Charlie–With the Favorite Poem Project people send you their favorite poems and you also encourage Favorite Poem Readings. I’ve heard that the Favorite Poem Readings are attracting a really diverse group of people. Could you tell us about that?
RP–I’ve attended readings where mayors and state governors have read along with schoolchildren, recent immigrants–in Boston, a homeless person. At New York’s Town Hall, a sellout crowd saw Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.. Jimmy Breslin, Suzanne Vega, Laurie Anderson read along with Bronx public school students and an adult literacy student. In Oxford, Mississippi and Atlantal, Georgia I felt I was learning about the South, from the variety of readers of various races and the poems they chose. Everywhere I’ve attended a reading there have been surprises, and everywhere I felt a community representing itself and, perhaps, drawing a little closer together as people respect the works of art that their fellow citizens chose to embody, each in one person’s voice.
Charlie–I’d imagine there are some moving, or should I say touching, moments with people reading their favorite poems.
RP–The choices and the delivery, as well as the things people have to say, can be rich in emotion–autobiographical, or political. For example: a man in his eighties acknowledging that the daybreak lark rising in the sonnet is part of a love poem, but recalling that when he got the poem by heart as a child the lark embodied his joy when he got out of the orphanage and back to his father.
You can find a lot of this in the anthology, “Americans’ Favorite Poems” (Norton).
Charlie–If I participate in the project by either sending in a poem or reading at one of the readings, must my chosen poem be written by a famous poet? I’m thinking of a friend whose grandfather was a poet. The grandfather wasn’t famous, but I could imagine Jeff picking one of his grandfather’s poems for personal reasons.
RP–The poem should be admired first of all as a work of art. For that reason, we exclude poems written by oneself or by a close relative.
Charlie–Another practical question. Here on the web we’re reaching a worldwide audience. Can anyone participate? Also, must the favorite poem be in English?
RP–Anyone can participate. And it would not be right for all the poems to be in English, because the archive is meant to represent the United States in the year 2000, and there are many Americans who love poems in Yiddish, Italian, Persian, Navaho, Russian, Korean and so forth–sometimes because of their own origins, sometimes, because they simply love that poem by Cavafy or Rilke or Neruda or Sappho or whoever.
Charlie–Years ago when we had Consultants in Poetry at the Library of Congress, the poets in that office didn’t attract a lot of attention. More recently, you Poet Laureates have been quite visible with special projects that bring poetry to the attention of the general public.
RP–I don’t think the post should always be filled by someone who treats it as an active opportunity for public works. It should be acceptable for the Consultant Laureate to mostly stay home and write poems.
Charlie–What do you think the Favorite Poem Project is accomplishing and is it living up to the expectations you had when you started it?
RP–Perhaps, through the anthology published by Norton, “Americans’ Favorite Poems”, through the Web site at www.favoritepoem.org, and through the FP readings, the nature of the art–vocal, but not necessarily performative–has come through to some people. Perhaps some people feel less intimidated by poetry, less as though a poem were a challenge to say something smart. Perhaps the teaching of poetry has become more aware of the poem as a vocal work of art and a source of pleasure.
When the videos are released, after this spring, I think the project will take on another dimension. Eventually, they will be on the Web site. And I hope they get into the classroom, too.
Charlie–Thanks so much for talking with us about the Favorite Poem Project.
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Americans’ Favorite Poems