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Featured (e)Books: National Poetry Month 2020

Slices of wood marked with Joy Harjo poem hanging from tree
Poster advertising National Poetry Month, April 2020. There is an image of slices of wood marked with Joy Harjo poem hanging from tree. Sponsors of the event are included below the image.
National Poetry Month 2020 official poster, courtesy of the Academy of American Poets.

“Poetry offers an escape, a distraction, a confidant to whom we can relate in this moment of crisis,” says Library Assistant Megan Brown Olsen. “For example, ‘First Days Back at Work,’ from Elise Patridge’s Chameleon Hours , speaks to the current sense of what may be our near future.” 

Such nimble kneaders, my fingers /  used to be. /  Will the loaf still rise? //  I strain /  like an old tug /  hauling copses of logs.

April is National Poetry Month. Although in-person events are cancelled, the Academy of American Poets has shared a list of 30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month at Home or Online to encourage a collective recognition of the ways in which poetry enhances the world. In the vein of virtual celebration, the Libraries’ Eileen Kelly, Florrie Marks, and Olsen put together a list of volumes and journals of poetry, all digitally accessible via Penn’s Franklin Catalog. 

The majority of the nearly forty titles in this month’s reading list are volumes from university press poetry series.  “As I began perusing our digital poetry resources,” Kelly, Head of Collection Management, explains, “I noticed that a number of titles that sparked my interest were part of one series or another. I thought it would be cool to primarily focus on a few of these by offering one or two titles from each.” 

One such series is published by the University of Pittsburgh Press . Since 1967, the Pitt Poetry Series has “provided a voice for the diversity that is American poetry, representing poets from many backgrounds without allegiance to any one school or style.” Among the eight Pitt Poetry volumes is Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s Black Swan , which memorably and provocatively opens with the imperative, “Imagine Leda black—,” thus inviting readers to reconceptualize one of the oldest (and most frequently poeticized ) myths in the Western canon.

Kelly’s personal Pitt Poetry favorite is Wanda Coleman’s Ostinato Vamps: Poems . “I started collecting [Coleman’s longtime publisher] Black Sparrow books as a teen, so that’s how I first discovered her. Her writing is jazzy and sensual and evocative. And it’s unsparing in addressing issues like racism, classism and the condition of being a woman. I’ve always found reading Wanda Coleman to be an exhilarating experience.”

To wit, Kelly offers these lines from “Thirty Seconds over America”: 

legendary women with grazing mouths /  scalding breasts hypnotizing tongues liquefying breaths /  working nightshifts and making change /  under the spell of knuckles.

Florrie Marks, Administrative Assistant in the Music Library, chose titles that focused specifically on the relationship between poetry and music. “I particularly like the description of The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing Creativity In Science and Art ,” says Marks. “It reads: ‘The text eavesdrops on conversations between scientists on how new theories arise, and listens to artists’ and composers’ witness of their own creative processes.’ Sciences and the arts both require creative thinking, and I love the idea of comparing that creativity.”

The co-collaborators also made several selections directly informed by the COVID-19 crisis. Kelly describes Holly Hughes’ Sailing by Ravens as “a heartening antidote to the uncertainty of these strange days” and Reginald Shepherd’s Wrong as giving voice to current anxieties. “I’m learning to remember the sound / days make” — the opening lines of Shepherd’s “Surface Effects in Summer Wind” — particularly resonated with Kelly: “ I have trouble recalling the sound and feel of a typical day at work now,” she says, “because each seemed unremarkable at the time. Now every day belongs to a different world.”  

Art allows us to make sense out of chaos. As the world struggles to comprehend the ongoing consequences of COVID-19, art moves toward an understanding of our new reality by examining the universal human condition. This is true of all art forms, perhaps none more so than poetry. As Julie Carr writes in the title essay from Someone Shot My Book

. . . the emotional experiences that we might discover in reading poems, or might find in making them, are not ‘private’; they do not ‘belong’ to their author like some abstract form of property she’s trying to protect or sell . . . The social source and aim of emotion is its agency, its politics, and its engagement. This is why emotion in poetry matters; not because it’s mine but because it’s ours.

Additionally, then, poetry engenders a sense of emotional connection among readers. “That connection is essential to us right now, and lies at the heart of this virtual display,” says Kelly. “Obviously, the Penn community has been atomized by the suspension of onsite operations, but we remain a community and can retain our vital connections, in part, by utilizing the tools at hand — including the electronic resources offered by the Libraries.”

Phoenix Poets Series

Poets on Poetry Series     

Pitt Poetry Series

  • Barry, Quan. Controvertibles . Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Ebook Central University Press.  
  • Coleman, Wanda. Ostinato Vamps: Poems . Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003. Ebook Central University Press.
  • Derricotte, Toi. The Undertaker’s Daughter . Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011. Ebook Central Academic Complete.
  • García, Richard. The Flying Garcias . Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993. Ebook Central University Press.
  • Noguchi, Rick. The Ocean Inside Kenji Takezo . Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996. Ebook Central University Press.
  • Shepherd, Reginald. Wrong . Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. Ebook Central University Press.
  • Van Clief-Stefanon, Lyrae. Black Swan . Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002. Ebook Central University Press.
  • Weaver, Afaa Michael. My Father's Geography . Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. Ebook Central University Press.

Poets Out Loud Series   

  • Choffel, Julie. The Hello Delay . New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. Ebook Central Academic Complete.
  • Streckfus, Peter. Errings . New York: Fordham University Press, 2014. Ebook Central University Press.

University of Pennsylvania Press