Poetry is entering a new golden age, with young writers of color in mind

Lea Asmelash, CNN

There was a time, not so long ago, when many people could name only one, maybe two poets – often a long-dead white man named William Shakespeare, Robert Frost or Walt Whitman.

In recent years, however, a change has occurred. Amanda Gorman, after reading her startling poem during President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, signed a modeling contract and was invited to the Met Gala. Rupi Kaur, whose poetry first rose to prominence on social media, appeared on celebrity-dominated “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and has a special on Amazon Prime. And, for the first time since 1998, the MacArthur Foundation awarded its prestigious “genius” scholarship this year to three poets: Hanif Abdurraqib, Don Mee Choi and Reginald Dwayne Betts.

Meanwhile, Lincoln Center, home to prestigious arts institutions like the Juilliard School and the New York Philharmonic, named its first-ever poet in residence this year, Mahogany L. Browne.

While poetry has always existed and enjoyed waves of acclaim, the genre finds new significance in today’s mainstream collective imagination, shedding its previous relegation to the sleepy English classes of high school. And, for the most part, the poets of color are leading the charge.

In the past, poets of color were not always supported

Of course, poets of color – from Phillis Wheatley to Sonia Sanchez and Joy Harjo – have long lived and worked in the United States. But Tyehimba Jess, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author of “Leadbelly” and “Olio,” recalled a time in the early 1990s when the idea of ​​getting an MFA in poetry, or even being an active artist and to submit to literary reviews was completely foreign to him.

Then, in 1997, Jess came across a flyer for Cave Canem, a foundation that supports black poets in the United States. At the time, the foundation was in its infancy and books by black poets were scarce, he said. But being in this community is what first motivated him to follow poetry professionally.

“What has happened over the past 25-30 years is that there has been a revival of black poetry and this is in large part due to the type of work… organizations and associations such as Cave Canem, ”said Jess, also naming organizations like Obsidian, a literary magazine dedicated to the work of the African diaspora, and Watering Hole, a writing retreat for poets of color from the South.

“All of these organizations have struggled and gone through very difficult times, primarily on the idea of ​​hope and the urgent belief in the power of the spoken word and also the urgency of poets … advancing parts of our history that have been overlooked, that have been really ignored for so long, ”Jess said.

It is the work of these types of fraternities and organizations, Jess said, that has led to the moment of resurgence that we are now seeing.

As writers of color are supported in their work and become teachers or teaching artists or publishers or published authors, they create pathways to publish other poets from marginalized groups. This is the epitome of ‘rising as we go up’ – and one of the reasons why it may seem like there are so many poets from marginalized backgrounds who experience a mainstream success.

More people read poetry, mostly people of color

But poetry, as an art form, might also appeal to writers from marginalized backgrounds more than other mediums. Its inherent rejection of any notion of direct response creates room for the mess of human experience, said poet Ada Limón, whose latest book, “The Carrying,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award. This space might appeal to some writers rather than others.

“For those of us in the middle… who are not an easy box to tick, if your identity is a little slippery, poetry is the place where you can go and explore that, and it becomes a deep questioning. about who we are as humans, ”Limón said.“ It’s not just one way or the other, no one is trying to be right… instead, the poems say ‘Yes , me too ‘,’ Yes, that too. ‘”

And in Limón’s experience, writers of color or those from other marginalized groups had to resist the oversimplification of themselves or their identity – a fluidity that translates more naturally into poetry than, say, a plot-driven novel. Because poetry as a medium resists a summary or a single response, these writers may be more drawn to it as a form of expression, Limón said.

Limón’s perspective is also reflected in readership data. Black Americans, Asian Americans, and other non-white, non-Hispanic groups read poetry at the highest rates, according to data released in 2018 by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Yet overall, more people are reading poetry now than before. In the United States, 28 million adults read poetry in 2017, according to the NEA, the highest readership on record since 2002. And young people, ages 18 to 24, led the charge, with a readership which has doubled compared to 2012 figures.

Rupi Kaur – whose second poetry collection “The Sun and Its Flowers” ​​was published in 2017, the year the NEA collected its most recent data – was undoubtedly among the internal poetry repositories of many young people. . With a career that began in the early 2010s almost through word of mouth, as his signature short poems and drawings were quickly shared on Tumblr and other social media websites, Kaur now has 4.4 million. followers on Instagram and has three books to his name.

When asked why she thinks her work resonates, Kaur noted that her writing is very personal, and as a result, her audience can come together and find her stories in her words.

“I dive into my own life. I talk about how the loss, grief and trauma have affected me. I try to overcome this grief by writing poetry. My books are just a byproduct of this self-care process, ”Kaur said in a statement to CNN. “And I think when someone is extremely honest with themselves, that honesty can relate universally.”

Poetry has become more visible in the mainstream

Part of the growth of poetry is due to its increasing visibility with the general public rather than elite literary circles.

Many have contributed to this visibility: Podcasts such as “VS” and “The Slowdown” by the Poetry Foundation, now hosted by Limón, have helped, as has the growing popularity of spoken poetry and slam. The rise of very popular young poets like Ocean Vuong or Morgan Parker has also played a role, as have the growing efforts in elementary schools and colleges to teach the works of living poets.

But there is one thing that may have helped the most: social media.

“Despite all of its flaws,” said Limón, “I think social media has actually done a wonderful thing for poetry, which is to provide access and, in many ways, allow poetry to become completely accessible to everyone.”

It’s a lot more different than it was just 15 years ago, she explained. From Instagram accounts like PoetryIsNotALuxury, which posts several poems from a wide range of writers on a daily basis, to living poets using social media as a way to spread their work (a la Kaur), social media has changed the way poems reach the people.

“It allows everyone, if you grab a cup of coffee and go through Instagram, to have a deep experience with a poem by Audre Lorde or a poem by Lucille Clifton,” Limón said. “This kind of tête-à-tête, at the moment in connection with contemporary and ancestral poetry, it’s just enormous. And I don’t think we’ve had this before.

Another change, Limón said, was the recognition of the reader on the part of the poet. When Limón was in college, she felt like poems should be written for other poets, which changes the poem – making it more abstract or intellectual, she said. Now there is more recognition from a reader who may not be as familiar with poetry, which shifts the engagement of the work towards the community at large.

“There is some recognition that poetry is in conversation with real humans living on the other side, not just the academic side,” she said. “It has been a huge thing. “

She gave an example: Most readers, she says, don’t need to know the benchmarks of a Shakespearean sonnet to appreciate a contemporary Terrance Hayes sonnet. But in the past, Limón has said that there may have been literary or linguistic references. in the poem which kept “our poems for the poets”.

Poets.org, which publishes a daily poem as part of its Poem-a-Day series, has seen the number of its readers for the website and its daily poems increase every year since 2013, said Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. , which produces Poets.org and Poem-a-Day.

“American poetry – thanks to its ability to be shared on social media, the work of nationwide poetry organizations that offer free publications and events, and its diversity of voices – has never been so popular. ”Said Benka. “During the pandemic, in particular, we have seen thousands more readers turn to poetry for solace and to help make sense of this moment.”

So far, in 2021 alone, Poets.org has seen an all-time peak in traffic, with over a million additional pageviews. This increase in website traffic is, in part, attributed to Amanda Gorman’s success in the January presidential inauguration and her attention to the art form, a spokesperson said. word of the academy.

In this way, the increasing accessibility and visibility of poetry worked hand in hand, resulting in increased sales and, naturally, growing interest.

Chantz Erolin, editor at Graywolf Press – a freelance publisher from Minneapolis whose repertoire includes works by poets such as Jane Kenyon, Tracy K. Smith and Danez Smith – also noted “the current enthusiasm for contemporary poetry”, calling it “exciting.”

“The landscape of poetry is vast and varied, and the increasing frequency (and visibility) of breakout collections has not only resulted in increased sales, but also stronger opportunities for engagement with poets and the public. press, ”he said.

Although the number of poetry books published by Graywolf has remained fairly stable, the last time he accepted submissions for a single month in 2016, the press received more than 4,000 manuscripts, Erolin said.

“It’s an incredible time to live in the world of poetry,” Limón said. “I really feel like this.”

And although some scholars may argue that the true golden age of poetry was a distant time, Limón takes a different point of view: The golden age of poetry, she said, is that moment. – now.

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About Elaine Morales

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