I’ve been to gatherings where people are talking about the books they are reading and someone will say, “Well, I’m reading this great book of poems.”
You can see on some of the faces the reflection of, “You are reading what?”
Not anymore. Poetry is back big-time in popular culture. Actually, poetry has been big for centuries, but in this online world, things can be “new” in a heartbeat.
Amanda Gorman drew rave reviews with her poetic call for unity at the recent inauguration of Joe Biden, and then another star turn before the Super Bowl.
Gorman was the youngest poet to ever recite at a U.S. President’s inauguration, but she’s been writing poetry since she was only a few years old. She’s been invited to the White House and won a Genius Grant from OZY Media. Suddenly, she’s on the cover of Time magazine and being interviewed by Michelle Obama.
National Public Radio’s Kwame Alexander has been a listener favorite for years and recently called for contributions to a crowd-sourced poem, which resulted in 2,500 contributions and his poem “This is My Dream.” He’s an acclaimed author and poet, writing award-winning novels in verse; fostering the education of writing; and also a wunderkind who gained national prominence in his 20s.
In preparation for National Poetry Month in April, South Pasadena’s Poet Laureate Ron Koertge is joining with the city’s public library in asking residents to contribute offerings to help him craft a “crowd-sourced poem” with material sent in by South Pasadenans.
“We want people in the community to get into it; be a part of it,” said Koertge, a nationally known poet and writer. Using a musical analogy, he continued: “The rhythm is the key words and then I’ll come up with a base melody line so they can hear music.
“The tide is high for this kind of poem,” Koertge added, “so we thought we’d give it a try.”
The theme for the poem is “Beginnings” and contributors will offer thoughts and memories and submit one or two lines.
“Beginnings mean different things to different people,” Koertge said. “Planting a garden is a new beginning. So is adopting a dog or cat. A father makes a different sandwich for his kid’s lunch. Someone says she’s sorry and wants to start over.”
Koertge is asking people to send their thoughts — by March 19 — via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or they can be mailed or dropped off at the library with the word “Beginnings” written on the envelope.
The poem will be published in the Review and on the library’s website during the month of April. Contributors will be recognized by name unless they request to be anonymous.
Koertge acknowledges that there are many cities with poet laureates, and a lot of them are already trying – or have tried – these “crowdsourcing” poems. Koertge became South Pasadena’s poet laureate in 2018. He is a two-time winner of the PEN Literary Award for children’s literature and is the author of 10 poetry collections and 12 novels.
Every morning, he gets up and tries to write something for several hours. Sometimes he comes up a winner, and sometimes not so much, but he tries every day.
So he knows what poetry is all about, and our town’s spirit should shine through while being knitted together by a master writer.
“Poetry is used in rituals every day,” he said. “People often write their own wedding vows and those vows are often in the form of a poem. Poetry is often a way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m here. Let me tell you something that means a lot to me.’
“Former poet laureate of the U.S. Billy Collins said, ‘Poetry tells the story of the human heart,’” Koertge added. “Some of these stories rhyme and some don’t, some are long and complicated, but some aren’t. Pam Allen of the Huff Post said poetry is a way to ‘document the world and our common experiences — to say what needs to be said in a direct, powerful and beautiful way.’”
Speaking of the library, it remains a vital part of the community despite the building, itself, being closed to the public. Librarian Cathy Billings told me last Saturday that during the pandemic the library has been serving patrons through takeout and virtual programs, with almost 500 new library cards issued since last March.
Since June, 47,000 physical items were requested and more than 500 materials matchmaker requests were filled for borrowers of all ages. For information on requesting a book or other information, visit the library’s website. Patrons can pick up their requested items at a station in front of the library.
Billings said that while there has been no time set for the reopening of the library, when it does open, there will be physical and operational changes to offer safe in-person service. The changes will include limits on the number of people that can be in the building and the type of activities that will be allowed.
For example, use of public computers and browsing the Friends of the Library Bookstore and library shelves will be allowed while meeting or sitting to study or read would not be allowed, Billings said.
I wrote a few weeks ago about ARC, a group which was formed in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd to promote better racial relations and recognition of the city’s history.
One of the group’s projects was to hand out signs where participants could write their own reasons why they were against racism. The group’s website reports that several of the signs have attracted negative responses. One member said that trash and a toilet seat cover were left in front of her sign. Another member said that the message “Beijing Biden” was written in chalk on the sidewalk in front of a home with a sign.
On a happier note, Marshall St. John — the 93-year-old school crossing guard — says he continues to get greetings from children and parents taking their children to school. He says one parent took the time to drive over to his stop at Mission Street and Monterey Road and welcome him back. He also said a woman who lives near his station brought him coffee one morning.