Dear Poetry Editor

Jen Benka Believes Poetry Can Improve the World

A chat with the Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets and Poets.org.

In October’s edition of Dear Poetry Editor at the Chicago Review of Books, we meet one of the busiest women in poetry. This ongoing series offers readers insight on poetry and publishing from editors who shape the content in literary magazines and institutions around the world.

In her role as Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, Jen Benka is responsible for programs and publications, including Poets.org, Poem-a-Day, and the magazine for members, American Poets. She is also the author of two books of poetry, A Box of Longing With Fifty Drawers (Soft Skull Press, 2003) and Pinko (Hanging Loose, 2013), and has published poems most recently in the Brooklyn Rail and the Awl.

On Perspectives of Poetry 

The greatest misconception about poetry is that it’s niche. In fact, tens of millions of people from all walks of life, in every state, and in cities and rural areas, are reading poems each year on Poets.org alone. It’s true that readers seek out individual poems more than poetry collections, and that they seem to like their poems to be free-of-charge. That’s why it’s especially important, if you’re able, to assist those nonprofit poetry organizations that must raise funds each year and to support small press publishers and poets by buying their books.

A companion myth is that poets don’t occupy an important place in contemporary culture. I think we are living in a moment in which poets are demonstrating incredible leadership and courage. Now is a time for poets and we are beginning to see this recognized by non-literary media. In the past year, for example, poets were on the front page of the New York Times for the first time in decades.

It’s poets who have always served as our country’s conscience and, among many other offerings, have persuasively influenced American identity, confronted old ways of thinking, and challenged us to be a better people. The work of Langston Hughes is especially resonant today, and we’ve seen many hundreds of thousands of people come to Poets.org to read his poems in recent months, leaning on lines like: “Let America be America again. / Let it be the dream it used to be.”

And, of course, finding its way into current public debate more than 100 years after it was affixed to the base of the State of Liberty is Emma Lazarus’s defining poem “The New Colossus,” which sings, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The fact that Lazarus could so succinctly articulate a mission statement for our country is astounding.

And it’s exactly because poetic language and imagery like hers and Hughes’s is so compact, memorable, and soul-filling — and therefore so powerful — that some people are afraid of it and poets for that matter.

arc

On Poetry

Personally, I read widely and am mood-driven. There are mornings I am desperate for the precision and interiority of Emily Dickinson. There are events that have me clinging to the bold directness of Claude McKay, the conviction and confidence of Audre Lorde, the empathetic vision of Ross Gay, the reassuring lines of Ada Limón. There are times I crave the intricate sonic playfulness of Gertrude Stein. But what is always true is that it’s poetry more than any other art form that has fueled my comprehension—the active thought-processing—of what it means to be alive, in love, queer, grieving, a citizen, a culture worker, a human riding on an orb in space…

Honestly, I think one of the strengths of our Poem-a-Day series, which is the first place of publication for 260 poems each year and also reprints classic poems, is the range of work featured. There is no such thing as American poetry, Adrienne Rich once wrote, but American poetries. And it’s uniquely poems that ask you to step outside of your ordinary occupations for a few heartbeats to engage in a language experience that is only ever enriching and sometimes absolutely transporting. As activist Deray McKesson recently tweeted, “Poets give me hope when mine wavers.”

On Publishing

Based on the feedback we receive from readers and activity we see across the platform, it’s clear that people turn to Poets.org as a trusted source for poems, essays about poetry, accessibly written poets’ biographies, resources for National Poetry Month, and materials for teachers. I think because we are the poetry organization that originated providing that range of content online beginning in 1996, we have a fixed position on the landscape. We’ve always tried to fill a need and not duplicate programs or publications that are already available. In the past few years we’ve further strengthened our educational content and I’m especially proud of the fact that this past June, the American Association of School Librarians named Poets.org a “Best Teaching & Learning Website.”

I think it’s also clear to readers that Poets.org is a publicly-supported, charitable site produced by a cultural organization devoted to poets. As such all of the poems on Poets.org are published with the permission of the poet and we work hard to present poems as beautiful art objects, which is why we invested in typography when we relaunched our site a few years ago. Relatedly, I’d love to take this opportunity to make a public service announcement and kindly ask readers to not share poems from sites that publish poets’ work without permission and regard to presentation, both of which do a disservice to poets and the public’s perception of the art form.

I’m hopeful poets and readers appreciate that we’re not trying to dominate the art form by publishing every poem written. Rather, we take pride in our thoughtful consideration of new work, our ongoing efforts to better reflect the depth and breadth of excellent American poetry, and our desire to collaborate with other organizations and publishers, sharing our resources. We want to spotlight poets’ work and accomplishments in ways that are more about the poet than us. We would never want a poet to think that we are taking credit for their successes. I think because we are an organization of poets serving other poets, we’re particularly sensitive to that.

Finally, I think people might think that our team is larger than it is, because of our wide reach. Actually, we are a small, multi-tasking staff of nine plus interns and volunteers. You can learn more about us and our work and guidelines here.

On Regret

Of course. We’ve had a typographical error or a missing word caught by readers, which is basically like telling us we’ve hung the painting upside-down. We’ve also shared one or two poems that were interpreted by readers in ways we didn’t foresee. When we make mistakes, we learn from them and make corrections. We strive each day to do all we can to serve poets, readers, and educators with integrity, transparency, and a desire to make a positive contribution to our community and the greater good.

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