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.

Kerry Folan on What Keeps Us: A Community Poetry Reading in Response to Violence

As the director of Shore Lit, a literary arts organization based on the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland, I spend a lot of time thinking about the unique ways rural communities can foster literary conversation. My small town will never have the number or variety of readings a city can support, for example, but I have discovered that less can be more. Small towns require you to approach everyone as a neighbor. As a result, people show up to Shore Lit events offering thoughtful attention, respect for others’ voices, and genuine openness to the work being discussed. We are able to build community around literature because we understand that it gives us chance to connect.

This neighborly attitude informs Shore Lit’s programming, as well. I try to stay tuned in to the conversations happening around me, and to create literary events that respond. Like the rest of the world, the Eastern Shore has been seeing the images of violence and reports of destruction of the past several months. I wanted to offer a meaningful and respectful way to bear witness to this suffering, and believe poetry can help us in this moment.

Poetry defamiliarizes experience, culls our attention, slows the pace of our thinking, rises above the exigence of politics. It’s a capacious genre that way. Reading poetry is a practice of holding space for lives that aren’t our own. It offers us intimate glimpses of small moments, things that are otherwise inexpressible, and in this way reminds us of our humanity.

Taking its title from “What Keeps,” by the late C. D. Wright, “What Keeps Us: A Community Poetry Reading in Response to Violence” is about bearing collective 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. Many of these poems are taken from the 365 poems featured on Poetry Daily over the past year. All are meant to offer sustenance.

I invite you to adapt this idea for your own community in any way that feels appropriate: host a reading of your own. Read the poems aloud at your holiday table. Email one to a friend or neighbor. Or simply read the collection to yourself in a quiet moment. However you engage with this collection, I hope it keeps you this holiday season.

POEMS

[Obake Obachan], Bret Yamanka

The Triumph of Song, Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Téssara, Nathalie Handal

Old Song, Patrick Phillips

Traces, Matthew Shenoda

Forefather, Glenis Redmond

Findspot Unknown, Peter Gizzi

Let It Go, Mariana Berenice Bredow Vargas, trans. Forest Gander

Heart Butte, Montana, M.L.Smoker

Tamar, Susan Wicks

Charleston, Afaa Weaver

Yet Another Poem at Solstice, Richard Forester

The Bell, Brandon Shimoda

What Keeps, C.D. Wright

Upacking a Globe, Arthur Sze

Hope, Czeslaw Milosz

Souvenir of the Ancient World, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, trans. Mark Strand

Blessing the Boats, Lucille Clifton

A Glimpse, Walt Whitman

Two Countries, Naomi Shihab Nye

[Hope is a strange invention—], Emily Dickinson

Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands, Ross Gay

*

We asked the readers from our editorial committee who collaborated with Kerry Folan to write a brief statement about what they were looking for as they selected poems from the past year and beyond for this feature. Here’s what they wrote:

Katey Funderburgh: Poetry has always taught us how to love, which means that it’s always taught us how to grieve. I searched for poems that held love and loss in one hand.

Trisha Nguyen: I searched for poetry that went in hand with the changing seasons and how quickly time passes us.

Pari Sabti: I wanted to share poems that reminded me of the individual. When I get lost in the scale of everything going on in the world, it’s poetry that grounds me back in how important smallness is.

Katherine Harnisch: I seek poetry that shines light on hope in the midst of grief, in all of its forms.

Summer Reardon: I seek poetry that differs from my own experiences but is still able to resonate with me.

Taylor Thiel: I was looking for poetry that offered hope as a radical response to grief and tragedy, poems that made me believe a better world is possible.

Kerry Folan: Poetry helps me to make sense of the paradox of human experience; how utterly insignificant our joy and suffering are in the scope of the universe, and, at the same time, how totally enormous.

Ross Creason: I look for poetry that learns from the natural world, how relationships in ecosystems can teach us about our own communities.

Judy Leserman: I look for poetry that holds space for the connection we can tap into in what can potentially be isolating moments of loss.

Eli Vandegrift: I’m drawn to poems that open up worlds, engage with natural or unnatural environments, animals or mythological figures, or explore the inherent queerness of desire and the body.

Pamela Hines: Poetry opens a space for me to think differently, to look outside of my daily life, and to bring together ideas in unexpected ways.

Writing Prompt

If you were going to gather people together to read poems in response to a particular moment or experience, what would your criteria be for identifying the poems you would share? Read through the editorial statements by the readers above who selected the poems for the “What Keeps Us” reading. Then write down your own criteria. Perhaps invite other people to join you and write their criteria as well. Have each person read through a month of poems on Poetry Daily and ask them to select poems to bring back to the group. From the poems you have all brought together, select the poems you will use in your community reading.

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Kerry Folan

Kerry Folan, director and founder of Shore Lit, is a reader, a writer, and a professor of writing and literature at George Mason University. She was formerly the editor of Women in the Arts magazine and the fashion news website Racked.com. Her essays and journalism have appeared in popular outlets and literary journals including ARTNewsAtlas Obscura, the Baltimore ReviewBOMBThe CutGlamourHippocampusLiterary Hub, the Los Angeles Review of BooksNinth LetterRiver Teeth, and the Washington Post, among others. She has been living on the Eastern Shore since 2017 and earnestly believes in the magic of books. If you see her walking her greyhound Pilot around town, stop and tell her what you’re reading!