Laureate Power!

22nd U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith celebrates the conclusion of her laureateship in a conversation with 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), in a conversation moderated by Jennifer Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets, April 15, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Since June 19th, the Library of Congress has been focused on promoting our next Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo. Anne’s post at the end of last week showed the great wealth of publicity our new laureate has garnered, and we couldn’t be more excited about it.

For this post I want to highlight new online content for a few previous poets laureate! Joy’s predecessor, Tracy K. Smith, concluded her successful two terms in the role with a closing event this past April—and the webcast is now online. The event, titled “American Celebration,” followed Tracy’s second-term project, “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities.” Tracy began the evening with introductory remarks, then she participated in a moderated discussion led by Academy of American Poets Executive Director Jen Benka and including the following state/county/city poets laureate:

  • Jeanetta Calhoun Mish (Oklahoma)
  • Kealoha (Hawaii)
  • Adrian Matejka (Indiana)
  • Tina Chang (Brooklyn, NY)
  • Vogue Robinson (Clark County, NV)

Anyone who’s listened to Tracy’s podcast/broadcast “The Slowdown” knows how effectively she champions poetry; in her “American Celebration” event she showed how essential laureates across the country are in our national conversation about the art. The result was a moving and inspiring evening, and worth watching!

Recording with Charles Wright and Natasha Trethewey in Chicago for the Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry Off the Shelf” podcast. Photo by Steve Young.

After Tracy’s closing event, I had the opportunity to travel to Chicago for an event with former poets laureate Natasha Trethewey and Charles Wright. The two have always had a strong bond—Wright followed Trethewey in the position, after coming to the Library for a 2013 event celebrating the Fellowship of Southern Writers (both are members). The Poetry Foundation, which hosted the event, also recorded the three of us in conversation for their “Poetry Off the Shelf” podcast series. A few weeks later, podcast producer Helena de Groot came over to my Brooklyn home for a follow-up—we sat huddled together in the quietest part of my basement, in contrast to my session in the foundation’s fancy recording studio!

The result, though, is uniformly focused on the unique role of the laureate—and credit to Helena for shaping the episode. In fact, I could not be more thankful to her and to all at the foundation for showing how personally each laureate takes on the role. In my years at the Library I’ve been struck by the laureates’ humility and devotion to poetry as well as their admiration for each other. You can hear this in the conversation between Natasha and Charles. I was there to facilitate a discussion about the laureateship—to get them to talk about what they each brought to the position, and celebrate their contributions and perspective. But it became clear early on that I should “get out of the way” and just let them talk. By the end of the session I knew I’d witnessed something special, and “Speaking for the Country” is the perfect result.

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