Poetry Goes Full Blast

Published in School Library Journal, October 2005

It began where lots of good ideas do—in the library. To be specific, in the cafeteria of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch. I was having lunch with Barbara Genco, Director of Collection Development, former president of the Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC), and an old friend. We were discussing one of our favorite topics—how to give poetry more press. I’d coorganized and participated in a panel about poetry at a previous American Library Association conference, and I wanted more. So did Barbara.

“Poetry needs to be heard,” one of us said. The other one of us nodded. And who better to read it than the poets who wrote it, we agreed. Excited by the prospect, we wrote out a wish list of poets and an outline for the event—there would be 15 poets whom Barbara and I would alternately introduce and each would read for seven minutes. We named it the First Annual ALSC Poetry Blast, to be held in Orlando, FL. A bit cocky, those words “first annual,” but we hoped to establish a tradition. Then we submitted a proposal to ALSC detailing the program. We were thrilled when it was accepted. Easy, right? Well, not exactly…

We needed to learn a few things about the proper way to birth a Blast—how to work with the publishers’ marketing departments to sponsor poets (it is essential to approach the publishers first; it is embarrassing to get a yes first from an author—and a no from the sponsor); how to request books and publicity material from said publishers; how to program the event so that it is diverse and balanced; how to promote it (we’re still working on that); how to make sure it’s the right length (we’re still working on that, too; we’ve had to cut down on the number of poets and install a timer); how to ask for a room that’s the right size and location (which we can’t always get); and how to enlist help in preparing the space, supplying the equipment, and displaying handouts, etc. Obviously, we’re continuing to learn the best methods for hosting this event, but the good news is that the Poetry Blast (PB) is on its way to becoming a tradition. We just got an acceptance from ALSC for PB3 in 2006.

But perhaps even more exciting is that the Blast is being cloned! Angus Killick, School and Library Marketing Director of Hyperion, asked me to cohost a Blast at the May 2005 International Reading Association convention. At the April 2005 Texas Library Association conference, Sylvia Vardell, a professor at Texas Woman’s University’s School of Library and Information Studies, organized a Poetry Round-Up featuring 10 poets. A big success, it drew 250 people and she will host another next year. In addition, Sylvia has helped host the Texas Poetry Festival in the Dallas area for the past three years. This has been a collaboration of Texas Woman’s University, Irving Independent School District, and the Irving Public Library—with other school districts getting involved over time. The all-day event includes a keynote by the featured poet in the morning and workshops for teachers and librarians, then a talk by the poet, slams and jams (hosted by local poets), and creative activities in the afternoon for families, kids, and the public at large.

In Park Slope, Brooklyn—my neighborhood—PS 321 has long had a program entitled “Meet the Writers,” which brings two authors to the school for each grade every year. They also have “Free Fridays”—culturally enriching or ethnically diverse programming, paid for from grant money or PTA funds. Parents are heavily involved in making these programs work—they write grants, do publicity, order books, decorate the gym, supply refreshments, etc. Last fall, Scottie Bowditch, a PS 321 parent who works for Hyperion Books for Children, suggested that they hold a Poetry Blast. When the principal and committee agreed, she asked me to host it. Anne Capeci, fellow author and the parent who coordinates “Meet the Writers,” volunteered to manage the food, decorations, equipment, etc. My job was to get the poets, program the presentation, and be the emcee. Again, I worked with the publishers to find authors and get their books, and I wrote introductions for each one. And, of course, I got to read my own work as well.

This well-attended event was also a success. It thrilled me that a local school had agreed to promote spoken poetry. And it made me wonder what other schools can do to host their own poetry events—events that feature the work of published poets. Why published poets? Because, to be blunt, I think it’s important to share the best stuff with children and their families. I know there are good unpublished poets out there, but you run the risk of a mediocre program when you book folks whose work you don’t know.

How do you get published poets to appear at your school? You generally work with the publishers’ school and marketing departments. You can request particular authors or allow the publishers to suggest them. In addition, there are other folks who book authors’ visits. Catherine Balkin, formerly of HarperCollins, runs Balkin Buddies (www.balkinbuddies.com) and Sharron L. McElmeel is the director of McBookWords (www.mcbookwords.com). Both book authors in schools, libraries, and conferences. If you are in a major metropolitan area, you will generally have access to more authors. If not, you may only be able to get one featured poet. Even having just one poet requires funding. You will need to investigate grants, bake or book sales, community donations, etc.

Is it possible to have a Poetry Blast with one published author? No. But it is possible to have other readers read the works of other published authors. Mary Napoli, Assistant Professor of Education at Penn State, suggests that universities can be a great resource:
“Poetry Blasts don’t necessarily have to cost a school district an inordinate amount of money. If schools want to conduct a Blast, but don’t have the funding to support a school visit, they could still enlist the assistance of university students to serve as ‘poetry minstrels.’ University faculty within schools of education/literature want to find ways to support collaborative projects, so asking students to facilitate the Blast might be a way to ‘foster’ the idea among future educators and to celebrate poetry.”

There are also professional groups such as Poetry Alive! (www.poetryalive.com) and Poetry in Motion, affiliated with the “Young Audiences” art program (www.yanorthtexas.org), which perform in schools, libraries, and other venues for a reasonable fee. Sharron McElmeel wrote to tell me what happened when Poetry Alive! appeared at an elementary school:

“Prior to their scheduled visit, we asked the group to supply a list of the poems they would use in their dramatic presentations….We used that list to become totally familiar with those poems and others that connected in some way. Our students practiced their own dramatic readings. Some created a choral reading; some a 3- or 4-part rendition….The day of the visit of Poetry Alive!—what a wonderful group—the leader invited the children to join in. And join in they did. A marvelous day!”

Sharron points out the importance of familiarity with the poets’ work. Although there is certainly pleasure in hearing new poems, I suspect that there is even more pleasure when students know the poems and can virtually recite them along with the reader. It is also wise for the hosts to know an author’s work. I can write better introductions when I’ve read a writer’s books and I can make suggestions and answer questions from the presenters as to what they should read and in what order.

Let me here make a point about order. Whether your event is large or small, it still needs to be programmed. For the first Poetry Blast, our “cast” performed in alphabetical order. Poor Jane Yolen may never forgive me! Amazingly enough, the arrangement worked in terms of balancing light verse with more serious poetry, different voices and forms, etc. But we decided not to trust to luck and the alphabet for PB2. We put the 12 poets in the order that we felt worked best. Even if your readers are not the authors themselves, you still need to find a sequence that works best for what they are planning to read.

Regarding readers who aren’t authors: PS 282, another school in my neighborhood, asks local politicians, school officials, parents, and teachers to participate at a Read-In. The same folks can be asked to do a Poetry Blast. Or the school library can set out a selection of poetry books and have students pick a favorite poem from each to read aloud. At schools, this can be done within each class or it can become a school-wide event. Students can even audition to read, much like for a play.

And all of the arts can combine for such a Blast. For their event, PS 321 had a dance teacher choreograph a dance to a Langston Hughes poem. At Eastplain Elementary School on Long Island, my alma mater, a music teacher set one of my poems to music. The kids sang it to me and I nearly cried with delight. Art teachers often have students illustrate poems and use these illustrations to decorate the gym, auditorium, or lunchroom. The teachers and librarian at Sharron McElmeel’s school helped students develop choral readings, duets, etc. In many schools, in addition to presenting published work, there are also open mike events and contests where students and adults can read their own work.

All of these events and techniques allow students, families, and professionals to appreciate the auditory nature of poetry—and the connection it has to many other arts. It is my feeling that when we hear poetry, we enjoy it more. When we enjoy it more, we spread that enthusiasm to others—our peers, our colleagues, our students, our children. How delightful the world would be if along with “How are you?” each of us asked, “Heard any good poetry today?” and the answer came back, “Yes! Wanna hear it?”

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