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The poet laureate wants you to read this poem

Every year, April offers 30 days of encouragement to dust off the Keats, Neruda and Angelou, or pick up the work of emerging poets from around the country.

Since 1996, the Academy of American Poets’ National Poetry Month provides events, art and curricula to millions of readers, many of whom come from classrooms and communities previously unexposed to poetry.

United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, whose newest collection “Wade in the Water” came out in April, curated this month’s Poem-a-Day series. The vast majority of the 26 works she chose were written by new poets.

Smith shared with the PBS NewsHour by email what inspired her selections and what she hopes readers will take away from the pieces she’s chosen.

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

NEWSHOUR: What were you looking for in your selections? What kinds of voices and themes inspired you when you made your choices?

TRACY K. SMITH: I love poems that foster a sense of shared vulnerability between speaker and reader. I invited a range of poets whose work interests me. Many, but not all, are in the early stages of their career, writing in myriad brave and inventive ways about the big topics: loss, history, and the challenge to stay intact amid all the uncertainties that riddle our lives in the 21st Century.

NEWSHOUR: What did you hope the Poem-a-Day audience would take away/learn from your selections?

TRACY K. SMITH: That poets writing today are invested in all the many formal and thematic possibilities the art form offers. That poems are powerful tools for engaging with our big questions. That poems are great at handling high stakes.

NEWSHOUR: What would you say was your favorite poem from the entire month?

TRACY K. SMITH: I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to one poem. I couldn’t even narrow it down to 20 poems; there were contemporary poets popping up on weekends that are usually reserved for classic poets! That said, I love the nimble energy and the dense music in Brenda Shaughnessy’s “The Home Team.” And I’m haunted by the character of the “hastily assembled angel” in Shane McCrae’s “The Tree of Knowledge.” Kamila Aisha Moon’s “Fannie Lou Hamer” [which you can read below] breaks my heart, and makes me certain we have a good way more to go in our struggle toward looking across racial lines with compassion rather than fear.

NEWSHOUR: Why do you think Poem-a-Day and National Poetry Month is important — both for avid poetry readers and those who may be exposed to poetry for the first time this month?

TRACY K. SMITH: There is so much noise in our culture. So many frantic, angry, unreliable voices. So many appeals being made to us in our capacity as consumers and nothing more. The quick, glib, market-driven language that surrounds us tends to interfere with our tolerance for silence, our willingness to dwell in complexity, or vocabulary for what we are truly thinking or feeling. Poetry is an antidote to that. I think it’s a humanizing force, one that teaches us to listen to our true selves, and to value the voices and perspectives of others. Poem-a-Day is brilliant because it makes space in the everyday racket for something as meaningful as a poem.

Read Kamila Aisha Moon’s “Fannie Lou Hamer” below.


Fannie Lou Hamer

BY KAMILAH AISHA MOON

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!”

She sat across the desk from me, squirming.
It was stifling. My suite runs hot
but most days it is bearable.

This student has turned in nothing,
rarely comes to class. When she does,
her eyes bore into me with a disdain
born long before either of us.

She doesn’t trust anything I say.
She can’t respect my station,
the words coming out of these lips,
this face. My breathing
is an affront. It’s me, she says.

I never was this student’s professor—
her immediate reaction
seeing me at the smart board.
But I have a calling to complete
& she has to finish college,
return to a town where
she doesn’t have to look at,
listen to or respect anyone
like me—forever tall, large
& brown in her dagger eyes,
though it’s clear she looks down
on me. She can return—
if not to her hometown, another
enclave, so many others, where
she can brush a dog’s golden coat,
be vegan & call herself
a good person.

Are you having difficulty with your other classes?

No.

Go, I say, tenderly.
Loaded as a cop’s gun,
she blurts point-blank
that she’s afraid of me. Twice.
My soft syllables rattle something
planted deep,
so I tell her to go where
she’d feel more comfortable
as if she were my niece or
godchild, even wish her
a good day.

If she stays, the ways
this could backfire!
Where is my Kevlar shield
from her shame?

There’s no way to tell
when these breasts will evoke
solace or terror. I hate
that she surprises me, that I lull
myself to think her ilk
is gone despite knowing
so much more, and better.

I can’t proselytize my worth
all semester, exhaust us
for the greater good.
I can’t let her make me
a monster to myself—
I’m running out of time & pity
the extent of her impoverished
heart. She’s from New
England, I’m from the Mid-South.
Far from elderly, someone
just raised her like this
with love.

I have essays to grade
but words warp
on the white page, dart
just out of reach. I blink
two hours away, find it hard
to lift my legs, my voice,
my head precious to my parents
now being held
in my own hands.

How did they survive
so much worse, the millions
with all of their scars!
What would these rivers be
without their weeping,
these streets without
their faith & sweat?

Fannie Lou Hamer
thundered what they felt,
we feel, into DNC microphones
on black and white TV
years before
I was a notion.

She doesn’t know who
Fannie Lou Hamer is,
and never has to.

Copyright © 2018 by Kamilah Aisha Moon. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 4, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

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