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Looking Ahead to “American Celebration”: Poets Laureate in Conversation, Part 1

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U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. Photo: Shawn Miller
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, Poet Laureate of Oklahoma
Adrian Matejka, Poet Laureate of Indiana. Photo: Stephen Sproll
Kealoha, Poet Laureate of Hawaii. Photo: Ronen Zilberman
Tina Chang, Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Tom Callan
Vogue Robinson, Poet Laureate of Clark County, NV




















This coming Monday, April 15, 22nd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Tracy K. Smith will conclude her laureateship with an event at the Library of Congress titled “American Celebration.” Joining her onstage in a conversation about the role of poets laureate will be state, city, and county poets laureate Jeanetta Calhoun Mish (Oklahoma), Kealoha (Hawaii), Adrian Matejka (Indiana), Tina Chang (Brooklyn, NY), and Vogue Robinson (Clark County, NV). We hope you’ll join us for this historic event—free tickets are still available, but going fast—at 7 p.m. in the Coolidge Auditorium.

To gear up for Monday’s conversation, we’ve asked each poet laureate to answer a couple of questions about their roles and outreach efforts. First up:

What have you learned in your time as poet laureate?

Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate:

I’ve been heartened by how much poems invite us—whoever we are—to draw deeply from our own experiences, wishes, hopes and fears. Poem have facilitated honest and vulnerable conversations in libraries, community centers, schools, addiction facilities, detention centers, and elsewhere. I’ve also been really delighted by the tenor of conversations in rural communities. We’ve been talking about the poems as tools for living, for reflecting, for connecting people rather than speaking in terms of craft or judgment. I have to say this has been so refreshing, and it’s caused me to rethink the terms that are often brought to poetry readings and conversations on campuses, in literary festivals and in places used to such programming.

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, Poet Laureate of Oklahoma:

I have learned that even in the most unlikely places, a deep hunger for poetry still exists.

Adrian Matejka, Poet Laureate of Indiana:

I came into this position with the belief that poetry can illuminate and connect, but I didn’t fully understand how communal the act of creating and sharing poetry can be. Like most states, Indiana has a range of demographics in its 36,418 square miles—many different economic circumstances, races, sexualities, and cultures—and they don’t always engage directly with each other. In the past year I’ve seen that poetry can create a space of coexistence for my fellow Hoosiers in ways that other arts are incapable of. So if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I may have underestimated poetry’s ability to foster community. Poetry is the greatest facilitator I know.

Kealoha, Poet Laureate of Hawaii:

During my time as poet laureate, I’ve learned of the ability that poetry has to bridge communities that normally don’t interface with each other. And it’s not only communities separated by geography, but communities separated by thought. For example, the ability to bring together artists, scientists, philosophers, and activists. The ability to bring together young and old, conservative with liberal. Every time I’ve been in rooms that include such incredible diversity, I am inspired to realize that poetry did that.

Tina Chang, Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, NY:

I’ve learned that poetry can, indeed, save lives. I am thinking of a young boy I had the chance to meet through a poetry organization in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His family could no longer afford their housing in the quickly gentrifying area and, in the next few days, he and his family would be moving away and their future was uncertain. He was sad beyond measure and, understandably, didn’t feel like writing poems. I sat with him for a while asking him about how he felt, asking him to search those emotions, and to honor those feelings without trying to mask them. I also shared some difficulties in my own childhood and how poetry had saved me time and time again. I moved away to work with a few other students in the group. When I returned, the young boy was writing furiously. He then stood up to read his poem and once he was finished, everyone in the room came to embrace him. I think we all stood for a while like that just letting his words speak to us, just catching him.

Vogue Robinson, Poet Laureate of Clark County, NV:

I’ve learned that poetry is one of the most accessible art forms and poetry is always bubbling beneath the surface of life.

Check back on From the Catbird Seat tomorrow for another Q&A session with these “American Celebration” featured laureates.