Hughes demanded, "Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed." Poe wrote, "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…" Shakespeare asks of his muse, "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?" Angelou proclaims, "You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I'll rise." Harjo requests of her reader, "Recognize whose lands these are on which we stand. Ask the deer, turtle, and the crane."
These excerpts from "Let America Be America Again, "The Raven," "Sonnet 18," "Still I Rise," and "Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings", respectively, demonstrate how visual and moving poetry can be. Poetry transforms our desires, fears, and frustrations into an aesthetic experience with words. We are totally encapsulated by language whether it's heard, seen, or signed. Poetry becomes like a greatest hits album of our language; it's a space to capture history or life experiences and how the two collide. Langston Hughes examines the risk of the American dream fading away and the oppression faced by BIPOC in "Let America Be America Again;" Edgar Allan Poe dabbles in horror and despair with "The Raven;" William Shakespeare practically has hearts in his eyes for the young man he is infatuated within "Sonnet 18"; in "Still I Rise," Maya Angelou addresses her critics and tells them that they cannot defeat her. Joy Harjo describes the history of the atrocities committed against the Native Americans and living as a member of the community in "Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings".
The month of April commemorates National Poetry Month and the power and impact of poetry. I want to take some time to highlight several poets and their work.
One poet that has recently gained worldwide attention is Amanda Gorman, who was the 2017 National Youth Poet Laureate. Gorman performed her poem "The Hill We Climb" at President Biden's inauguration on January 20th. She has become the youngest poet, at the age of 22, to perform at a Presidential inauguration. She concludes her piece by stating, "For there is always light, / if only we’re brave enough to see it, / if only we’re brave enough to be it." Wow.
Another poet that has performed at a Presidential inauguration is Richard Blanco, a Cuban-American with roots in Florida. At former President Obama's second inauguration, Blanco became the "first Latino, immigrant, and openly gay writer" to perform at an inauguration. He has previously performed his work at Reedley College. He speaks in his inauguration poem "One Today", "The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains / mingled by one wind—our breath."
Next, we have our current National Poet Laureate, the amazing Joy Harjo. According to The Poetry Foundation, "Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She earned her BA from the University of New Mexico and MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop." I recommend reading the full poem of "Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings", as well as "She Had Horses", and "My House is the Red Earth". Now, would you like to hear some fantastic news? Joy Harjo will be the keynote speaker at Fresno City College's 2021 Big Read. Harjo will be speaking on Facebook live on April 24th at 2PM. She will be discussing her latest collection of poems titled An American Sunrise.
Also, since April commemorates Arab-American Heritage Month, I think it would be fitting to highlight Naomi Shihab Nye. Shihab Nye is Palestinian-American and often discusses the political and humanitarian issues that have been taking place in Palestine. I recommend reading, "Before I Was A Gazan", "Two Countries", "Arabic", and "How Do I Know When A Poem is Finished?"
We are fortunate that the Central Valley has produced some of its own poets. The Valley is home to many poets who have been published, who teach, and who are laureates of several poetry organizations and foundations. We have been home to, not one, BUT TWO, National Poet Laureates: Phillip Levine and Juan Felipe Herrera; they both have worked as professors at Fresno State.
Some of our local poets also include Christopher Buckley, Connie Clegg Hales, C. G Hanzicek, Lee Herrick, Gary Soto, Brian Turner, Mai Der Vang, Soul Vang, and Reedley College's very own English and Poetry instructor, Mr. David Dominguez whose essay "Elote Man" will be published in Nepantla Familias: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature on Families in Between Worlds. I had the opportunity to take RC's Poetry course with Mr. Dominguez; he utilized local authors and friends to Reedley and he had us polish our poems for publication in Symmetry, our Reedley College Student Literary Magazine.
Continuing on one of our local poets and a former Fresno Poet Laureate, I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Lee Herrick speak at Reedley College a couple of years ago, but as I was writing this article, I have realized that I also heard him when I was in the 11th grade in 2013. I had entered the Fresno County Public Library Poetry Contest and I came in second place in the high school category.
Mr. Herrick was the keynote speaker at the awards ceremony. Until this day, I still remember him saying something along the lines that we have 26 letters in the alphabet - so what are we going to do with them? How are we going to re-order these letters to create magic? I was absolutely inspired; it was like a scene out of Dead Poets Society; "That's it! I'm gonna be a writer." During his speech, he quoted the winners' poems including mine about my favorite books (the speech is embedded above; if you're curious, I'm mentioned at 3:00). I was so moved by what he said and that moment left a lasting impression on me because someone recognized my work and liked it. I didn't realize that was Mr. Herrick until now. Now as a graduate student, poetry has become a larger part of my life, and it's a blessing to remember that there were people, whom I didn't even know, encouraging me in high school.
So, yes, I got to hear him again at Reedley College, and I appreciate that our college, and other local schools, actively work to provide literary art events because the arts are practically the heart and soul of our society. I heard someone (I don't recall who) describe the arts (I'll paraphrase) as our go-to medium for comfort. When we seek comfort or distraction, we listen to music, pick up a book, put on our favorite show, or watch a movie. But poetry hits differently because it can be such an intensely emotional and intellectual experience. Poetry can be confusing, but it's stimulating. Sometimes it's so personal that we feel like we're reading the author's diary but they've granted us the access to see their innermost feelings; again, it's intense.
There's a reason why we include poetry at presidential inaugurations; the poems usually set a tone of hope, healing, and unity, and who doesn't need to hear that? For this National Poetry Month, I encourage you to read; be curious. Log on to Poets.org or PoetryFoundation.org and just explore. You can also take up the pen or the keyboard and write. Why not? It's your story; there are no rules.
Events for Your Consideration:
April 24th - Joy Harjo speaks for the FCC's 2021 Big Read and other events (FREE)