This post is by Anne Holmes of the Library of Congress.
Describe what you do at the Library of Congress.
In addition to administering the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry position, the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress hosts an annual literary event season, coordinates the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction and the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, and offers an assortment of online initiatives geared toward enhancing the public’s appreciation of literature. As the PLC’s digital content manager, I focus on all things related to the Center’s online presence: I manage our blog, keep website content up to date, oversee digitization efforts for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, and coordinate online programs like Poetry of America and Poetry 180. Most recently, I helped launch the Poetry and Literature Center’s inaugural podcast series, From the Catbird Seat, which features archived recordings of poets reading and discussing their work at the Library alongside interviews with contemporary poets and writers who can give some behind-the-scenes insight into those recordings.
What is your favorite item from the Library’s online collections?
I spend a lot of time with the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, and one recording I return to again and again is of Gwendolyn Brooks giving her opening reading as consultant in poetry on September 30, 1985. Before John Broderick, the assistant librarian for research services, even takes the stage to introduce the newly appointed laureate, you can hear the din of excited murmurs and coos from the Coolidge Auditorium crowd—an especially lucky crowd, considering that 300 to 400 people had been turned away at the door after the auditorium reached capacity.
Brooks, the first black woman appointed as Consultant in Poetry (a title that, the following year, would be established by an act of Congress as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry), begins her inaugural reading by discussing what she hopes to accomplish during her forthcoming year in the catbird seat. She says:
I’ll be interested in exposing poetry of quality, whatever its source, to the Library of Congress and the community it influences—a big, big community. I’ll be interested in registering on the public consciousness and conscience the generally neglected richness of ‘minority poetry.’ Other than that, I’ll answer letters, introduce programs of poetry, pilot ‘reading lunches’ (that’s my idea, and I expect to have a lot of fun with that, and so will the poets), participate in the recording of exciting poets and get recognized the work and voices of some of our remarkable young who will be major tomorrow. Once Richard Wright, T.S. Eliot, Margaret Atwood, Lucille Clifton, Mari Evans, and once William Butler Yeats were children and teens.
She then segues into a reading of her work, including her iconic poem “We Real Cool” (at 20:13). Each time I listen to this recording, I am transported into the audience and feel so incredibly lucky to share, even just for an hour or so, the same space and time with Gwendolyn Brooks.
Why should teachers incorporate more poetry into classroom activities?
Engaging students with poetry encourages their curiosity, and invites them into conversations with diverse voices and experiences they may not have encountered before. At its core, poetry is all about discovery! If students are given the chance to enter a poem’s world (or to create it), take a look around, and observe the way it thinks and feels through language, then they are tapping into new vocabularies and modes of understanding. Poetry not only teaches new ways of interacting with language—it also fosters empathy and community.
Tell us about a memorable interaction with a patron.
During the 2016-17 school year, the Poetry and Literature Center worked with Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera to launch his second-term online project, “The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon,” a bilingual, illustrated, narrative poem. Juan Felipe and illustrator Juana Medina invited second and third graders (and their teachers and school librarians) from around the country to imagine how Catalina’s story would continue, collaboratively respond to a prompt at the end of each chapter, and submit their responses to propel the adventure forward.
For months, our inboxes flooded with wild, imaginative submissions from second and third grade classrooms, which we would read in the office before passing along to Juan Felipe. Engaging with these collaborations and then corresponding with the participating teachers and librarians was such an incredible reminder that poetry is a unifying force.
What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with?
The Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature is a treasure trove of primary sources. As the Library continues to digitize these historic recordings and stream them online, the archive becomes more accessible and alive than ever. Visual texts may seem more approachable at first, but it can often be so much more engaging and enveloping to listen to a writer read their work against the cultural backdrop it was written. Listening can more naturally force us to slow down, observe what’s going on, and discover new paths for understanding.