Reaching Out Across the Land

As many of you know who read my blog, I like writing about my many trips to universities, schools, prisons, juvenile lockups, churches, reading events, etc. that I’ve done around the country and elsewhere. These bring me to various communities that somehow find essential connecting points with my story, my books, and my ideas. In March I also visited Ohio State University at Columbus and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Again, the audiences were strong and very supportive. I held my ongoing “town hall” meetings, often sprinkled with poetry by myself and from other poets I love.

These talks included visits to community schools and at least one juvenile detention center. Again, audiences are receptive to hear a vital story that also has vision, insight (and hindsight), and with enough threads to tie into their own lives. At the juvenile facilities, I find some of the most open and attentive audiences—many of them are where I was when I was a teenager. Many have a chance to turn their lives around. If I can plant a seed, I hope they will hang on to something pertinent to keep them alive, healthy, and eventually whole. These kinds of things—like teaching—doesn’t always have immediate outcomes. Sometimes you think the kid who is bored, disruptive and not listening won’t get the message. I often get surprised when it’s these kinds of young people who come to me later to say how what I had to say helped me overcome some hard ordeals. So it’s always worth the chance to talk to any young person—in public or private schools, in colleges, universities, or juvenile lockups and prisons. We’re all just planting seeds.

One of my recent trips involved being a final judge for the Poetry Out Loud recitation contests that culminated in Washington DC on August 29. This national competition is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Reportedly some 20,000 high school students from all over the US participated in local contests that chose state champions. These students in turn competed with one another to the semi-finals where 12 finalists were decided. In the finals, this number whittled down to five. The top winner would get a $20,000 scholarship; the second place winner a $10,000 scholarship; the third place winner a $5,000 scholarship; and the last of the twelve would get $1,000 scholarships (the schools of the top 12 students would also get $500 to buy books).

Judging with me this year were Garrison Keillor of the Prairie Home Companion radio broadcasts; Pulitzer prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey; award-winning novelist Leslie Schwartz; Poetry Daily website co-founder Don Selby; and last year’s Poetry Out Loud winner, Amanda Fernandez.

The students were amazing in their presence, memory, and understanding of the sense and meaning of the poems—which included pieces by Tony Hoagland, Nikki Giovanni, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, among others.

In the end Shawntay A. Henry of the US Virgin Island took the top prize. Second place was Sophia Elena Soberon of Oregon.

It was an honor to take part and celebrate the memorization and recitation of some of America’s great poems.

From May 7 to 9, I also spoke in Sonoma County, CA at Rohnert Park Branch Library there and three high schools in Santa Rosa and Petaluma (Cloverdale, Rancho Cotate, and Casa Grande). In addition, I spoke to young men and women incarcerated at the Sonoma County Juvenile Center at Los Guilicos. Again, what amazing audiences—the library turned out quite engaging with a packed house of some 300 people. I held writing workshops in the high schools--the student's writing in a matter of minutes was fantastic. Again, the juvenile detainees were respectful and their questions were right on.

Thanks to all, including the organizers from the Sonoma County Library System—and especially my friends at the Steven Barclay Agency who diligently organize these lectures, readings and workshops. I had time to enjoy lunch with Steven Barclay, Kathryn Barcos and other staff while I was in Sonoma County—their offices are in the old town section of Petaluma. You would be hard-pressed to find a finer group of people.

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