What Is It, Then, Between Us?

Poetry & Democracy

In March 2019, the Poetry Coalition will launch “What Is It, Then, Between Us?: Poetry & Democracy,” its third annual programming initiative. For this collaborative effort, each organization in the Poetry Coalition will bring its unique mission to the task of presenting programs and projects on this timely theme.

The question “What is it, then, between us?” is an excerpt from the poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” by Walt Whitman. In addition to Whitman being recognized as a poet whose work forged a new kind of American poetry, which both expresses democratic ideals and contains painful truths about our country’s origin, throughout 2019, many libraries, museums, schools, and cultural organizations will be marking the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth, which took place on May 31, 1819.

Any and all are invited to program on this theme in March and share their efforts using the hashtags #PoetryandDemocracy and #PoetryCoalition.

Here’s a look at some of the programs that will take place across the country in March: 

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Academy of American Poets

The Academy of American Poets in New York City will dedicate five Saturdays of the Poem-a-Day series in March to poems by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Richard Blanco, Tom Sleigh, Brenda Hillman, and Solmaz Sharif that will explore the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights to peaceably assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Poem-a-Day is distributed to more than 450,000 readers each morning via email, social media, and syndication. Poets featured will also curate collections of poems by other poets that speak to the theme. The Academy will enlist the support of organizations outside of literature to help share the poems and educational resources.

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The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers/National Student Poets Program

The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers’ current class of National Student Poets will be joined by alumni of the National Student Poets Program to present workshops at schools across the United States on the theme of Poetry & Democracy. Additionally, in conjunction with the AWP Conference & Bookfair in Portland, Oregon, 2019 National Student Poets Ariana Smith, Daniel Blokh, and Darius Atefat-Peckham will lead workshops on the theme of Poetry & Democracy for teens in local public schools and LGBTQ+ youth organizations. The class will also bring high school participants to the conference to hear from poets, speakers, and attendees about literary organizations, writing camps, and opportunities to study writing and literature.

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2018 National Student Poets

Asian American Writers’ Workshop

The Asian American Writers’ Workshop will host a free reading in New York City to promote discussion in the Vietnamese literary community on March 23 in collaboration with the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network and NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. The reading will feature Amy Quan Barry, Matty Huynh, Violet Kupersmith, Thanhha Lai, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Vu Tran, Monique Truong, Thanhha Lai, and Ocean Vuong, and will be moderated by Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Mimi Khúc, and Isabelle Thuy Pelaud.

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Beyond Baroque

Beyond Baroque in Los Angeles, California, will partner with Safe Place for Youth, a nonprofit dedicated to providing support to unhoused youth, to offer a three-week poetry workshop at SPY’s Venice resource center. The workshop, which aims to amplify the voices and experiences of Los Angeles’ unhoused population, will culminate in a reading by participants and local poets at Beyond Baroque. This reading will take place in conjunction with a spring garden festival celebrating the Beyond Baroque/SPY community garden, which provides homeless youth with internship and job-training opportunities. Participants’ poetry will then be made publicly visible via a poetry wall located at Beyond Baroque on the grounds of Venice’s former city hall.

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Brooklyn Poets*

Brooklyn Poets in New York City is accepting entries for its Whitman Bicentennial Poetry Contest until March 3. Poets are invited to submit one original and previously unpublished poem in response to Whitman's indelible question: “What is it then between us?” Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang, Mark Doty, and Rowan Ricardo Phillips will judge the contest and select winners from three different age brackets: 13–17, 18–22, and 23+. The winners and judges will read at a celebration of Whitman's bicentennial on May 31 at Smack Mellon in DUMBO, Brooklyn, and have their poems published in a commemorative chapbook.

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CantoMundo in New York City will offer “From Frontlines to Borderlines,” an ongoing series of poetry, paper-making, and printmaking workshops for veterans, Latinx poets, and Dreamers, in partnership with Frontline Arts and Mobile Print Power. Participants will aim to share unique and resonant experiences with democracy as a result of forces such as migration, class aspiration, struggles for citizenship, various forms of violence, and stresses from complex trauma. In March, a public, participatory art-making session will also be held over the course of three days in East Harlem, where participants will make screen prints using paper and poetry created in earlier workshops and create broadsides that reflect a communal response to Whitman's question, “What is it, then, between us?”

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From Frontlines to Borderlines

Favorite Poem Project*

The Favorite Poem Project in Boston, Massachusetts, will present a reading of favorite poems by faculty, students, staff, and alumni of the Boston University Creative Writing Program in March. It will also share voter registration information during this event, as well as for the rest of the month at its office, as a way of encouraging the voice—both of poetry and democracy—in the spirit of the Favorite Poem Project.

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Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Program in Morristown, New Jersey, will present a day of poetry readings, conversations, writing activities, and performances that explore the shared theme on March 23. Afternoon reading and conversation topics will include Reginald Dwayne Betts and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice on juvenile justice and voting rights; Rigoberto González and Wind of the Spirit, an immigrant resource center, on immigration; others on LGBTQ rights; the working poor; and “The Skin You’re Living in” on racism and violence. The evening’s music and poetry performance, “In Praise: a Thousand Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Earth,” will celebrate gratitude across boundaries of race, creed, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and gender.

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Cortney Lamar Charleston, Jan Beatty, and Rigoberto González (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)


Kundiman in New York City will be sharing a Poetry & Democracy action calendar for the month of March, which will focus on one topic each week: immigration, documentation, Asian American activism, and solidarity. The calendar will include an introduction, a folio of poems, a writing prompt, and direct actions. Kundiman will also engage regional groups and invite them to hold in-person gatherings to take action together and will organize a poetry postcard exchange based on the writing prompts.  

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Letras Latinas

Letras Latinas at University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies in Notre Dame, Indiana, has commissioned award-winning poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico to compose poems that engage with the theme of Poetry & Democracy. On March 21, Scenters-Zapico will visit South Valley Academy, whose entire 9th grade will have read her book, The Verging Cities. Scenters-Zapico’s new work will be unveiled at a public event at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on March 22. In addition, Albuquerque Poet Laureate Michelle Otero and New Mexico Centennial Poet Levi Romero will co-host a late afternoon poetry walk through Albuquerque’s Río Grande Bosque on March 22, as well. Along the walk, the poets will read and invite attendees to reflect on Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Scenters-Zapico’s “When the Desert Made Us Visible.” Otero and Romero, and others, will also present work on the theme of Poetry & Democracy on March 22. This event will be presented in partnership with NHCC’s History and Literary Arts Program, headed by former Sante Fe Poet Laureate Valerie Martínez, as well as Duende District Bookstore, now based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Natalie Scenters-Zapico

Mass Poetry

Mass Poetry in Boston, Massachusetts, will enlist students, teachers, and members of its community to create erasures, or blackout poetry, of political documents such as the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Continuing in the rich, experimental tradition dating back to the 1960s, Mass Poetry will ask poets to create altered documents of the originals by blacking out text while exploring their newfound meaning. The erasure poems will be shared on its site and on social media, as well as in large-scale formats in public locales, such as libraries, city halls, and on buses and subway cars. In order to encourage dialogue and exchange among different regions of the country, Mass Poetry will also invite student poets to exchange their work on postcards with students from other Poetry Coalition groups across the country.

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O, Miami

O, Miami in Florida will present "Democracy dies in the dark," a collaborative project with the Opa Locka Community Development Corporation. The project will use specially-made lamps to project short poems onto the streets of Opa Locka. Each area where the poems will be projected is currently dark due to a lack of street lighting or faulty lights. The poems will respond to the question of the state of democracy in the United States and will be written by residents of Opa Locka via a series of community workshops leading up to the installation of the lamps. Guided tours will take residents and visitors through this "magazine of light."

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Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives at SFSU

The Poetry Center, San Francisco State University in California will present poet Brandon Shimoda and Berlin-based Japanese artist Aisuke Kondo for a reading and conversation about their work on the internment of Japanese-American citizens and Japanese nationals living on the West Coast of the U.S. in federally administered concentration camps, where both their grandfathers were among those imprisoned. Before the program, there will also be an informal gathering in the Ruth Asawa Garden of Remembrance, which is dedicated to the 19 San Francisco State University students who were imprisoned in the camps during World War II.

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Poetry Foundation

The Poetry Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, will host a reading and conversation on Poetry & Democracy with Richard Blanco, Carolyn Forché, and Javier Zamora on March 7. It will also present several other programs in March, including Martín Espada’s featured talk at the AWP Conference & Bookfair in Portland, Oregon, called “Filthy Presidentiad: Walt Whitman in the Age of Trump,” and a short video by Zinc Films titled “Walt Whitman: Citizen Poet,” featuring Espada, Robert Hass, and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith
Richard Blanco, Carolyn Forché, and Javier Zamora

The Poetry Project

The Poetry Project in New York City will offer several open workshops in March in partnership with local community college libraries, each inspired by a reading from The Poetry Project’s 50+ year archive, available for the first time since the completion of a digitization process in 2018. Readings by Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Tim Dlugos, Maggie Estep, Audre Lorde, Nicanor Parra, and others will inspire facilitated writing exercises on the power of poetry to shape and effect change within democracy. Participants in the workshops will also have the opportunity to share their work in a culminating public reading.

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Audre Lorde, Nicanor Parra, Maggie Estep, and Tim Dlugos

Poets House

Poets House in New York City, together with the June Jordan Estate, will host poet-educators Kay Ulanday Barrett, Taiyo Na, Sofia Snow, and Bill Zavatsky on March 2 for a discussion responding to June Jordan‘s urgent and nuanced essay “For the Sake of People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us.” Presenters’ prepared statements will be published in Housekeeping, the new Poets House blog, to commemorate the Whitman bicentennial. 

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Split This Rock

Split This Rock in Washington, D.C., will present a month-long series of events honoring poetry's role in social movements. The series will open with the Hyper Bole Youth Slam Festival and will continue with the Sunday Kind of Love Reading & Open Mic, featuring poets Emmy Pérez and Sheila Black. Emmy Peréz will also join a lunchtime presentation for activists co-hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies. Through Split This Rock's youth and adult writing workshops, poet-activists across the D.C. area will continue to reflect on the connections between their civic and literary work. The series will close with featured poet Mahogany Browne and youth poets from the D.C. area competing in the D.C. Youth Slam Team Finals.

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Urban Word/National Youth Poet Laureate Program

Urban Word/National Youth Poet Laureate Program in New York City will feature original poems on the theme of Poetry & Democracy by regional winners from the National Youth Poet Laureate network. These poems will be shared on social media platforms from Urban Word and with partner cities. Urban Word will also partner with the Amplifier Foundation to enable the creation of original artworks by each regional winner and national finalist, which will feature lines from  their Poetry & Democracy-themed poems. On April 4, the five finalists for the National Youth Poet Laureate will perform their work in a free event at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

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Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University

The Wick Poetry Center of Kent State University in Ohio will continue its support of the Poets for Science project in collaboration with Jane Hirshfield, which began with the 2017 March for Science in Washington, D.C., with special attention to advocacy in its interactive exhibit at the AWP Bookfair & Conference in Portland, Oregon. This exhibit will encourage participants to contact their elected representatives in support of our scientific and creative communities. Simultaneously, it will continue its River Stanzas project, which remembers the burning of the Cuyahoga River 50 years ago, with workshops throughout Northeastern Ohio, and its Writing Across Borders exhibit at the Lakewood Public Library, which celebrates the voices of immigrants and refugees.

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Woodland Pattern Book Center

Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will host bruise bullet flower, an exhibition of new photography by poet and visual artist Rachel Eliza Griffiths, who will also give a reading at the center on March 16. The intimate portraits of bruise bullet flower document the strength, vulnerability, and beauty of black and brown queer bodies under the daily threat of violence in the United States. At the reading, the center will celebrate the debut of a chapbook focused on bruise bullet flower, featuring photographs from the exhibition and poems from Reginald Dwayne Betts, Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Ross Gay, Aracelis Girmay, Rickey Laurentiis, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Safiya Sinclair, Tracy K. Smith, R. A. Villanueva, and Phillip B. Williams. Throughout the month, Woodland Pattern will also curate accompanying youth programming in the Milwaukee Public School system and share around the city lines of poetry and the #PoetryandDemocracy hashtag on tear-away flyers.

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bruise bullet flower

Inspired by the Poetry Coalition

On March 1, PEN America partnered with the Academy of American Poets and Strand Bookstore to present Layli Long Soldier and Claudia Rankine for a reading and conversation on their literary lineage at The New School - John L. Tishman Auditorium in New York City.