Beth Harrison, interim director of the Academy of American Poets, talks about the value of a national poetry month, the well-versed movie, and Poem in Your Pocket Day.
April is National Poetry Month, which means readers from Arkansas to Wyoming are dusting off their copies of Dickinson and testing out open mics. In another bit of good news, not only has the New York City subway system reinstated Poetry in Motion, this project also debuted in Nashville. And really, is there a more fitting place than Music City where Johnny Cash once warbled Shel Silverstein’s lyrics, “ya ought to thank me, before I die, / For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye”?
While Poetry in Motion belongs to the Poetry Society of America, National Poetry Month is the brainchild of the Academy of American Poets, which began the celebration in 1996. Beth Harrison is the Interim Executive Director for the Academy as well as the founding editor of Spinning Jenny. Despite this being perhaps the busiest month of the year for her, she answered a few questions for us about the program’s many successes, including Poem in Your Pocket Day. That’s April 26, so plan accordingly.
—Erica Wright for Guernica
Guernica: Why do we need a national poetry month?
Beth Harrison: Within just a couple of years of the initial National Poetry Month, which was started by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, independent booksellers reported that they were selling significantly more volumes of poetry, and quantifiably more poetry books were being included in the book-review sections of various newspapers. More recently, poetry has been added to school curricula and after-school programs where it was previously nonexistent, and reporters consistently tell us that they wouldn’t be able to obtain their editors’ approval for stories about poetry were it not for poetry month.
Those of us who read, write, teach, and care about poetry don’t need to set our alarm clocks for April 1; we’re surrounded by poetry all year and it’s an integrated, not separated, part of our lives. But that’s not the case with a lot of people. I think about it this way: this year, there is a line by Philip Levine on the Academy’s National Poetry Month poster. Maybe some kid will see that and know long before she arrives at college that we have poets laureate in this country (unlike my own experience).
Guernica: Our poets laureate are often creative in the ways that they promote poetry. Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project is particularly popular. What are the most effective ways to increase exposure?
Beth Harrison: The Favorite Poem Project was a wonderful idea and continues to be an excellent program. I think the best programmatic ideas start simply, as this one did, though of course it has since expanded and now has several facets; for example, the ongoing teachers’ institutes. The fact that the idea is eminently shareable is also important.
A program of ours that’s catching fire right now is Poem in Your Pocket Day. Put a poem in your pocket, wallet, backpack, etc. and share it with someone at some point on a particular day in April—that’s it. But this simple act is a transformative one—it actually builds relationships and creates dialogue in real ways, and it’s not always the case that as an arts administrator I get to say that and really mean it. Here’s a great example of the program in action: a video that a librarian in Charlottesville, Virginia, sent to the Academy about how the staff at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library recruits local students, senior citizens, local business owners, neighbors, and library patrons to distribute poem scrolls throughout Charlottesville on Poem in Your Pocket Day. Everyone involved with this project was genuinely—and sometimes unexpectedly—excited about it, and that comes through.
Guernica: I noticed that one of the Academy’s suggestions for National Poetry Month is to watch a poetry movie. I must admit, all I could think of was Howl until I looked at your list. Do you have a recommendation?
Beth Harrison: Stacey Harwood compiled a terrific list of movies that include poetry, as well as a great essay on the subject, and anyone who wants their cinema with a side (or sometimes main course) of poetry can do no better than to start here.
To my mind being interested in technology and the ways it can not only deliver and serve art but be part of the creation process is simply an extension of being interested in art.
Personally, I love The Danish Poet, which won the Oscar for Animated Short film in 2007. It’s a beautiful little love story about a poet who is worried that he’ll run out of ideas. It also involves long letters and long train rides, and I’m a sucker for these things. As for movies about actual, non-drawn poets, I can recommend The Practice of the Wild, A Conversation with Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison, which is a documentary about poetry, friendship, and walking in the woods, another thing I like very much.
At the Academy we occasionally receive calls from movie-production companies who want permission to use National Poetry Month posters as set decoration in a film, and that’s kind of thrilling. We always take a staff field trip to the flicks to see if we ended up on the cutting-room floor or not.
Guernica: I was once publicly berated for Guernica‘s poetry section not including more multimedia. (We have audio recordings now, thank you very much, random dude.) Do you think lit magazines and arts institutions have to keep up with the times?
Beth Harrison: Nonprofit magazines and arts organizations have the responsibility to examine what technologies are going to help them achieve their missions in the most expedient and effective ways possible. And certainly there are cases where that might mean eschewing technology altogether. But even if your nonprofit’s mission is to distribute limited-edition poetry broadsides made from locally sourced hemp paper and cruelty free inks on a 19th-century printer, you really should have a social media plan in place to let people know how great all that is, as well as a reliable e-commerce system. To my mind being interested in technology and the ways it can not only deliver and serve art but be part of the creation process is simply an extension of being interested in art, in learning, and in life generally. Floating Wolf Quarterly, for example, is creating beautiful chapbooks in digital format—what a spectacular oxymoron that is.
Guernica: What are the challenges of running a literary nonprofit during—at the risk of sounding a little doomsday—these times?
Beth Harrison: Funding is the obvious and perennial challenge, of course: government funding is declining, foundation funding is generally flat, and so many people are still hurting from the economic crisis. On the flip side, I’ve never felt anything but fortunate to work in a sector populated by intelligent, devoted, interesting people who are supporting amazing creative work. We’re not curing cancer or stopping war but—at the risk of sounding a little Pollyannaish—we’re not not doing those things either.
Beth Harrison is the Interim Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, the founding editor of the literary magazine Spinning Jenny, and a board member of Four Way Books.