Putting the “National” into National Poetry Month

Photo of Jasper Johns' map of the USA, courtesy of wallyg (flickr.com)

At YARN, we love National Poetry Month. It gives us an excuse to introduce ourselves to poets we’ve always admired from afar. Remember Nikki Grimes, Samantha SchutzElana Foreman, and Jacqueline Jules from last year’s celebration? We were like screaming Beiber fans (but for real talent) when we got to publish their new poems written exclusively for YARN.

So this year, we decided to commission more poems…and more poems…and more poems. Taking the “national” part of National Poetry Month literally, we tried to collect an entire country’s worth of poems. But we couldn’t do it all ourselves. We drafted a few more of our favorite poets to help us commission all these poems. Our invited poets each wrote a poem, then invited another poet from across state lines to write a poem in response…and so on to create a poetry chain mail of sorts. Call it “poet-sourcing.”

We invited poets from Alaska to Maine to write a poem on the theme of “Crossing Country Line by Line.” Our theme was inspired by Donald Justice’s “Crossing Kansas by Train” and Ravi Shankar’s “Crossings.” (And how cool is it that our poet-sourcing introduced us to Ned Balbo, himself a winner of the 2010 Donald Justice Poetry Prize? There’s some poetic karma going on here.)

The goal was to create a genetic and geographic lineage of poems crisscrossing country. And it worked! We asked each poet to choose another writer they respected and trusted to carry on the project. The only stipulation was that the poet must live in a different state and write a poem in response to the inviting poet’s poem. We at YARN didn’t know who would write for us, or from where. So far, we have received poems from over 20 states, and more poems keep coming in everyday. Will we get to all 50 states? (North Dakota, are you out there?)

We know that many of our YARN readers are teachers, and this project naturally lends itself to lesson plan material. To compare and contrast these poems will be irresistible. How do the poets at the beginning of each chain use the theme of “crossings”? How many poets wrote about specific geographic places versus metaphoric crossings? Can you detect a flavor of the poet’s home state in the text? Did the poets use syntax, sounds or even exact lines from their preceding poems?  Let us know what you and your students discuss, and record your genealogically discoveries in the “comments” section of the YARN website.

It has been an honor to crisscross the country with this amazing, brand-new, NATIONAL community of poets. I can’t wait to introduce them all to you. They wrote stunningly beautiful, thoughtful, eye- and ear-opening poems. These poets, and their friends and friends-of-friends, have taken enormous creative leaps of faith in order to write new work for this patchwork of a poetry project.

Emphasizing the “month” in National Poetry Month, we’ll be posting poems from the NPM project throughout April. YARN will be announcing the new poets each week on our Facebook page and Twitter stream. To get the latest updates, “like” or “follow” us to find out when new poems get posted on the YARN website. We’re also tracking the poems on a Google map here, so you can watch our poets’ progress.

Colleen Oakley, Poetry EditorEnjoy the journey across America (and watch for a surprise poem from a U.S. Territory)!


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  1. svardell says:

    I love this idea of a chain of poems across America! I have a similar “chain” of poems connected from poem to poem featured in my new resource book, THE POETRY TEACHER’S BOOK OF LISTS: 155 lists of poetry books and strategy lists featuring 1500 poetry books for children and teens. Check it out!

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