Imagine a world slightly revised. All major consequences of the day remain the same– sleeping, waking, working, eating– but the effects of our daily interactions are sparked with something more poetic. Imagine the ornaments of your day, which might include regular access to the internet (if you are here, I’ll assume it is likely you have regular access). Think how you spend your time searching and gleaning what the internet has to offer. Imagine how your use of the internet often involves relinquishing some amount of power over your decision-making process to what is trending or most highly seeded. If we choose to have an online presence or interact on the web, should we also choose to interact empathetically? I say yes, and value online opportunities which bring together diverse, perhaps unexpected and collaborative communities.
The Academy of American Poets shares this vision through their extensive outreach and resources. Spotlighting The Academy’s online publication, Poem-a-Day, imagine receiving a poem by a vast array of American writers in your email inbox daily, or opening a newspaper to read a new poem that encapsulates the state of your heart at that moment, or instead of drowning in your infinite scrolling social media feeds convincing yourself of all of the things you cannot do, you read a poem and feel buoyed by what you can do. Imagine coming across The Academy of American Poets online and finding your new favorite poet and sharing her work with a friend you haven’t spoken with in a long while. The Academy of American Poets infiltrates online spaces, revising our world slightly to access more of that opportunity to bring together a community of engaged voices making more complicated and imaginative the tapestry of American culture. So imagine your day guided by a poetic intent to cauterize and praise, startle and rethink, and love, how would your community grow? How would your world be revised?
Through offering poetry as a resource during crucial and defining moments in our lives, the Academy of American Poets encourages revision of our world. During the height of the Ferguson riots, Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again” was “viewed tens of thousands of times on Poets.org” said Alexandra Schwartz in her The New Yorker interview with Claudia Rankine. I imagine a world that comes to poetry for answers and grace would be a world full of individuals with kinder dispositions and greater openness toward difference; I imagine this is what those viewers were attempting to do. Poets.org, the online home of The Academy of American Poets, has become an invaluable resource not just for poets and literature buffs. With 100,000+ subscribers, and reaching 150,000 more poetry lovers via social media, Poem-a-Day’s reach invites the opportunity to be guided by insight influenced by cultural and personal differences. Through accessing these various points of view, using poetry to make connections, interpret, and move through conflict we encourage a type of revision where we grow as individuals. As Schwartz continues, “Let America Be America Again” “is an anthem for a split nation, a nation that, nevertheless, in Hughes’s words, can’t stop trying to fulfill its own hopeful mythology to ‘bring back our mighty dream again.’” Poem-a-Day’s daily publication and outreach provides us the chance to question dominant power structures. Through representing the diversity of American voices we work toward that mighty dream.
The Academy of American Poets is a literary non-profit based in New York and first created by Marie Bullock in 1934, with the mission “to support American poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry.” They host several programs that have become integral to poetry’s stake in mainstream culture. In addition to their highly acclaimed poetry prizes for first books, second books, awesome books, and translations; the institution of National Poetry Month in April; American Poets magazine; various and abundant online educational resources, including lesson plans for teachers; and the Poetry Audio Archive with recordings dating back to the 1960s (I could listen to the dark, rich tones of Anne Sexton all day!), Poem-a-Day, launched during National Poetry Month in 2006 publishes new poems by emerging and established American writers on the weekdays and republishes classic poems by historical, sometimes underrepresented, sometimes unfathomably infamous writers on the weekends. Each poem is accompanied by a short biography, and, what I am particularly fond of during the weekdays, a few words by the poet talking about the origins, intents, or random tidbits about their experience writing the piece complicating what it means to have an American voice. The Academy promotes these works widely through their website, social media, email blasts, and more recently as Jen Benka, Executive Director, wrote to me “this past year we struck a syndication deal with King Features for Poem-a-Day, which means that the poems we are publishing daily are available to editors at newspapers and websites across the country for publication, dramatically increasing the already significant reach the series has.”
Bless the newspaper which prints poetry! With recent syndication, Poem-a-Day is challenging what a newspaper and online news site can be and how poetry can have an effect on our understanding of political and current events and ultimately how we are given access to “truth” and “fact” through the interpretive written word. To complement their ever-increasing online presence, I feel most excited for the potential syndication like this can have to expand readership outside of literary circles and university settings. Benka writes, “As a national organization, it is important to us to present poets from across the United States. We strive in our annual curation to include poems of varying aesthetics by poets of a diverse range in terms of their ethnicity, age, gender, and residence whose books are published by both small and large presses. In most cases, the poets featured have published at least one book, and we try to time-peg the poems we feature in Poem-a-Day to the publication of a poet’s latest work.”
Readers of the “Spotlight On!” column have told me they are curious about the staffing practices of the journals we feature. They may publish diversely, but what are the backgrounds of the editors themselves? Benka writes, “In the past two years, our organization has changed quite a bit. I joined as Executive Director; Mary Gannon as Associate Director/Director of Content; and Alex Dimitrov, who had been coordinating off-line programs, moved into the Content Editor role and began working on Poem-a-Day.” To be active editors and curators of the American literary landscape, this team has shown dedication in supporting writers who cover all sectors of this country and giving platform to their experiences, as they themselves have come from significantly varied backgrounds. Executive Director Benka stated that with nine full-time staff members they have a lively mix of women and men with a diverse range of cultural and ethnic heritage and sexual orientation coming “from different parts of the country: California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.” She goes on to say:
“Six of our staff are published poets, five with graduate degrees in poetry, and three with books on small presses. We have a young staff for a national literary organization, comprising Gen Xers and Millennials, committed to telling the story of American poetry: past, present, and future. Our diverse backgrounds help ensure that we are collectively paying attention to a variety of poetry communities and poets.
Also important for us to note, is that the Academy of American Poets is unique among poetry organizations, websites, and online publishers in that we are guided in artistic matters by a Board of Chancellors composed of 15 award-winning and established poets. Our current Board of Chancellors is the most diverse in our organization’s history. Of our Chancellors, nine are women, six are men, eight are people of color, and two are gay/lesbian. Our Chancellors live in states across the country, some also spend significant time abroad, and they range in age from 50 to 93.”
I am inspired when remembering that a small group of people can make significant change and feel supported in my own movement toward thoughtfulness and inclusion of diverse ways of thinking and being in the world. Poem-a-Day reminds us that poetry is alive and vibrant and continues to shape how we choose to participate in our local communities and online. How we choose to revise exclusive practices into embracing dialogue.
Spotlight On! is VIDA’s feature celebrating literary publications that publish exemplary work and include within their pages a diverse representation of writers. As part of the larger conversation committed to diversity in literature, we are excited to bring you journals and magazines with a lively mix of perspectives so you can celebrate them too.
Sheila McMullin runs the feminist and artist resource website, MoonSpit Poetry, where her publications can also be found. She is Contributing Editor of poetry and the blog for ROAR Magazine. Her chapbook, Like Water, was a finalist for the Ahsahta Press and New Delta Review chapbook competitions, as well as a semifinalist in the Black Lawrence Press chapbook competition. She works as an after-school creative writing and college prep instructor, as well as volunteers at her local animal rescue. She holds her M.F.A. from George Mason University.