Poetry Finds New Life In New Places

For years, critics have argued about whether poetry still holds a place on this country's literary table. Host Michel Martin puts that question to writer Alan King and Lauren Wilcox, who talk about encouraging a taste for poetry in a new generation for this week's Washington Post Magazine.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now.

Here's a question about the way we live now: Is poetry dead? Now, Newsweek magazine asked that question in a column eight years ago, and it sparked a spirited rebuke, mainly by poets. But ask yourself: Is poetry important to you and the people you know? What would you say?

Well, writer Lauren Wilcox asked that question in a cover story, and the answer might surprise you. And she's with us now.

Lauren, thanks for joining us.

LAUREN WILCOX: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us is Alan King. He is a writer in residence at Hart Middle School here in Washington, D.C. And we'll talk about why Hart has a writer in residence.

And, Alan, thanks so much for joining us, also.

ALAN KING: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Lauren, let's just start by asking: Why are people still asking if poetry is dead?

WILCOX: Right. Well, I think there is this sense that it was much more alive 50 years ago. And I think that's part nostalgia and part - it was taught a lot more rigorously in the schools, and the scene was smaller and everybody was much more familiar with the books and the major poets that were out there.

MARTIN: But is it a question of whether poetry is dead, or has it just moved into different neighborhoods?

WILCOX: Exactly. I think that's part of it. Poetry has been living in academia primarily for the last 50 years, I feel like. However, it's been really vital in the streets. So...

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. I mean, isn't - couldn't you argue that rapping is a form of poetry? And certainly people are familiar - most - I think most people are familiar with slamming, right?

WILCOX: Yes, right. There's that, rapping. I mean, I think poetry lives in a lot of places now.

MARTIN: And, speaking of which, Alan, let's go to you now. I think some people might be surprised that there is such a thing as a writer in residence at a middle school, particularly in - let's just say it - in an urban system like Washington, D.C. I'm wondering, first of all, what do you do? And how does poetry figure into your work?

KING: OK. Well, on a typical day, I would go in early and we'd do a poetry exercise with Ms. Harrington's social studies class, and then do another one later on that day with another teacher. And then we have the afterschool program that we do called the Writing Club.

MARTIN: And Lauren points out in her piece that the Poetry Club has as many members as the football team. Now, Alan, tell me about that. And I'm sure your charming personality has something to do with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KING: A lot of that is the kids themselves. The kids form friendships. There's an incentive for the kids to want to come through because this a program where, you know, a lot of kids who have been teased or picked on, they kind of find their niche when they come to this group.

MARTIN: Lauren, what's your take on it? Why do you think the Writing Club is as popular as it is?

WILCOX: I think it provides an outlet that every 13-year-old can use, this place to record their feelings and express things that they might not be telling anybody else.

MARTIN: And Alan, the piece makes the point that some of the Poetry Club's most loyal members are also kids who have been kicked out of other activities, who basically had a reputation of being, you know, the one, that one.

KING: Well, we know kids would be kicked out of certain programs. So we made it a point not to turn away any of the kids. We do deal with kids that have some behavioral issues, but we have help from the school social worker.

MARTIN: But, despite that, it doesn't have the reputation as being the place for the problems. I mean, it is a highly sought-after activity. It's quite popular.

KING: Yeah.

MARTIN: People really want to go. They're very loyal to it. It's interesting, too, that poetry - I don't know if any of you have seen the film "Pariah" that's making such a big splash on the festival circuit by, you know, first-time filmmaker Dee Rees, and the central character is an LGBT teen who's struggling with her identity. And guess what her outlet is? It's the poetry club.

So, Lauren, wouldn't that suggest that maybe poetry isn't dead, after all? So, again, the question kind of reverts to - is it that this - because it's taking a form that is not so academic, and that's somehow not as prized?

WILCOX: I think that's part of it. I think that it can be a little more under the radar. I think, also, there's so many different kinds of poetry that are springing up, it's in so many different places now, that it's not like before, where you had the major publishers telling you what were the big poets that you needed to be reading. The scene is quite various, and it makes it a little hard to get a grasp on.

MARTIN: We're speaking with writer Lauren Wilcox. Her cover story is in this week's Washington Post magazine, and she's asking if poetry is dead. She's here with us, along with Alan King. He is writer in residence and a poet at Hart Middle School in Washington, D.C., and his work is featured in this story.

Lauren, you know, the piece also describes a visit with the Federal Poets. That's a group of federal workers who write poetry and get together to share their work. Now, I think that's probably also surprising.

WILCOX: And I should just add, Michel, that it was started as only for federal workers, and now it's open to anyone. So some of them do and some of them don't work for the government.

MARTIN: But if you compare - again, this is a different age group, and we were talking about how middle school kids are at an age where there are things that they need to talk about and share, and poetry is a wonderful outlet for them to do that.

WILCOX: Right.

MARTIN: But what about these folks? Why do they love it so much? Why are they so committed to it?

WILCOX: Well, so - just like the kids at Hart, none of these folks are professional poets, and yet it is a really strong and necessary outlet for them to kind of process through some of the stuff in their life that they wouldn't otherwise be doing in any other way.

MARTIN: So, Alan, you're a poet. I mean, if - you know, we're words people. I mean, you can imagine we love it. In fact, next month, we'll be doing something we did last National Poetry Month. We invite our listeners to submit poems at Twitter length and have gotten a, you know, terrific response to that.

What I'm wondering is if you walk into a room and say - people say, what do you do? A common question in Washington, D.C. And you say, I'm a poet. What reaction do you get?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KING: Oh, what's your nine to five? Oh, I'm a poet. Oh, I wrote a little bit of poetry when I was in elementary school. And that's good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And so what do you think that response says about the state of poetry in our country today?

KING: Well, like, when you look at how poetry is placed in terms of priorities, you know, sometimes, poetry is kind of seen as a hobby. I think the question that gets asked a lot is - okay. You have these kids doing poetry. Well, what's so practical about it? Why not have them do something where they're going to make money or be able to get a job? So...

MARTIN: And your answer is?

KING: My answer is that poets are society's conscience. I had a residency, and a poet was giving a talk and said the job of the poet was to speak to those hidden places, to tell those stories about the people who die in those hidden places and, therefore, humanizes them.

And I think the other best answer, too, for that is that, for a lot of these kids who don't have an outlet or any way of expressing, poetry, for them, gives them that self-confidence that they need to be able to accomplish anything else. You know, the fact that they have a voice to communicate their concerns and stuff, they're able to hold their heads high in a society that tends to look more at what's stacked against them.

MARTIN: And, Alan, given that you have seen for yourself the transformative power of poetry with some kids, what does their love of that art form say, do you think, about the prospects for poetry in this country?

KING: Well, I think their love for it - because there's also, like what Lauren was talking about, how poetry has lived in academia for so long. And so I guess, like, their response would really be alluding to poetry moving into other neighborhoods, poetry becoming more accessible, people not feeling that they have to be of some certain class in order to enjoy poetry.

So I think it speaks to the accessibility of it. It speaks to how necessary it is in our lives. And a lot of times, you hear people say, poetry saved my life. And, in most cases, they're not lying. You know, if they didn't have that outlet, who knows what else they would have done?

MARTIN: With us from Washington, D.C., Alan King. He is writer in residence at Hart Middle School. He is also a poet himself. Lauren Wilcox is a writer. She penned the cover story in this week's Washington Post magazine. It's titled, "Is Poetry Dead?" And she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

WILCOX: Thanks, Michel.

KING: Thank you.

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