Money talks ... in verse.
"Money is a kind of poetry," the poet Wallace Stevens once wrote. That might be so, but poems rarely pay the poet's bills. Still, poetry reading in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years, according to the National Endowment for the Arts' Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.
The Academy of American Poets announced Thursday that it has received a $4.5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the Poets Laureate Fellowship program — believed to be the largest-ever from a philanthropic institution for poetry. That's enough to fund the program for the next three years.
Poetry is like "the little engine that could ... with its outsized power, with its tremendous potency," Elizabeth Alexander, who is the president of the Mellon Foundation, tells NPR. As a poet, she believes the grant will help that engine "move a little faster."
Through fellowships to individual poets laureate, "we're able to create the conditions and open up the creativity of poets, not only to make their own poems, but also to think 'how can communities use poems? How can we let poetry be a way that we can explore what it means to be American in all these different places in real time?,'" Alexander says. (The Mellon Foundation is among NPR's recent financial supporters.)
"It's a game-changer," says poet and former NEA Chair Dana Gioia. He says that while multimillion-dollar grants to performing arts institutions is commonplace, the poetry world has made do on tiny grants from small funders. "Usually it's $25,000 and you're supposed to be grateful."
The Poets Laureate project began last year and provides grants from $50,000 to $100,000 to 13 poets around the country. Molly Fisk, the poet laureate of California's Nevada County, spearheaded workshops that encouraged more than 800 schoolchildren to write poems responding to devastating wildfires in the state. Ed Madden, poet laureate of Columbia, S.C., tells NPR he believes in "poetry as public art," including poetry readings on city buses. For his fellowship, he launched a youth and community workshop and interactive map called "Telling the Stories of the City."
Claudia Castro Luna, Washington state's poet laureate, held workshops at eight stops along the Columbia River — "places where cultural programming of the kind I am providing is rare," she tells NPR. Luna says the yearlong project One River, Many Voices "brought an injection of joy and beauty, an enthusiasm for words."
Academy of American Poets Chairman Michael Jacobs says in a statement that the organization is "thrilled that this extraordinary grant from the Mellon Foundation will help us continue to fulfill our mission and enable us to meaningfully fund poets who are involved in the civic life of their communities."
The $4.5 million grant is not the largest philanthropic gift to poetry. That distinction goes to Ruth Lilly who pledged an unrestricted $200 million to Chicago's Poetry Foundation in 2002. But it is believed to be the largest grant ever made by a philanthropic institution to support poets.
Gioia says having a large foundation like Mellon put real money toward the art form "is both visionary and practical," and a reflection of poetry's growing popularity among all age levels and backgrounds.
"Thirty years ago, I was seen as an eccentric for loving poetry. Now I'm just stating the obvious," he says. As Gioia's own poem Money puts it:
It greases the palm, feathers a nest, holds heads above water, makes both ends meet.
Guidelines for the 2020 round of fellowships are posted on the Academy of American Poets' website. Poets laureate "of a state, city, county, U.S. territory, or Tribal nation after having been formally appointed" are eligible.