I feel sorry for Alexandra Petri. She clearly doesn’t know the poetry world I know. Petri’s column, “Ode to an obsolete art” in the Washington Post, Saturday, January 26, 2013, requires a response. She calls into question the need for poetry. She suggests poets are vain and self-centered. But the main problem with her column is simple. It’s breathtakingly uninformed. She says she has begun to “worry about poetry.” She questions poetry’s necessity, writing that “other things do much better.” She asks “What now is so urgent that it can be said only in poetry?” My life in writing and reading poetry is admittedly, only mine. But let me share a bit of the poetry world I know. It’s not dead. Far from it. In fact, let’s just start right here in Washington, D.C.
My friend, E. Ethelbert Miller is a kind of “dean” of D.C. poets. He has worked at Howard University for many years and is a beautifully talented poet. Ethelbert is the author of several books of poems, his style is short, compressed poems that sit loaded with insight and beauty. What can be “only said in poetry?” Read Ethelbert’s poem “Divine Love” and you will find out. Beyond his own work, Ethelbert describes himself as a literary activist. He’s been taking local poets up to the Montgomery County Correctional Facility for several years. I was fortunate enough to go with him a few summers ago. He had judged a poetry contest which many of the inmates entered. I talked about the role of poetry in my life and read some of my work to a group of men we might not normally think of as interested in poetry. But the prison library was packed with 30 or 40 men who were very serious about poetry– their own and others. Recently too, Ethelbert connected me with a group of Chinese poets who were traveling through the U.S. We had a great reading and gathering with this lively and devoted group of poets from across the world.
I taught recently in the College Writing Program at American University where two of our region’s finest poets teach in the Literature Department: David Keplinger and Kyle Dargan are two poets whose work is nothing short of contagious for many undergraduate and graduate students. Our region has many fine poets at various schools and colleges but David and Kyle are two I know well. Between their own writing and readings, AU’s Visiting Writers Series, and the Isosceles Poetry Series, these two poets steadily draw others, especially young people, into the world of poetry.
One can’t talk about poetry in Washington, D.C. without mentioning the passionate work of my friend, Sarah Browning. Sarah moved to D.C. in 2003 and immediately founded D.C. Poets Against the War. Besides being a talented poet herself, Sarah is an untiring activist. D.C. Poets Against the War put out two anthologies under that name, as well as a chapbook, Cut Loose The Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib.When the AU Museum hosted Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib collection, we also hosted a reading in the museum which drew over 100 passionate listeners. Ethelbert Miller is in the photo above reading his poems at that reading. (Photo Credit: Dan Vera) This book and event seem to me a perfect answer to Alexandra’s question “What now is so urgent that it can be said only in poetry?” How we react to torture, how we respond to our own country engaged in something we thought had long been named evil. Sometimes poetry is the only response. It gets to the heart in ways a report cannot.
D.C. Poets Against the War, with Sarah Browning’s leadership, has grown into Split This Rock, a national poetry organization which has hosted three festivals here in D.C., each one more popular than the last. Split This Rock has energized poets and poetry lovers all over the country as it urges a more prominent role for poets and poetry in our public life.
Perhaps the most stunning absence in Petri’s article regards poetry’s popularity with young people. Poetry Out Loud programs are wildly popular in high schools across the country. Last year, I judged the Poetry Out Loud finals at D.C.’s Banneker High School. Those students were beautifully serious about poetry. They recited it with fire and wisdom. The packed auditorium of their peers cheered them on. Poetry’s not dead there. Not at all. Similarly, my friend, Andrew Ratner began a terrific Poetry Out Loud program at Archbishop Carroll High School. He organizes students there who are wildly passionate for this art form. Back in 2000, I founded the Writing Center at Archbishop Carroll and we held regular poetry slams, published a literary magazine, all with students who loved the art form. Now in my work at Gonzaga College High School, we have a group of students who meet once a week to work on their own poetry. No academic credit given. They come because poetry speaks to them in ways other arts forms do not. This can be said for nearly every high school. Poetry grabs young people as an outlet for the worries and fears of growing up. Split This Rock Poetry also supports the D.C. Youth Slam Team. This group includes young people, some teaching artists, others just learning the craft of poetry, who perform and compete in poetry slams around the country. Do we really need to “worry about poetry?”
Another world where poetry matters, which Petri might have considered, is the world of wounded veterans. Poetry is making a huge difference in veterans hospitals all over the country. I had dinner recently with North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti who organizes all sorts of poetry writing workshops for veterans. Sometimes the only way to grieve the losses that come from war is through the images and lines of poems. All one need do is read Brian Turner’s amazing book of poems Here, Bullet to see the power of poetry in dealing with war and its consequences.
Think poetry doesn’t speak to the concerns of our times? Then you haven’t read Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler and its hauntingly beautiful poem “34” about 34 residents of St. Rita’s Nursing Home who drowned during Hurricane Katrina. Think poetry isn’t addressing our society’s greatest fears? Then check out Martin Espada’s poem “Alabanza” about the men and women who worked in the restaurant atop one of the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11. Read Mark Doty’s poem “Charlie Howard’s Descent” which tells the story of a young gay man thrown from a bridge in New York City by a group of teens. Read D.C. poets Alan King‘s tender and moving accounts of family in his new book Drift. Read D.C. poet Niki Herd‘s amazing book The Language of Shedding Skin which holds a barely contained rage right beside joyous love of the language.
This past summer, The DC Center hosted the Outwrite Book Festival. Over two hot days in August there were readings and panel discussions, many of which included poets and poetry. I participated in a reading from Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality. We read to a packed house as did a group of Lesbian poets who read from a new anthology Lady Business. Sibling Rivalry Press published both of those books. The DC Center’s U Street storefront was packed for these and lots of other poetry readings that weekend.
And yes, I could go on. I could list many more places where D.C. poets engage the world. I could list students of mine whose lives are changed, not just because of the poetry they write, but because of the poetry they read in classes. No one need “worry” about poetry. Could it use more readers? Of course. Would I like for poets to sell more books? Sure. But the need for poetry is certain. We’ve been writing and reading poetry since we first wrote on the sides of caves and canoes. We’ll be doing it for as long as we draw breath. So, Alexandra, let me take you to a poetry reading. Let me introduce you to the poetry world in Washington, D.C. that I know. Maybe I’ll even give you a poetry book.