To mark its 100th anniversary, the Poetry Society of America has been sponsoring a yearlong series of events, a program now drawing toward a close. On October 12, the PSA staged readings and a fund-raiser in New York that included former U.S. poets laureate Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Daniel Hoffman, Kay Ryan, and Charles Simic—drawing about 900 people to the readings and more than 100 to the fund-raiser. But the celebration isn't restricted to New York, with events in Boston, Los Angeles, and, just last week, Atlanta, to celebrate the legacy and future of poetry across the country.
For the Atlanta event, the PSA teamed up with Emory University's Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL), which houses what was formerly the largest private collection of 20th-century English-language poetry in the world, the 75,000-volume Raymond Danowski Poetry Library. Celebrated Atlanta poet Kevin Young, curator of the Danowski library and the rest of MARBL's literary collection, served as a lead organizer for the Southern PSA celebration, consisting of a panel discussion on the future of Southern poetry, a group reading, and a fund-raising reception.
The panel discussion, moderated by Young, included poets Jake Adam York, Beth Bachmann, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, and Sean Hill, examining current trends in Southern poetry and the directions it may take. Bachmann saw in the wake of Katrina a return of the Southern gothic, with its emphasis on ruin and a threatening landscape, citing the work of New Orleans Review poetry editor Katie Ford, who wrote about living through the hurricane in 2008's Colosseum (Graywolf). Florida native Clief-Stefanon considered the vitality of Southern eccentricity and its fascination for the country at large, through a less likely example: Antoine Dodson, the flamboyant Alabama resident whose zealous, cadenced TV news interview about the attempted rape of his sister became one of the biggest YouTube sensations ever. Hill pointed out that, as crowded as the history of Southern letters is, there's still room to stake a claim. Frank X. Walker, an African-American poet from Danville, Ky., coined the term Afrillachian, for Appalachian residents of color, once he discovered the traditional term referred exclusively to whites; recently, Walker started a journal of Afrillachian literature, Pluck!
The reading pulled together Virginia's poet laureate, Claudia Emerson; Brown University poet-translator-geologist Forrest Gander; honorary Southerner Thomas Lux (a native New Englander, who, as head of Georgia Tech's poetry program, has become one of Atlanta's most involved literary figures); Pulitzer winner Natasha Trethewey; and just-named National Book Award finalist C.D. Wright. Reading from their own work and the work of those who've inspired them, the program featured poems by James Dickey, Bess Miller Brigham, Robert Penn Warren, David Bottoms, and Yusef Komunyakaa; Kevin Young read the lyrics from bluesman Son House's "Death Letter Blues" (complete with the "mmm mmm mmms"), before reading his own variation.
PSA executive director Alice Quinn was on hand to introduce the poets and briefly discuss the history of the PSA, which was founded, as its slogan goes, to "put poetry at the crossroads of American life." It does this by sponsoring a number of prizes for poems and poetry books, holding 50 to 60 readings and events in New York and other cities, and, perhaps most famously, sponsoring the Poetry in Motion program, which puts poems on buses and trains across the U.S.
Thomas Lux, during his reading, thanked the PSA for a prize that, long ago, came just in time to keep him from getting evicted. He called his inclusion in the Poetry in Motion campaign "one of the coolest things that ever happened to me," relating the story of his daughter spotting a poem he wrote about her on a New York City subway car: "I can't think of a better place to be published than the New York subway, right up there with Dr. Z."