What Sparks Poetry

Building Community

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In our occasional series, Building Community, we spotlight connections between our work on the page and our work in the community. In each issue, we pair a poem from our featured poet with an interview that explores what poetry brings to our neighborhoods, cities, and the wider world — and what community makes possible for poetry itself.

“Explore What Sparks Poetry” is made possible with funding from The Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Katie Peterson on “The Fire Map”

The fire map requires touching – on the best device, you can do everything with your fingertips, no keys necessary. I obligated myself to describe the experience of the map – but the poem surged underneath with resistance, digression, argument, frustration. I find this to be common with poems, which are like my favorite kind of children – give them a job to do, and they’d rather do anything else. But give them nothing to do, and they hate you. A poem ends up being equal parts what you must do and what you want to do, but in a way, with a proportion, inhabiting a mood you can’t predict.

Catch Up on Issues of What Sparks Poetry

Supporting literary organizations like Poetry Dailyenables our literary environment—an environment in which poetry and culture, in which people from all walks of life, can thrive and grow.

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“What Keeps Us: A Community Poetry Reading in Response to Violence” is about bearing witness. Community members are invited to read aloud a poem from the collection below, which I have curated in collaboration with the Poetry Daily editorial review committee, or to sit in intentional silence.

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Sometimes when people ask me what it’s like teaching inside and I tell those people that a classroom is a classroom is a classroom, they follow up, ‘yeah, but are they any good?’ I get incredulous. Angry. I ask, why wouldn’t they be? Anywhere there are people beautiful art is being made. Why not prison? Poetry perhaps makes some of its most sense in prison – because people through poetry can take back at least a little bit of what’s been taken from them. But I understand the question, where it comes from. Poetry in prison is a bobcat traipsing across asphalt. When we build homes against nature, nature doesn’t go away. And when we cage people, despite the state’s best effort, people do not become anything less than people. Art doesn’t go away. I know I live in the city, but I know what came before the city, that it somehow still thrives here despite our best efforts to destroy it.

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The project is democratic yet elite, in a combination I value. It is patriotic, demonstrating something admirable in American life, based on the dignity of individuals and the presence of art: not a program of the academic realm, and not a product of the entertainment industry. No professors explaining the poems and no actors performing them: just readers.

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Programs like “Poetry Lives Here” are the result of a series of yeses and a village invested in a common goal, group, and ethos. Poetry by living poets reminds us that we live in a world shared by others in real time, and that especially matters during liminal periods marked by uncertainty and isolation. I’m inspired by people—JDC scholars, my community college students, women and children living in shelters— who navigate these waters—however they can—and (to borrow from the great Lucille Clifton) manage to “sail through this to that”.

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I wanted to prove to people that there was a body of poetry, not just a poem in the canon, but a whole body of poetry out there waiting for them; it was speaking to them and was, in a sense, modeling how they could tell their own stories.

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This is  a big and funky and radical project. And so it gets walked out slowly. And one of the things I'm learning is that a lot of times we try to conceptualize this work having not brought anything to scale. I didn't understand what it meant to bring something to scale. But I think a lot of people who criticize different kinds of projects also don't understand what we mean. We’re putting a million books in prisons, and that's not even what I would imagine to be the kind of scale that I want a project like this to exist on. We want this Freedom Library to serve the same purpose as the libraries you find in people’s homes. 

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