way to process and transform emotions and experiences.
NEA: You've been deeply involved in supporting artists through the pandemic through the Literature Arts Emergency Fund and Artist Relief. How the literature field is faring now, and what support is still needed?
BENKA: Our field has been incredibly adaptable and helpful to readers during this challenging time. We’ve seen across hundreds of literary organizations that more and more people have been turning to our programs and publications since March 2020. At Poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets, we've seen traffic up 30 percent during the pandemic, with the majority of that traffic being people coming to read poems. All of our engagement metrics are similarly up—subscribers to our newsletter, attendees at our digital events, etc. Again, that's not just true at the Academy of American Poets, but among many of our peers.
Poetry has been an important resource for people throughout the pandemic. When we're looking to understand what's happening to us, it's very helpful to turn to poems, and remember how resilient we are as communities.
So on one hand, literary organizations and publishers have been resilient. We've been creative, we've been very quickly able to produce digital programming and have seen people turn to us in droves. Yet, at the same time, the literary field is historically underfunded and therefore we're less visible and vulnerable. I think we are one of the least understood artistic disciplines, particularly in the world of philanthropy. I think when people hear “literature,” they think of commercial publishing and libraries. They're not necessarily thinking about independent nonprofit publishers, writers centers, nonprofit bookstores, service organizations that fund, recognize, and create public events that feature poets and writers, and all of the threads that are necessary to create and sustain literary culture in our country.
As part of the Literary Arts Emergency Fund, we collected some data, and it's stark and severe. We funded 282 organizations through this effort, and in March of 2021, we followed up with a survey to see how things were going. Of the 60 percent of organizations who responded, there were thousands of events and publications that were canceled or paused due to the pandemic, more than 200 staff positions were eliminated, and projected revenue loss for 2021 was more than $23 million. So it continues to be a time of great need for the literary field.
NEA: Over the past year or so, conversations about access, equity, inclusion, and diversity, have really come to the fore for every sector, including the arts. Arts organizations are looking at their internal- and external-facing programs and practices and reexamining their role internally and in society. What does that look like at the Academy of American Poets?
BENKA: You're absolutely right, this is a time of important change within cultural institutions. At the Academy, we are deepening a number of initiatives. I'm very proud of the fact that we have a diverse and growing staff and that our Board of Chancellors is the most diverse in our organization's 87-year history. At the Board level we are undertaking a number of policy changes that we'll be rolling out in the year ahead and have established a DEIA working group that is helping to lead this.
We're also looking at all of our programs and publications to ensure that the writers we are working with and amplifying continue to be a community of individuals that is diverse and inclusive. On Poets.org, for example, in the past year, thanks to the Library of America and the essential new anthology African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, edited by our Chancellor Kevin Young, we have been adding biographies to our website of historic poets of color. We want to make sure that in all of our programs and publications, we reflect the important contributions that poets of color have made to the art form throughout history. We have been engaged in this work for many, many years, and in the past year-and-a-half, that work has accelerated as it has at most cultural organizations.
NEA: As an arts leader, where do you look for inspiration?
BENKA: I am personally very motivated by the questions, "How can I be of service? How can our organization be of service?" We are a larger organization, one of the largest in our field. We have resources that other organizations don't. That puts a responsibility on us to think not just about our own organization in my opinion, but others as well, and to think about how we can be a responsible community member appreciating our differences.
In March 2020, I thought: "How can the Academy help other organizations and poets in what is going to be a time of potential catastrophe?" That became a grounding question and I think a source of inspiration, because it resulted in my starting to imagine the Literary Arts Emergency Fund, and to reach out to my colleagues at CLMP [the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses] and the National Book Foundation, and to find my way to the team of leaders working on Artists Relief. That's been my internal inspiration.
My external inspiration is being in awe of the incredible communities of poets writing today. It's always been poetry and poets that have guided my life. And today, poetry is more alive and more vibrant and more diverse than at any time in our country's history. It's worth noting and reviewing the research project that the NEA led, which demonstrated that the growth in readership in poetry is being led by young people of color. The life that poetry has in the United States today is the future.
NEA: Do you have a vision of what you'd love to see the field of poetry become?
BENKA: I would love to see poetry organizations have more funding, be able to employ more poets as administrators and programmers—with special care and attention to those organizations that focus on serving poets of color and are led by poets of color. I think there's definitely room for growth, whether it be actual new organizations or organizations being able to expand their footprint because their capacity has increased.