On Being Essential
In “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde writes, “if what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is a luxury . . . then we have given up the future of our worlds.” One of Lorde’s points here is that in order to hope for a better world, we must have poetry in it.
About a month ago, I was deemed an essential worker at Claremont Graduate University, due to the enormous amount of poetry submissions that we receive. It is always eerie to be alone with all the students gone. And yet, I am able to shrug off the strange solitude when surrounded—quite literally—with contemporary poetry. (I can also blast Pandora a little louder than I normally would.)
I have always found poetry necessary to my life, but in recent times, I’ve come to rely on it nearly as much as I have DoorDash and frozen pizza. I have crossed off all of the poetry events I was planning on attending from March forward: readings, launch parties, and, obviously, the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards—my favorite event of the year—followed very closely by Comic-Con, and of course, our week-in-residence. You can read about the glorious weeks-in-residence of the past with Dawn Lundy Martin here, Patricia Smith here, and Vievee Frances here. The pandemic has paved a poetry paradise and put up a parking lot, as it has for so many things. Cheers to Joni Mitchell.
I have thought a lot about the word “essential” recently. I am not essential in the ways that grocery store workers, gas station attendants, or medical professionals are. But I will maintain that poetry is essential. It reminds us that we can see the world through new lenses. It forces us to interrogate what we think we know. It impresses beauty upon us, even when it feels impossible to see it.
Though my essential work includes filling out spreadsheets, opening boxes, and stocking shelves with books instead of groceries, it remains meaningful. Thank you to all of the poets who have submitted their books, the publishing houses that found a way to deliver us books despite not having access to their warehouses, and the staff that has allowed me to look at all of the books that have been published this year. We are grateful.
I hope you are surrounding yourself with some good poems and maybe even reading them out loud. Dawn Lundy Martin, in an episode of Poets at Work, noted that this is something she sometimes requires her students to do. She said, “There is something that happens to the imagination when you are in a quiet space reading a book of poems or you are reading a poem, even if you are reading it out loud to yourself.” She added: “read poems [out loud] so you can feel them in your body.”
Let’s continue to honor poets and poetry for not only mental reprieve, but as manna to nourish us in physical form.