Poets Forum Gathers a Chorus of American Verse

by Guest Contributor    /  November 5, 2010  / No comments

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“We are at our best when our poems are as vast and varied as the American people are,” poet Jericho Brown said during last week’s 2010 Poets Forum. Brown was one of 35 acclaimed poets who gave readings, lectures, and panel discussions during the three-day conference, presented in New York City by the Academy of American Poets. His statement encompasses the array of opinions, topics and styles the forum represented in its three days.

Victor Hernandez Cruz reads at the 2010 Poets Forum Opening Night. (Olds, Padgett, Phillips, Pinsky seated, left to right) Photo: © Renée Alberts

Events opened with a deeply moving reading from 14 of the Academy’s chancellors, including Sharon Olds, Naomi Shihab Nye, Gerald Stern and Robert Pinsky. During brief sets of their diverse work, their steady voices rang with hymn-like tones and crackled with humor. Nye intoned in a poem about her father’s struggle with exile, “We live on puzzles of power/unraveling around us.”

Moments later, former US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan introduced her pieces with lighthearted remarks. “Maybe what contemporary poetry is doing is preserving Wikipedia,” she joked, after noting that she’d found a detail for one of her poems there.

During the forum’s second and third days, panels and discussions addressed questions relevant to practitioners of the craft: How do writers negotiate concepts of self and truth in their work? What risks accompany poets’ technical choices? How do we respond to the work that precedes us? What effect should a poem achieve? The notable poets engaged in lively debates resounding with their esteem for the written word. In moments of disagreement, panelists often turned to definitions and etymology to tease out their arguments’ threads. In the panel “The Mystical in the Mundane,” Sharon Olds, Edward Hirsch, and Khaled Mattawa’s exploration of terms led them to distinguish between the connotations of sacred and profane, religion and spirituality, and the threatening nature of mystical experience to organized institutions. “Poetry is unauthorized testimony,” Hirsch asserted.

2010 Poets Forum: Sharon Olds and Edward Hirsch discuss the meanings of words. Photo: © Renée Alberts

In the Emerging Poets Panel, “Sincerely Ironic” outlined the influences, dangers and thrills along the continuum of cynicism and sentimentality. In the panel “Wild and Strange Language,” Lynn Hejinian, Ron Padgett, Carl Phillips, and Kay Ryan read examples of avant-garde and traditional poetry that employed sound dramatically. “We only understand what’s wild in the context of what’s strange,” Phillips stated.

In response to an audience member’s concern for the future of poetry in the face of technology, Naomi Shihab Nye stated that the hunger for verse she encounters in young students reassures her that there is no cause for worry.

These poets, whose works have inspired many people, emphasized the importance of reading to their creative processes. Robert Pinsky even produced a binder in which he collects his favorite poems; he rewrites or retypes them himself to collect and carry around. He urged the audience to do the same—fitting homework for a gathering of poetry lovers.

Read Renée Alberts’ bio here.

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