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An Introduction to Poetry Lives Here: Why Living Poets?

January 2021

It has been an honor to serve as the inaugural Fairfax Poet Laureate for our county at a time when Americans have been turning to the arts: books, television shows, music and virtual tours at the world’s best museums have been a balm as we reckon with the numbers of our friends, family members, colleagues, neighbors, and fellow Americans who have been impacted by COVID-19. Before these arts can offer healing, they must be made; before that, imagined.

What I love the most about poetry is possibility. Using tools of language I know, I can explore what I don’t already understand. No matter how many times I read a poem, I am always its student, uncovering something I didn’t see the read before.

This is not a trait specific to poetry by living poets, but living poets among us have the fortitude to respond to the world we’re all sharing. More importantly, they reflect their readership. When I was in grade school, we read two poets, and both had died centuries before. Both were men. It was hard to find my own experiences reflected in those poems; this is no longer the case. According to the 2017 National Endowment for the Arts study, poetry is finding its way to more readers than ever.

Some point to technology like e-books and websites such the Poetry Foundation or the Academy of American Poets doing the important work making poems accessible to readers as they are being written, but I would also point to the Fairfax County gem Poetry Daily, small publishers right in our backyard like Stillhouse Press and Washington Writers Publishing House, and editorial teams whose labor offers us thoughtful curations of creative work in literary journals. Just this year, George Mason University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences announced the innovative model for creative thought and production, Watershed Lit: Center for Literary Engagement and Publishing Practice, which will combine Northern Virginia Writing Project, Fall for the Book, Poetry Daily, and The Alan Cheuse Center, and Stillhouse Press in order to “[serve] as the hub for program-related initiatives outside of the classroom and across the region: an incubator for research on topics ranging from the history of the book to translation arts to burgeoning publishing technologies, and a laboratory for experiential learning for generations of Mason students to come.”

This boost in readership does not belong to academe alone; it belongs to residents like ours who support literary programming like this tenure project supported by ArtsFairfax and the events offered each fall by the beloved Fall For the Book festival whose virtual reach in 2020 was nearly 10,000 attendees despite the pandemic. It belongs to high school teachers who join forces on Twitter under hashtags like #TeachLivingPoets or  #TheBookChat to expand the range of voices their students experience and respond to.

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to facilitate a conversation at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference with champions of a living poets pedagogy including #TheBookChat co-founder and Maryland English teacher Scott Bayer; #TeachLivingPoets founder and North Carolina English teacher Melissa Smith; presidential inaugural poet for Barack Obama and Education Ambassador for the Academy of American Poets, Richard Blanco; and poet, educator and performer José Olivarez. It was clear to those who attended the panel and each of us at the front of the room that living poets unlock doors for student-readers in very real ways. This tenure project was born of that hope—that one of our fellow residents will find something they did know they needed in a poem.

We have an exciting docket of interviews with living poets and poetry champions in store for 2021 as well as a special virtual National Poetry Month project in the works. We’ll hear from poets included in the Washington Writers Publishing House anthology This is What America Looks Like, and we’ll highlight the rising stars of poetry in our region: Scholastic Art and Writing award winners in our region.

This year, if you are interested in enlisting the services of your Fairfax Poet Laureate to read a poem to your team and meeting, I hope you’ll reach out to the wonderful folks at ArtsFairfax.

In the meantime, I thank you for joining me in this adventure and invite you to follow this blog as well as on Twitter @PoetryLivesHere