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Talking Poetry and Poets Laureate with Shari Werb, Director of the Library’s Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement

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It’s been nearly two weeks since Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s inaugural reading, and we’re still reeling from the event. If you missed it, you can tune in to watch the evening’s festivities via the Library’s YouTube site (with captions).

Last week, we sat down with Shari Werb, director of the Library’s new Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement (CLLE), to chat about her experiences with poetry and the laureateship in her first year working at the Library. CLLE’s mission is to diversify the Library’s audiences; connect users to our collections, expertise, and services; and ensure that our programs are relevant, useful, and foster lifelong learning.

Shari Werb with Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and Guy Lamolinara at Mount Rushmore in Keystone, SD, for Smith’s “American Conversations” project. Photo by Rob Casper.

What was your first experience with poetry when you started working at the Library last fall?

Prior to starting my position at the Library, I had read an article about Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s “American Conversations” project. Soon after arriving, I inquired about the program, and weeks later I had the honor of traveling with Tracy to rural communities in South Dakota. I saw how Tracy used poetry to inspire meaningful conversation—and how the audience responded to listening to her voice, carefully considering the words of the poem, and making their own connections. Each community experienced the poems differently and conversations changed in each venue that we visited. Audiences were feeling it and talking about big ideas with each other. I was inspired by these “American Conversations” and would love to expand the way we engage with people around poetry and literature at the Library.

That was a significant introduction to poetry at the Library, which pushed me to start thinking differently about poetry as a tool to broaden human connection—as a great equalizer.

What are your thoughts about the poet laureate’s role not only as an ambassador for poetry, but also as an ambassador for the Library of Congress?

What I enjoyed learning about Joy Harjo is that she incorporates so much research into her poem-writing process. Before she officially began her term as laureate, Joy expressed interest in conducting research at the Library of Congress as part of her onboarding process. Previous laureates, including Tracy, have clearly been marvelous ambassadors for poetry, but I realized that they haven’t always had much of a deep experience with the Library of Congress itself—to reference it, or talk about the role it could play in people’s lives.

This is why I love that Joy had an opportunity to go and explore many of the Library’s reading rooms, make connections with the amazing librarians and curators, and see some of the collections that spoke to her personally. Because she had that experience, I can imagine future poets laureate similarly connecting themselves with our collections and resources and beginning to internalize them—to use them as a foundation of research, and then to speak to other people about how they might be able to use the Library of Congress in their own lives.

It’s exciting that Joy Harjo can now speak on behalf of the purpose of the Library and on behalf of these intimate connections people can make, as I know she found many connections with items in the collection.

How do you see the role of the Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement (CLLE) in supporting and promoting the poet laureate and other Library ambassadors?

What I like about poetry, in this context, is how personal it is—from the perspective of the poet and of the listener. We have an opportunity to humanize the Library. In having a whole cadre of Library ambassadors—whether it’s a national ambassador for young people’s literature, or a librarian speaking on behalf of a collection, or a poet laureate—we are connecting people with passionate experts and representatives of the Library. In general, our collections are silent; they don’t speak for themselves. As we continue to let people know more about these collections, and invite more people to use them, the collections will speak because people will start bringing them to life—through making films, or writing books, or creating exhibits, or using them in their poetry, or singing from scores.

Throughout CLLE, we hope to inspire people to engage with these collections together with Library ambassadors and other experts who care for them and know them deeply. The Library’s collections are vast but people get very excited when they find one item that speaks to them personally. We saw this when Neil Patrick Harris, a huge fan of magic, and one of the authors in our new National Book Festival Presents series, was shown a letter Houdini wrote to his mother by the head of the Manuscript Division. We see this when a music librarian brings out an original score of West Side Story and points out notations in Leonard Bernstein’s handwriting, or sketches of the original stage set. Our Library ambassadors can create opportunities for intimate moments with the Library’s magnificent treasures.