WELCOME TO NATIONAL POETRY MONTH AT GWU ENGLISH!
The first National Poetry Month was in April 1996 and was started by The Academy of American Poets as a month-long celebration of poems. In April 1996, I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago when my poetry professor, Elizabeth Alexander, tasked her students with creating a National Poetry Month community experience. For a shy, stubbornly morose kid from New Jersey, this was exactly the kind of assignment that I did not want to do. Didn’t we write poems to remain hidden, weird, and alone? Fortunately, I had a classmate and good friend, Jenny Kronovet, who forced me out of my apartment and onto the cold streets of Hyde Park with a tape recorder, and we spent a day asking strangers – a mail carrier, a harried woman, a flannel-shirted young man – about what poetry meant to them. We discovered in our awkward, surprising, funny conversations that people found poetry everywhere. Poems were in music and in chitchat, in rituals and in the everyday, in grocery lists and in love letters, and poems sometimes snuck up on people, arising out of memory simply because two not-very-tall, very dorky girls asked “What do you think about poetry?”
Even now, I can’t believe how affirmative the responses were. Poems! I didn’t stop wearing black or thinking morbid thoughts after our “community experience,” but I recognized a possibility about words, people, and worlds that made my own life become suddenly less furtive and less strange. Which is to say, with Jenny and countless strangers, I experienced community through our shared love of poems, whatever forms they took, and not only did it not kill me, it gave me an enormous sense of belonging.
Nineteen years later, I’m delighted that National Poetry Month is still going strong. I’m also delighted that now, as a professor of poetry myself, I can encourage my students to engage with their communities through poetry. Throughout the month of April, students from my and Thea Brown’s ENGL 2470 (Poetry Workshop) will be introducing a poem a day on the blog of GW’s Department of English, ensuring that readers will be getting the news from poems.
(Certainly not enough for National Poetry Month!) The purpose of having students introduce a poem is to remind those of us who read and love poems, whether we write them or not, that we must each be the poet laureate of our little corner of the world. Natasha Trethewey is the U. S. Poet Laureate. Dolores Kendrick is the Poet Laureate of D. C. Stanley Plumly, the Poet Laureate of Maryland; Sofia Starnes, the Poet Laureate of Virginia. But what about you? This month, let’s all try a little harder to share a poem, find a poem, ask a friend about his favorite poem, and visit this page to discover what our students want to share. Post a comment or add a poem to the thread. We welcome it!
I’ll close here by sharing a poem that reminds us what else April will be ushering in. It’s an old song, but it's the right time to sing it again.
Jennifer Chang teaches poetry at George Washington University. She recently referred to the radio as “The NPR Machine” and, if you can believe it, is still very dorky.