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A poem a day: U-M Poetry Blast includes outdoor exhibition, daily readings, poetry prompts

By Sydney Hawkins

Scythian Media

ANN ARBOR—Read a poem. Hear a poem. Write a poem.

To celebrate National Poetry Month — the largest literary celebration in the world — the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities will offer up the opportunity to do at least one, or all three, of the above during the month of April.

As part of its monthlong Poetry Blast celebration, the institute will invite members of the U-M and greater communities to join tens of millions of readers, students, teachers, librarians, booksellers, publishers, families and, of course, poets, in marking the art form’s important place in our lives.

“During the past year many of us have felt stressed, anxious and alone; we’ve had fewer ways to connect with others or even with our own feelings and emotions,” said Peggy McCracken, director of the U-M Institute for the Humanities. “As we emerge from a long winter of pandemic isolation, we want to highlight the ways in which poetry can help us to speak or listen to others and give us language for grief, insight, inspiration or hope.”

McCracken says the idea was spurred by the many poetry resources on campus, including active faculty poets, the undergraduate U-M Slam Poetry group, the renowned Helen Zell Writers’ Program and the Michigan Quarterly Review, a literary magazine that regularly features poetry.

“National Poetry Month gave us the opportunity to recognize poetry’s potential to console and inspire us, and also to celebrate poetry at Michigan,” she said.

READ: Pop-up poems

More than 30 poems can be found on U-M’s central campus as part of the Institute for the Humanities Poetry Blast. Click the map to link to the walking tour.

The monthlong celebration will include several elements. Throughout April, visitors to U-M’s Central Campus will be able to view more than 30 “pop-up poems” through a variety of Diag boards and vinyl window installations at nine locations on campus and in downtown Ann Arbor. Sites include the U-M Museum of Art, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Pierpont Commons, Palmer Commons, Institute for the Humanities, North Quad and Ann Arbor District Library. 

The poems, which are situated as part of an outdoor exhibition and walking tour, include works by faculty poets such as Tung-Hui Hu and Keith Taylor, and alumni like Rachel Richardson and Denez Smith, among others. They were curated in collaboration with Michigan Quarterly Review editor Khaled Mattawa, managing editor H.R. Webster, assistant editors from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and several undergraduate interns from the Department of English.

“2021 is the Michigan Quarterly Review’s 60th year in print and we started the year off with an anniversary anthology exploring work from our archives, so when the Institute for the Humanities approached us, we were excited to share some poems from our history that speak to the diversity and vitality of the work we publish,” Webster said. “We hope that passersby will carry [the poems] with them throughout their days—works that inspire the community to write, think, feel and explore the vibrant poetic community around them.”

In addition to work generated locally, the selections include translations from around the world, poems that appeal to readers of all ages, and a selection from the Michigan Quarterly’s special issue on Caregiving as a nod to first responders and others who have engaged in various forms of it as a result of the pandemic. 

Though most poems are presented in English, a selection of them appear in their original languages: French, Russian, Mongolian and Arabic.

“Toward the Image of a Friend,” a poem by Iranian poet and painter Sohrab Sepehri that can be found at the U-M Institute for the Humanities (202 S. Thayer).

HEAR: Noon poems

Starting April 1, the Institute for the Humanities will release a new video every weekday at noon via their YouTube channel featuring a U-M faculty member reading one of their poems.

Audiences also can receive the daily videos via Twitter by joining LSA’s Poetry Blast Facebook group or by signing up to receive daily emails for the duration of the month. 

Participating faculty members, in order of appearance from April 1-30  include: A. Van Jordan, Linda Gregerson, Ruth Behar, Cody Walker, Raymond McDaniel, Laura Kasischke, Lorna Goodison, Keith Taylor, Laurence Goldstein, Hannah Ensor, H.R. Webster, Sumita Chakraborty, Darcy Brandel, Tung-Hui Hu, Suzi Garcia, Scott Beal, Petra Kuppers, Nick Harp, Sarah Messer, Khaled Mattawa, Ben Paloff, Molly Spencer and Christopher Matthews.

WRITE: Prompt a poem

In addition to receiving daily faculty poems, those who would like to participate can sign up to receive prompts for writing their own poems each weekday. Laura Kasischke, award-winning poet and U-M professor of English language and literature, collaborated with the Institute for the Humanities to create each prompt.

Laura Kasischke, professor of English language and literature at U-M.

“The prompts are meant to provide inspiration, which is something poets often have a hard time finding,” Kasischke said. “Your poems, however, can and should go wherever the inspiration takes you. I’ve offered directions and ‘rules’ as part of these prompts, but poems don’t have to follow directions and rules. Once they get started, they often break all their own rules.”

Kasischke created prompts for participants of all abilities—novices and seasoned poets—and for those who are new to the craft, she has outlined a framework for getting started.

“Your prompt work might give you something to work on all day, if you have time,” she said. “And if you don’t have time, you only need about half an hour. Five minutes to read the prompts, 10 minutes to free write and five minutes to look at what you’ve generated and to post it.”

Those who would like to participate in any of the “Prompt a Poem” exercises can  sign up to receive daily prompts in their inbox. Participants are also encouraged to submit their works, which will be published on the institute’s website.

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