Poetry and the Big Read
In celebration of its tenth anniversary, the NEA Big Read initiative has added books by contemporary authors written during the past fifty years and three of the new additions are poetry collections—Citizen: An American Lyric by Academy of American Poets Chancellor Claudia Rankine, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1999-2002 by Wallace Stevens Award winner Joy Harjo, and Book of Hours by Lenore Marshall Prize winner Kevin Young. If you're an organization considering participating in the NEA Big Read, we hope you'll take a look at the resources we've put together to help you bring poetry to your community.
- What words, definitions, or ideas do you associate with the word “citizen”? Do these associations line up with one group of people?
- Rankine addresses “you” throughout the book. Where do you recognize yourself in the encounters described in Citizen , if at all? What perspectives or angles of experience were you surprised to inhabit, and why?
- Look up “lyric” in the dictionary, or do an internet search for “lyric poetry.” How does Rankine’s use of “lyric” in the subtitle of Citizen both adhere to and challenge these definitions and usages?
- How do the visual images in Citizen affect your reading of the text ? What does the image of Caroline Wozniacki on page 37 express that can’t be expressed by words alone ? Would you react differently with out the image? What does the work of art on page 19 evoke in relation to the text about the experience on the therapist’s doorstep?
- Citizen narrates many instances of micro-aggressions—individual acts of racism that collectively form the crushing experience of racism in America. Is racism a singular action, or is it a series of acts? What is the difference between the singular action and the accumulation of them?
"Color Codes" by Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker, October 27, 2014
"Citizen: An American Lyric," Tess Taylor, National Public Radio, All Things Considered, November 20, 2014
"'Citizen: An American Lyric' meditates on the trauma of racism," by Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times, August 5, 2015
"Claudia Rankine’s editor on the genius of ‘Citizen,’" by Ron Charles, The Washington Post, January 21, 2015
"Claudia Rankine: ‘Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people,'" by Kate Kellaway, The Guardian, December 27, 2015
"Claudia Rankine in Conversation," September 15, 2009
Incredible Bridges:“from Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing]” by Claudia Rankine with video of the poet reading
About the Poet
Born in Jamaica in 1963, Claudia Rankine is the author of Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014), which received the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2004); and PLOT (Grove Press, 2001).
How We Became Human by Joy Harjo
- In both her early and later poems Harjo is deeply influenced by place, whether it’s New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, etc. How does place function in these poems and what is the relationship between the speaker, the “I,” and the places she inhabits, comes from, and moves through?
- In “Deer Dancer” Harjo writes, “My brother-in-law hung out with white people, went to law school with a perfect record, quit. Says you can keep your laws, your words.” What does Harjo accomplish in presenting this kind of racial reality in a poem that also turns toward the existential several lines later: “That’s what I’d like to know, what are we all doing in a place like this?” Why might she do this? How does race intersect with gender in this poem and other Harjo poems? What are other examples of how Harjo tackles race?
- Harjo’s poems are rooted in the real world yet also point toward the metaphysical and the sublime. One example of this is in the poem “The Book of Myths.” In this book, how does Harjo negotiate her investment in a time bound place and the physical with concerns about the body, the afterlife, and the surreal?
- How do Harjo’s themes as a poet (survival, transcendence, race, place, the Southwest, etc) shift and deepen throughout her career and the various books represented in this collection?
- The idea and reality of death, another prevalent theme in the book, are not always depicted as an ending or finality by Harjo. Looking at the poem “I Am Not Ready to Die Yet” and others that address death, in what ways does Harjo think about death that is unlike the way we understand it in the culture at large?
"Award-winning Joy Harjo on the Binds of Culture and More," So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art
"Having to Fight for It: An Interview with Poet/Musician Joy Harjo by Joshua Barnes, Sampsonia Way, November 15, 2013
"The Roots of Poetry Lead to Music: Interview" by Simmons B. Buntin, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, October 22, 2006
"Ancestors: A Mapping of Indigenous Poetry and Poets" by Joy Harjo, Blaney Lecture, October 9, 2015
"A Sacred Connection to the Sun" by Joy Harjo, This I Believe, Weekend Edition Sunday, National Public Radio, July 8, 2007
Incredible Bridges: "Remember: by Joy Harjo, a lesson plan on Harjo's poem with video of the poet reading
About the Poet
Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 9, 1951, and is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. Recipient of the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award, her poetry collections include Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W. W. Norton, 2015); How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1999-2002 (W. W. Norton, 2002); and A Map to the Next World: Poems (W. W. Norton, 2000).
Book of Hours by Kevin Young
- Within each section, and in individual poems in the collection, how does Young manipulate time, and to what effect? How does the speaker’s understanding of grief and joy affect the way he moves through time in the book?
- What are the different ways in which Young examines the body in this book? In what ways are different bodies—the sick body, the dead body, the living body, the unborn body, the newborn body, the inhuman/animal/inanimate body—compared, contrasted, and conflated throughout? How does your understanding of your own body change with what experiences—losses, gains, emotional ups and downs—you have in life?
- In the poem “Rosetta,” Young writes, “The grammar of grief / gets written each day.” What language—words, metaphors, similes—does the speaker create out of his pain and grief, and at what points does that language stall or fail him? How does the speaker’s internalization of grief match or clash against the external world’s—friends, family, neighbors—responses and reactions to that grief?
- Young’s book takes its title from a Christian devotional prayer book. In what ways may these poems be prayers?
- How does the speaker contend with both death and birth in the same collection? Are they inconsolable? Are they related?
In Book of Hours, Kevin Young’s eighth poetry collection, he marks the tenth anniversary of his father’s sudden and unexpected death in poems that recount the process of bereavement and creates a language of loss while also celebrating life through accounts of the birth of his son.
"‘Book of Hours’ by Kevin Young and ‘Bicentennial’ by Dan Chiasson," by Michael Andor Brodeur, Boston Globe, March 22, 2014
"Twinning Grief and Hope, A Poet Softens Pain's Sharp Edge," by Craig Morgan Teicher, National Public Radio, March 12, 2014
"Kevin Young: A Song for the Dead," Shelf Awareness, April 1, 2014
"Kevin Young Talks about Loss, Joy, and 'Book of Hours'" by Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor, April 11, 2014
"The Everyday Extraordinary" by Parul Kapur Hinzen, Guernica,
December 1, 2014
About the Poet
Kevin Young was born 1970 in Lincoln, Nebraska. His poetry collections include Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995-2015 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) and Book of Hours (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), winner of the 2015 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.
Kevin Young and Gabrielle Hamilton, Fall Conversation Series, New York Public Library, November 19, 2015