This year, the Mellon Foundation provided $2.2 million in funding to the Academy of American Poets, which is using the money to further the work of the Poetry Coalition and to grant fellowships to poets laureate across the U.S. The funding, the Academy said, was the largest sum of its kind provided to poets in the U.S. at any one time by a charitable organization. (The largest single donation ever made to an institution dedicated to poetry, Ruth Lilly's $100 million bequest to Poetry magazine in 2002, remains the largest provided in the service of poetry, but did not directly impact poets on an individual basis.) PW spoke with poet Elizabeth Alexander, the former chair of the African-American studies department at Yale University who has served as president of the Mellon Foundation since last July, about the Foundation's decision to fund poets, how the money is being spent, and more.
Why make a donation benefiting poetry?
Poetry as an art form has not much been served by philanthropy. I think that, on the one hand, poetry is a very economical art form. And one of the beautiful things that we've seen across all of history is that poets make poems no matter what. But on the other hand, it is an art form that, in its power and concentration, has the ability to actually punch way above its weight, and also has the ability to reach people and shift people in a way that is quite unique. And of course, I think that poetry, of the language arts, is the one that, in its pointed distillation and its relationship to music, is the one that I think can move us the most. It seemed that we could really do a lot, especially with a grant that would address poetry nationwide. At our foundation, we do work that is local, but we're also very excited when we can do work that reaches very, very different communities in the country.
Why donate to individual poets laureate and not, say, foundations, or presses?
Many poetry foundations are small but powerful. So the amounts of money that are useful to them are not necessarily along the scale of the amount of money that you would give to build, say, a Bryan Stevenson Equal Justice Initiative memorial, which the Mellon Foundation just funded. It's a different equation. But I think that the landscape of poetry organizations—and in my long life as a poet, I've worked with most of them—people are doing their own specific things in different places. One place might be doing poetry on mass transit, while someone else might be doing young people's workshops. One person's in Cleveland, while another person's in Arizona. One organization might specifically focus on the work of Asian American poets. They're in different places and they do different things. And small presses, which I revere and have been published by, are a good thing. This is not at all an either/or situation, so I wouldn't make them oppositional in any way. But I think that reaching people with poetry in a way that's not necessarily about books is something that is really exciting. That's where I would turn to the poets laureates projects. I think that it's much more effective to fund the field, if you will, and to also, with that funding, say how much we see and appreciate that these organizations understand themselves as a field and are working together.
Do you think that will benefit poetry publishing, however indirectly?
When good poetry is created, then it needs to also find a paper place to live. I think that the powerful thing that this grant does is it helps occasion the creation of poetry, the distribution of poetry, in a way that then also calls up the ongoing need for books. Poetry will never exist without books. And a lot of the different kinds of events that the poets laureate have planned that will be funded by these grants, these will be events where books are sold, books are distributed. The people who come to these events of various kinds will either be previous readers or hopefully will more deeply become readers. This work that the poets laureate will be doing is also about rewarding and enhancing and giving food to vast communities of readers.
Do you think the programs this funding will enable will result in community building, or activism, as well as enable the arts?
Certainly poetry as community building. Poetry as civic engagement. And poetry as the thing that it is, which is powerful, beautiful, distilled language from one human soul to another language. Listen to me: language made with care. There's a lot of language in the air now that is not made with care. I mean that there's a lot of language in the air now that is not designed to help one soul understand another, but rather designed to divide people from one another. Poetry is not all kumbaya and friendly, but poetry is human soul communication that is only effective if it is honest and sharp and true. Whatever that adds up to, I think that this function of poetry in society is a sacred one and I think it matters tremendously—always, but especially today.