“HEARTS STARVE AS WELL AS BODIES; give us bread, but give us roses,” roared Washington state representative Frank Chopp at the November opening of 12th Ave Arts, a new center on Capitol Hill dedicated to affordable housing and theater space. The James Oppenheim poem brought artists and politicians to their feet in an un-Seattle state of activist arousal. It was proof that we reach for poems to activate civic space, much like prayers bookend religious ceremonies.
With that in mind, Seattle launches its 2015 Civic Poet program in July. Inspired by city council member Nick Licata’s Poet Populist program, and modeled on the Washington State Poet Laureate, a panel of literary professionals and community representatives will select one poet applicant to serve for two years. Seattle’s civic poet will perform at the Mayor’s Arts Awards and at several municipal events each year. The city’s call lays out a vision for a poet who engages Seattle’s diverse community with a public poetry program, someone who will act as a cultural ambassador.
We have the opportunity to explore what poetry can do when it speaks to a wider audience. Because a civic poet addresses not only poets. Facing outward, he or she documents how things are for individuals and relates it to the larger community of citizens. Authoring this collective experience requires a finely tuned ear.
I distrust preachy poems. I like sneaky poems, poems that sidle up and slip around. I am transformed by the poem’s personal pronouns, by the moments where imagination allows me to inhabit another’s reality.
A poem can enrage, incite, plead, incant. A poem, made of language, also moves through the language to alter it. Poet Pablo Neruda fled Chile through the Andes mountain range on horseback, Pinochet’s regime threatening his death—that was how dangerous the junta considered his words. Poetry complicates things: giving voice to the unheard, revealing the machinations of language, collecting citizens under its spell, inviting us to move with it and reach beyond ordinary speech.
Rachel Kessler is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in Open Daybook, Narrative Magazine, Poetry Northwest, The Stranger, the Frye Art Museum, and elsewhere.