Robert Polito Reflects on His Time With the Poetry Foundation

Robert Polito is the outgoing president of the illustrious Poetry Foundation, based here in Chicago. After two fruitful years, Polito just returned to the New School in New York City, where he has been the director of creative writing since 1992.

Luckily, I was able to catch him for a Q&A about the Foundation, poetry and more just before he left.

1. Please tell us about your favorite PF initiatives and other PF work of which you are most proud.

Great question. Over the two years, the staff and I accomplished so much together that I feel that someday soon I should write a little book about my experiences. I came to see that the Poetry Foundation possesses three powerful and unique resources — the Ruth Lilly endowment, of course, but also the historical legacy of innovation, experiment, and discovery that originated over a hundred years ago when Harriet Monroe founded Poetry magazine, and the immense skills of a great creative staff.

So, until I find the time for that book, let me briefly accent two general areas I’m particularly proud that I got to work on here—education and digital. Remember, everything I mention represents collective accomplishment—staff and President working together to reinvigorate our mission.

We all know that childhood experiences of poems and imaginative education can be crucial to shaping future, lifelong readers of poetry. So I obviously wanted to commit our efforts and resources to poetry education, especially for Chicago students and teachers. Soon after I arrived, Trustee Benna Wilde introduced me to Sydney Sidwell at Ingenuity, perhaps the leading arts strategist for Chicago Public Schools, and I found Sydney’s advice invaluable. I embarked on Foundation partnerships with Young Chicago Authors for their Teaching Artists Cultivation Program, and with the ElevArte After-School Poetry Program. I also established a Summer Poetry Teachers Institute for Chicago teachers, in collaboration with former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project, and that Summer Institute—happy to say—just launched brilliantly a few weeks ago. My immense thanks to Ydalmi Noriega, Steve Young, Justine Haka, and James Sitar for their exemplary support and work. For older students—college and graduate school—I initiated the Open Door Reading Series, which features teachers and students from Chicagoland’s distinguished writing programs, and emphasizes mentorship.

At a national level, this past April we convened the inaugural “Youth Poetry Assembly” at the Foundation, and brought together for the first time in the same room the National Student Poets, various youth poetry slam champions, and some finalists and winners from Poetry Out Loud (the annual poetry recitation contest the Foundation created a decade ago with the NEA). The immediate goal is to spotlight these incredibly gifted young people as “Poetry Ambassadors”—all of them speak so eloquently about the decisive role of poetry in their lives.

The Assembly also demonstrated the Foundation’s vital position as a national poetry advocacy catalyst, because so many of America’s other leading poetry organizations joined the Assembly: the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, the President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities, the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, Youth Speaks, the Academy of American Poets, the National Book Festival, the Library of Congress, and Young Chicago Authors.

Digital is now incredibly important for poetry, and from the outset I wanted to increase our digital presence beyond our fantastic website. During my interviews with the Foundation search committee, I spoke about some projects in this area I started at the New School, and wanted to bring to the Foundation. For the Harriet Monroe Institute for Poetry, a sort of Foundation “think tank,” I assembled a gifted team—Karin Roffman, Irwin Chen, Tom Healy, and Adam Fitzgerald—and we explored three future initiatives: enhanced digital editions of some iconic books of twentieth-century poetry that would allow general readers access to draft manuscripts, poet audio, and other essential creative materials; a digital mapping of John Ashbery’s extraordinary Hudson, New York house in terms of his work; and a digital anthology, “What Are Years,” that would feature poets writing short essays about poems in the Foundation archive and linking them to various cultural, political, and social events.

This past February, we presented the prototype of our enhanced digital poetry books at the Ritratti di Poesia in Rome to great interest and acclaim—”This is the future of poetry,” announced festival director Vincenzo Mascolo.In May, we introduced the HMPI initiatives at Poetry by the Sea, a long-standing annual festival formerly known as the West Chester Poetry Festival, now relocated to coastal Connecticut. For the Ashbery project we engaged an impressive array of essayists, historians, cultural critics, artists, and poets, including Adam Phillips, Wayne Koestenbaum, Hilton Als, Mark Ford, Nico Muhly, Peter Kenny, Tracy K. Smith, Azar Nafisi, Jorie Graham, Guy Maddin, Ruth Reitchl, DeWitt Mallary, Catherine Whalen, John Yau, and Lynne Tillman.

I’m also very happy about our various prizewinners—Nathaniel Mackey, Alice Notley—and the new Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism I introduced. Jacqueline Woodson also will be a superb Young People’s Poet Laureate.

There’s a lot more I could mention, but these all were very exciting.

2. One of the goals of the Poetry Foundation is to broaden its Chicago audience. What would you like for our audience to know about or do more with the PF?

The Poetry Foundation is simultaneously a Chicago, national, and international organization. The resources and geographical location in the Midwest position the Foundation to help lead a vigorous public conversation about the value of poetry in culture, education, and civic life.

But, as you suggest, Chicago is central to that institutional promise—and over the past two years I met with a remarkable range of Chicago cultural organizations: Joffrey Ballet, Lyric Opera, Steppenwolf, Chicago Humanities Festival, American Writers Museum, Art Institute, the Moth, Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Center on Halsted, WFMT, and the Italian Cultural Institute, among numerous others. Many of these meetings led to collaborations and partnerships. Let me mention just two—PoetryNow, a twice-weekly WFMT radio broadcast that features poets reading and discussing a new poem; and a powerful event that the Foundation’s new Board Chair, Dick Kiphart, arranged that presented Mark Strand and Renée Fleming in conversation about poetry and music. We lost Mark to cancer soon after that. It was a moving night.

You can access PoetryNow on our website [link], and my thanks here to Michael Slosek and Elizabeth Burke-Dain.

I also met with many poetry and arts organizations across America, Europe, and Asia. We brought Nathaniel Mackey, the recipient of our 2014 Ruth Lilly Prize, to the Miami Book Fair, along with the five talented Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellows—Hannah Gamble, Solmaz Sharif, Danez Smith, Ocean Vuong, and Wendy Xu. This summer the Foundation is part of a French-American poets exchange, with Italy and China (I hope) soon to follow.

I’m pleased with the tone we struck these past two years, and believe the Foundation is now precisely where it should be—at once an authoritative, innovative cultural leader, and an engaged, respectful cultural citizen, at the center of the conversations about poetry and the arts.

3. We have a new US Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. What is your favorite poem by him and why?

I’m so glad you mention Juan Felipe, as I recently spent a delightful day with him at the Library of Congress, just before his new post was officially announced. The hope is that he will be the Foundation’s Poetry Day poet this coming fall—fingers crossed!

I love his poems, and think he will be a galvanizing Poet Laureate. My favorite poem of his? If I can suggest only one, everyone should take a look at “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings,” with its sly suggestion that “first, you must know the secret, there is no poem /to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries.”

4. What is the power in poetry? Please help define what makes a poem or poet great with this answer.

Elizabeth Bishop once said, “If after I read a poem the world looks like that poem for 24 hours or so I’m sure it’s a good one—and the same goes for paintings.”

All my work at the Poetry Foundation was rooted in a vision of the transformative power of poetry, whether in an individual life or a culture.

I also tried to shift the public discussion a bit about poetry. Readers and writers of poems know that the personal enrichment of a life through poetry is matched by the public and professional skills that close attention to language provides. Such habits of attentiveness and critical reflection turn out to be endlessly re-applicable. If one can read a poem, one can “read” a film, painting, song, photograph, or building, by knowing the questions useful for approaching works of art.

These skills also prove constructive training for almost any career, including law, business, government, and media. They are indispensable to citizenship, allowing us to listen to a political speech or negotiate 24/7 news cycles as alert, prepared, analytical citizens. The mindfulness of poetry offers an alternative to the distractions of an information age. Yet the emphasis on compression, fragmentation, ambiguity, multiple voices, and collage in many modern and contemporary poems also renders poetry intrinsically practical preparation for, say, encountering the Internet.

Few really talk about poetry this way, but it is devastatingly important. Poetry matters.

5. A little known strength of the Poetry Foundation is its website, which attracts over 4 million visitors each month. What are the three most viewed poems on the website? Why do you think they are so popular?

During my two years at the Poetry Foundation, visitors to the Foundation website increased enormously—such growth is particularly impressive and reassuring during this period of transition as essentially is the Foundation in miniature, embodying nearly all our facets—Poetry magazine, public programs, the vast poem archive, audio podcasts, videos, poetry journalism, esoteric reflections, popular topical features, and our multivalent educational resources—and spanning all our different constituencies. These incredible numbers, as we sustained current audiences and attracted swarms of new visitors, are a testament to our talented digital team. But those numbers also amount to a compelling endorsement of the fresh directions of the Foundation as a whole over the past two years, and the many steps we have taken together in our commitment to discovery, innovation, experiment, quality, outreach, inclusiveness, and diversity.

The three most popular poems on the website are “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, “If—” by Rudyard Kipling, and “The Road Not Taken,” also by Frost. You only have to reread them and the reasons for their popularity are self-explanatory—these poems speak for themselves, as well as for all of us.

Whenever I glanced over the list of the most popular poems on the site, I would often be struck by the new poems that vied in readership with the perennials—most recently, “alternate names for black boys,” by Danez Smith, “There Are Birds Here,” by Jamaal May, “Cathedral of Salt” by Nick Flynn, and an excerpt from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I note that all of these appeared recently in Poetry magazine, and that cherished fact attests to the absolutely amazing editorship of Don Share.

You asked earlier about “work” at the Foundation that made me particularly proud. If decisions are work, choosing Don as editor is work that leaves me proud and happy every time I open the magazine and see what he and his staff have arranged for us. I can’t take credit for any of the poems, as the magazine rightly operates with total editorial independence. But just today, Dwight Garner, book reviewer for the New York Times, tweeted, “The new issue of Poetry (July/August) starts at high boil and never slackens.”

6. What else would you like to tell our audience?

First, thank you, Susan, for this opportunity to look back, and these excellent questions.

As I think about my time in Chicago, I feel lucky to be leaving and returning to cultural institutions—the Poetry Foundation; the New School—where the traditions to be honored are innovation and experiment, and not some sepia-toned, museum fantasy. Harriet Monroe and the founders of the New School, John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen, would have recognized and welcomed one another.

The traditions of Poetry magazine offer a clear, strong message, and that message obviously is being heard. Although the activities of the Poetry Foundation operate along a continuum of audiences and levels of engagement, the reach to a large general audience never was vaster than it is today, even as the reputation, respect, and stature in the Chicago, American, and world poetry communities also never were greater. This situation after two years pleases and gratifies me so much. Audiences are flocking in record numbers, while the centrality to readers of American poetry and poets is conspicuous in the vitality and diversity of the local, national, and international poetry partnerships. May the Poetry Foundation always energetically and skillfully deliver on the promises of a powerful mission and the responsibilities of singular resources.

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