Is poetry political? It seems a silly question to ask, even during National Poetry Month (which is technically not state-sponsored but very much in the spirit of public communion). Plato, in his Republic, called for the censoring and banning of poets. For centuries, in societies as different as Britain and China, court poets explicitly addressed the social and political mores of their time. Obviously, poetry is political.
And yet, for most of the 20th century — a century when Chile’s Pablo Neruda, Ireland’s W.B. Yeats, Korea’s Ko Un, Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka, and Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Rich in the U.S., among many others, engaged eloquently with politics — poetry wasn’t exactly perceived as the hot center of activism. But that’s changing here in America, with poets as diverse as Tina Chang, Patricia Lockwood, Claudia Rankine, Carmen Giménez Smith, Danez Smith, and Jillian Weise instilling their poems with urgency and advocacy in a culture at war with itself.
What’s also changed is the way our government supports (or hinders) the arts, via agencies and programs like the National Endowment for the Arts — long in the crosshairs of Republicans — and, less famously, the National Student Poets Program. The NSPP, which sponsors five high-shool students a year by showcasing their work for a national audience, was launched in 2011 under the auspices of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and its honorary chair, First Lady Michelle Obama. Partners included the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS), the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, and the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, whose national medalists are the only eligible candidates for the program.
In 2017, the President’s Committee resigned in protest of President Donald Trump’s response to the murder of a protestor at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump later declined to renew the executive order maintaining the committee. But the NSPP survived, thanks to continued funding from the IMLS and the two nonprofits.
One of the student honorees’ responsibilities is to “promote the reading, writing, and appreciation of poetry among youth and the general public,” according to a representative of the program. Such community service is broadly interpreted, and even though some of the NSPP’s funders are neutral by mandate, the 2019 poets chose to see it as a vehicle for their own causes. They tend to see poetry and activism as intrinsically intertwined — and this program as an opportunity to take their country’s future into their own hands.
Each of the five poets has embarked on a distinctive passion project. Darius Atefat-Peckham is visiting grief centers, primarily in the Midwest, to give poetry readings about healing after trauma. Daniel Blokh is providing workshops at synagogues in the wake of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh. Alexandra Contreras-Montesano is running meetings on injustice, guilt, and shame. Heather Laurel Jensen, the only high-school junior among a group of seniors, is promoting the integration of arts and youth leadership in her native Arizona. And Ariana Smith is developing self-care and self-love workshops in Compton for middle-school girls — specifically, she says, black and queer children, “like me.”
Poetry means something different for each of the students. In sharing their perspectives with Vulture, some embrace the vision of Neruda, the poet who served as a Chilean diplomat and, for one term, a senator from the Chilean Communist Party — or of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” All the honorees agree that poetry has a role in shaping the world; the question is how much.
For the Vermont-based Contreras-Montesano, verse is inherently activist. “Poetry means a protest that no one can take away from me, a therapist no money could buy, a story no one else could tell,” she says. “I think that every poem is a piece of rebellion and activism. Even something that feels so personal that it couldn’t possibly be political always turns out to be.”
Jensen, also a photographer and team debater, takes a more circumspect approach. “I think it’s dangerous to assume that writing a poem is activism, or that, somehow, by writing a poem, things are automatically going to change,” she says. “But! I do think that poetry has potential to sway opinions, and that poetry can handle the emotional side of politics — that you can pour all the anger surrounding an issue into a poem and then use that poem as a vehicle to do something.”
For Smith, who is African-American, “a black person writing of love is radical in itself.” Political unrest is not a modern condition, she adds, but a steady American state. “However,” she adds, “I do believe the voice of the black writer has changed. There are poets from the era of Black Power movement who were, by white America’s definition, ‘militant’ in their art.”
Today, of course, identity and justice are deeply woven into our modern discourse, whatever form it takes — and that tends to inject politics into art in a way that even the ’60s radicals couldn’t quite have foreseen. But the National Student Poets see themselves as doing something a bit more nuanced. They aren’t merely politicizing poetry; they are using it.
Smith, a rapper as well as a poet, sees hip-hop groups like Outkast and a Tribe Called Quest, along with such poets as Audre Lorde and Nikki Giovanni, as creating — in different times and different ways — a poetic vocabulary for survival. “This idea of the ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ is real and it’s alive today in this world where black women are not allowed to be complex,” Smith says. It’s up to the poets to “weave together the complexities of this identity. Poetry has this power to connect and give the reader a sense of belonging. I don’t know who I’d be without poetry.”
For Atefat-Peckham, poetry was “one of the only ways I could access my heritage” — meaning both his ancestral roots in Iran and his late mother. “While a poem about my Iranian heritage or own personal grief could, potentially, spur a conversation … a love poem or sonnet could just as easily (and importantly) spur song within a reader, offer them contemplation, comfort, or a brief gateway into someplace that is rarely yet joyfully accessed.”
Atefat-Peckham cites the latest poetry collection from Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, as a good example of poetry that is political without being beholden only to politics. “Hayes uses the sonnet form, traditionally a love poem, to respond to political unrest and as social activism.” The repurposed form “carves out an odd, little, important space for his poetry to live where I believe all poetry should live — within the individual and shouting toward the collective.”
Blokh, the son of Jewish Russian immigrants, says that before the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, anti-Semitism was a phenomenon he “didn’t fully believe could exist in the modern world.” It was only some time after the shooting that he began seriously examining the scars of anti-Semitism in his poetry. “A flood of poems came as a result, each tackling a different facet of my Jewish identity.”
That poetry led Blokh to want to work with Jews who might share his confusion and despair. In his synagogue workshops, “I want to teach examples of poems by both Jewish and non-Jewish poets which respond to national tragedies, confront microaggressions, and bare witness to injustices. I would urge my students to consider poetry as a medium for expressing their emotions.” He adds, “In the face of so many terrifying events occurring in so many places, the world needs poetry’s ability to help others better understand us — and to help us better understand ourselves.”
It’s both depressing and somehow a little heartening to realize that these teens are growing up in a world so dark that simply helping others could qualify as activism — could indeed make them powerful agents of change. In such a world, as Contreras-Montesano puts it, “poetry is an activist.” It acts on all of us.
It’s that truth that makes government programs like this one so vital, regardless of the current administration’s palpable disdain for the arts and, well, pretty much everything this group of poets cares about. But the fact is that they will be doing the hard work of poetry and activism long after their tenure as National Student Poets has ended. They don’t need government agencies to validate their work. All they, and we, really need is for us to listen.
A selection of poems by all five of the 2018 National Student Poets was published in Diode Poetry Journal, and can be read here.