Friday, July 27, 2012

Why potential poetry readers need advocates

Students at the East St. Louis Charter School checking out Nikki Giovanni's poems

Poets, all writers in fact, would benefit from more advocates, from more people willing to attest to the value of their works. There's no doubt about that. But what about readers, especially potential new poetry readers who happen to be African American? Wouldn't they too benefit if they had more advocates?

For years now, I've written a considerable amount about my enjoyment reading and thinking about dozens of poets. I will continue to do so. At the same time though, I'm thinking that I'll start turning my attention to readers as well and highlight the steps we've taken and are taking to address their needs and struggles and experiences.

Despite the unprecedented levels of success among many contemporary poets these days, several barriers make it difficult for African American readers, for instance, to come across volumes of poetry. (By the way, I realize that all readers struggle, but for now, I wanted to highlight a demographic--African American college students--that I have extensive experience working with over the years). Few of their parents have in-home libraries that include contemporary poetry. There are few , if any, bookstores in their communities, and few libraries that feature poetry.

For the most part, publications rarely offer reviews of poetry, especially not the publications that college-age African American readers have access to in their day-to-day lives. There are also few guides (informal and formal teachers and available writings) that assist readers in knowing who and what to look for and more importantly on what they can find rewarding when it comes to experiencing poetry.

Since funding at the top and for award-winning poets directs so much, poets are less and less dependent on grassroots readers or potential readers. Most professional poets derive their incomes from the universities where they work and the speaking gigs that they do primarily at other schools where they are invited by friends and colleagues. That's not necessarily a problem, but it helps explain why the interests of uninitiated African American readers are now prevalent in the conversations. 

So basically, the challenges are many.

Still, I'm hoping that more can be done to consider all those undiscovered poetry readers out there, those folks who might benefit by exposure to more poetry. But before more reading can occur, I suspect some barriers will have to be identified and removed, some problems will have to be  alleviated, if not resolved.

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