by Laurie Hollinger
The RCAH Center for Poetry will be celebrating Poets Laureate in Spring 2014, with a visit by United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey on April 2, and Virginia Poet Laureate Sofia Starnes on April 16. A third visiting Poet Laureate has yet to be confirmed, but will be announced soon.
It is a rare honor to be named Poet Laureate of the United States. Since 1937, when the position of Consultant in Poetry was established, there have been thirty Consultants named, and since 1986, when the position title was changed to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, or Poet Laureate for short, nineteen poets have held the title.
Appointed by the Librarian of the Library of Congress, usually for a term running from October through May, the Poet Laureate works at the Library in Washington, D.C., and, according to the Library of Congress’s website, “serves as the nation’s lighting rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” The Poet Laureate’s duties include giving an annual poetry reading, and doing introductions at the Library’s annual poetry series. Additionally, each poet brings their own interests to the post, and works on a project of their choice. For instance, Gwendolyn Brooks (1985-1986) worked with elementary school students to teach them how to write poetry. Robert Hass (1995-1997) organized the “Watershed” Poetry Festival, from which a national art and poetry contest for students ages 5-19, “River of Words,” sprung. Rita Dove (1993-1995) gathered writers to explore the African Diaspora through the eyes of its artists, and coordinated jazz and children’s poetry events.
The current U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, who was appointed in June for a second term, is doing a series of special reports from around the country for the PBS Newshour Poetry Series, where she and correspondent Jeffrey Brown will address various social issues through poetry. They recently visited Detroit organization InsideOut, a literary-arts project that brings professional writers to schools to engage students through writing. Trethewey also serves as Poet Laureate for her home state of Mississippi, one of forty-four states (plus the District of Columbia) that offer the position. Of these, forty positions are filled. Michigan is one of six states that have never offered the post.
While the Center for Poetry may not serve as “a lightning rod,” our mission is “to encourage the reading, writing, and discussion of poetry and to create an awareness of the place and power of poetry in our everyday lives.” By arranging visits by nationally recognized writers, outreach programs for the MSU and surrounding communities, and sponsoring poetry contests and workshops, we stay busy all year tapping and sharing the power of poetry. During one recent outreach activity, intern Jenny Crakes conducted a workshop at Lansing’s STEM Academy, a K-8 magnet school, in which she worked with middle school students on entries for the River of Words poetry and art contest, the same contest that sprung from Robert Hass’s Watershed Festival in the 1990s.
As Lucille Clifton said, “One thing poetry teaches us, if anything, is that everything is connected.”
~ For more information and a listing of past United States Poets Laureate, click here.