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A Big Moment for Our Nation’s Poets Laureate

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Grace Cavalieri, Poet Laureate of Maryland and Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Photo credit: Tony Lewis

This week there was some exciting national Poet Laureate news that we’re eager to share: The Academy of American Poets announced the awarding of its Laureate Fellows. According to the Academy’s website, fellows were selected “in recognition of their literary excellence and to help support their civic projects. Each has served as a Poet Laureate of their state, city, or county and in the year ahead will be addressing issues important to their communities through poetry.” It’s the first such program on a national level, supporting and promoting what has become a laureate phenomenon across the country.

The 13 Academy Laureate Fellows include Indiana Poet Laureate Adrian Matejka and Oklahoma Poet Laureate Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, who just participated in Tracy K. Smith’s closing event as U.S. Poet Laureate. Note that the event, titled “American Celebration,” was presented in partnership with the Academy—and its president and executive director, Jennifer Benka, brilliantly moderated the conversation.

April 15th wasn’t the first time the Library featured Adrian Matejka—back in 2017 he came to our National Book Festival and read with poet Marie Howe. I led a moderated discussion with them both as well, and it was lovely to see them bond onstage! I also moderated a discussion at a 2018 event titled “Poets Laureate: From LA to DC,” with Laureate Fellow and Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis and then-National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman. You can read Amanda’s post about the event on our blog. We’ve also featured Laureate Fellow and Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal, both at the 2014 National Book Festival (where she talked about creative nonfiction) and in the Poetry and Literature Center’s Interview Series.

Of all the Poets Laureate I’ve met, one has been a constant presence throughout my tenure at the Library of Congress: Laureate Fellow and Maryland State Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri. For decades, Grace has hosted “The Poet and the Poem” radio program, recorded in the Library’s historic studio and archived at the George Washington University’s Special Collections Research Center. She is also one of the most enthusiastic promoters of the art I know, and her commitment is downright inspiring.

And that leads me to what is arguably the best part of the Academy Laureate Fellowships: They are meant to help awardees “undertake impactful and innovative projects that will engage their fellow residents and address important issues with poetry.” Grace plans to use her fellowship to launch a podcast and develop a monthly column with state newspapers, both featuring Maryland poets. I wish her and the other fellows the best of luck, and I thank the Academy (and the Mellon Foundation, which supported the establishment of the program) for promoting such essential work.