By Maura Marx
Acting Director, IMLS
Last week, I had the great pleasure of attending a White House event celebrating National Poetry Month. Both President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama delivered remarks and their old friend, poet Elizabeth Alexander, read from her new book before a gathering of student poets, federal arts supporters, and others in the East Room. Earlier in the day, Elizabeth Alexander led a White House Poetry Workshop with a large group of students. My colleagues from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities were there, and we were all very proud to see National Student Poet Madeleine LeCesne introduce the President (“Former teen poet and President of the United States…”).
As strong supporters of the arts, the President and First Lady held up the value of poetry in education and in our lives. The President said, “I think it's fair to say that if we didn’t have poetry, that this would be a pretty barren world. In fact, it's not clear that we would survive without poetry. As Elizabeth once wrote, ‘We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider.’ That’s the power of poetry.”
The First Lady asked the students if they enjoyed the workshop earlier that afternoon and received a very hearty response. She reminded them how blessed they were to have already discovered poetry and challenged them to help their peers connect with creativity: “You guys have got to find the young people in your world, and you’ve got to pull them in and give them these opportunities and to expose them, because this kind of stuff saves lives. We see it every day.”
Her message to IMLS and other arts, cultural, and educational supporters was just as clear: “Arts is not a luxury. Everyone needs it.”
I agree and have relished every opportunity to hear about the activities of the National Student Poets. IMLS is proud to partner with the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers on the nation’s highest honor for teen poets, the National Student Poets Program (NSSP). Over the past year, the program has begun coordinating with spoken word poetry groups, such as Poetry Out Loud, as well national groups like the Poetry Foundation and the American Academy of Poets, to reflect the growing movement to embrace poetry in all its forms.
The 2014 National Student Poets—Weston Clark of Indianapolis, IN; Julia Falkner of Louisville, CO; Ashley Gong of Sandy Hook, CT; Madeleine LeCesne of New Orleans, LA; and Cameron Messinides of Greenville, SC—have been to the White House and across the country participating in poetry events, workshops, and service projects.
On April 15, Ashley Gong brought the house down when she read one of her poems at the American Academy of Poets’ Poetry & The Creative Mind Gala at Lincoln Center in New York. Later that week she read some of her poetry and conducted a workshop at the Just Buffalo Writing Center and kicked off an open mic session at Writers & Books in Rochester, New York. Also on April 15, Cameron Messinides was a featured reader at the South Carolina Center for the Book and he introduced South Carolina poet Ray McManus. Julia Faulkner appeared at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 18, where she was introduced by Luis J. Rodriguez, Los Angeles Poet Laureate. Madeleine LeCesne was a featured reader at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, LA, on April 21. She was special requested by Louisiana State Poet Laureate, Ava Leavell Haymon. And on April 25, Weston Clark will be an honored guest, speaker, and workshop leader at the Indianapolis Letters About Literature Award Ceremony in his home state of Indiana.
Poetry is a very active and powerful way of engaging young people, helping them broaden their vision of the future. I encourage libraries and museums to look for new ways to encourage students’ connections to language and poetry.