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Poetry & Publicity : Festival Notes from a National Student Poet

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The following is a guest post by 2016 National Student Poet Alum Joey Reisberg. The 2017 class of National Student Poets will perform at the National Book Festival on the LOC Town Square Stage between 2:05pm – 2:35pm. Come check out these talented students and hear them share their magnificent, original poetry.

2016 National Student Poet, Joey Reisberg

Nothing about the National Book Festival can be described as small, not the towering size of the convention center nor the dozens of incredible authors who jostle for space on the jam-packed schedule. Even the brightly colored tote bags are produced on a gigantic scale, to swing from thousands of attendees’ shoulders.

Amidst all these masses and multitudes, something remarkable happens. Ballrooms of strangers fall silent and share a moment of appreciation with each other. Bestselling authors, politicians, and celebrities suddenly drop their carefully cultivated personas to speak about very personal struggles or joys. And the best part is that this exciting event is free and accessible to all.

The general portrayal of a writer is of a tortured introvert, bookish and painfully shy. But I have been a devoted festival-goer for years because the celebration revokes that misconception, and demonstrates the essential link between literature and human connection.

During my term as a National Student Poet, my responsibility was to extol the wonders of poetry, particularly its power to reach audiences. One of my favorite moments happened when my fellow poets and I conducted a workshop at the Harlem Academy. We read “Grape Sherbet” by Rita Dove together and then wrote our own food poems. Seeing third and fourth graders smile and revel in the literary creations they made (and obsess over some favorite snacks) was a powerful and fun reminder that writing and literature is designed to be shared, not hoarded in elite institutions or put behind restrictive barriers. As writers, we have a responsibility to make sure our words get received loud and clear, because without readers we would all be hollering to nobody.

The magic of a good public reading is addictive. The first poetry reading I ever witnessed was when Kevin Young read a poem about chicken at the National Book Festival. (Maybe I have a food fixation?) The audience was all strangers at the start, but at the end we left the auditorium sharing an identical experience, a magic which buzzed among us like an echo of the entrancing words we had just heard.

Throughout the year of service as a National Student Poet, I felt myself in a very public position, a strange feeling for anyone, especially a teenage poet. The very private words I wrote were now delivered to crowds of people, and I decided that I liked this feeling, that, despite what people say, poetry gravitates toward publicity. Poetry and literature in general can be a great uniter, an uplifting of humanity, a space where tenderness and sensitivity are still in style, where people of all identities can share their unique stories with the world.

Seek out events like the National Book Festival. Make an effort to ensure that literature remains accessible to all by supporting libraries and arts programs. Let’s do away with the notion that readers and writers are quiet and antisocial. We can fill convention centers. We can create wonderful moments of empathy and soulful dialogue. We can change the world.