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Conversation: For Poetry Lovers, April Is the Coolest Month

April is National Poetry Month and that’s because of an initiative by the Academy of American Poets beginning in 1996. The Academy claims National Poetry Month is the largest literary celebration in the world, reaching over 10 million Americans with programs like the Dear Poet Project and Poem in Your Pocket Day. On Thursday, I spoke to Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy, about the festivities:

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you tell me why we need a National Poetry Month, how many years later is it now, 14, 17 years later?

JENNIFER BENKA: Seventeen years. The goal of National Poetry Month is to bring, or rather, refocus attention on the art of poetry, as well as living poets, and also our complex poetic heritage in the United States. The poet Adrienne Rich, who passed last year, said something wonderful about American poetry, which is there is no such thing as one kind of American poetry; there are Americans poetries. And we hope to celebrate the full range of breadth of the wonderful work that is being made today by poets, as well as historical American poetry.

National Poetry Month, Academy of American PoetsJEFFREY BROWN: And what do you see, if I can use the awful word ‘issue,’ but what do see is the most important issue or issues for poetry today from your perch there?

JENNIFER BENKA: I see poetry as being very much alive, more alive than ever, and living not only on the page but beyond or post the page. Poets today are sharing work on social media, Facebook, through Twitter, there are Twitter poetry contests, there are twitterary journals, people are reading poems on mobile devices, in many ways. Poetry, I think, is poised to meet the present in very exciting and interesting ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: You say that, of course, even though the death of poetry continues to be pronounced as it has as long as there has been a National Poetry Month and well beyond that, I supposed.

JENNIFER BENKA: Yes. Anytime poetry receives attention someone claims that it has died, which is not at all true, in fact resoundingly the opposite.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I always wonder if in some fashion both things are right, that it’s not what it was, but it’s more than it was. Is that possible?

JENNIFER BENKA: I think that there is truth to that. Certainly poetry is taught differently. Sometimes it’s taught less than it was generations ago. And as I was saying, it is living in different places. It’s not necessarily bound in books anymore — it’s shared via email — so it’s more accessible than ever but visible in a very different kind of way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us about this month, what kinds of things are you pushing or what should people look for?

JENNIFER BENKA: Well, one of the great things about National Poetry Month is that the celebration has really been absorbed into the culture. We see grassroots programs across the United States that range from the poet laureate Erica Goss in Los Gatos, Calif., asking local businesses to put poems in their windows or near the cash register. There’s a poet in Washington, D.C., Maureen Thorson, who has challenged people across the world, really, to write 30 poems in 30 days. And that’s called NaPoWriMo — National Poetry Writing Month. There are displays of poetry in libraries across the country. The poet laureate of Indiana, Karen Kovacik, is organizing a display of 20 living poets from the state of Indiana at the Greenwood Library. So that’s just a sampling of some of the many, many, many poetry celebrations and projects that are occurring during this month.

We here at the Academy have a few national initiatives that we’re promoting. One is the Dear Poet Project. Through this effort we’re inviting students in grades 7 through 11 across the country to read poems on our site, Poets.org, by our board of chancellors. We have 15 distinguished poets who serve as our artistic advisers, and we have some of their poems online for students to read. We’re asking students to hand-write letters to our chancellors in response to the work, and some of our chancellors will write back, and we’ll feature the correspondence on our website in May. We are also promoting —

JEFFREY BROWN: Wait, I want to stop you and say that you’re working a bit with us on that — or, at least, we’re working with you on that, I guess, Newshour Extra, online.

JENNIFER BENKA: Yes, thank you very much. You are helping to promote the lesson plan that is supporting this project. We worked with a curriculum specialist to design a ready-made lesson that teachers can simply print out and put to use in their classrooms in support of this project. And you have very kindly helped us distribute that lesson plan. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re welcome. I interrupted — what else were you going to add?

JENNIFER BENKA: The other national initiative is Poem in your Pocket Day, which this year takes place on April 18. This was a project that was launched here in New York by the Department of Cultural Affairs, and we have helped as a partner in the project to take it to a national audience. On April 18 this year we’re encouraging people to carry poems with them and share them with their co-workers, with people they’re sitting next to on public transportation, in classrooms, and just to make the most of poems that you’re carrying with you on that day.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and by the way, before I let you go, because people have asked me this, and I don’t know the answer: Is April a National Poetry Month because of the famous T.S. Eliot line about April being the “cruellest month” somehow?

JENNIFER BENKA: Well, the story that I’ve heard — there is a lore and I’m happy to add to the mythology. Back in 1996, when the Academy launched National Poetry Month, they did so by passing out copies of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” on the steps of the central post office here in New York City on tax day. And, of course, the first line of the poem is “April is the cruellest month.” So there was a little tongue-and-cheek component to the launch of National Poetry Month. But it has gone from that, the distribution of a few hundred poems to as, you said, many, many millions of people participating in celebrations of poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, National Poetry Month is in April. Jennifer Benka is executive director of the Academy of American Poets. Thanks so much for joining us.

JENNIFER BENKA: Thank you, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.