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Celebrate Arkansas Poetry – Add Your Voice to the Story

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  • Stacy Pendergrast
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“The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”  -   Maya Angelou

In National Poetry Month, Arkansans can stand proud that one of our own, Maya Angelou, will forever find her way into the hearts of readers. We can brag about Angelou and so many other great poets who have raised their voices from our mountains and valleys, swamps and deltas.

Sure enough, Arkansas boasts a rich literary tradition. Maybe that’s because our unique geography both isolated and inspired writers. Maybe it’s because folks with a creative, “outsider” mindset ran into hiding in our hills. Or, maybe like other Southerners, we inherited a love of story and conversation. We like to talk.

Our poetic fame not only flashes from the writings of our privileged or educated, such as from the South’s first Pulitzer Prize winner in 1939, John Gould Fletcher, or, more recently, the renowned University of Arkansas poet and publisher Miller Williams. Be clear, our poetry greatness sparks from the everyday writings of Arkansas folks. What is etched into our literary brand might be an ode from a rice farm or a rap from a Little Rock city street. We must remember that our literary tradition is also forged by words wrought from grim narratives that we don’t dare forget — such as from slavery or Jim Crow injustices.

Kai Coggin, Arkansas’s Wednesday Night Poetry Reading Series host

In spite of this pandemic, Arkansas poetry culture thrives. Our small presses roll out our people’s poems. Our poets connect with us from their socially-distant writing rooms. The vibrant readings that were taking place in café’s and coffee houses now echo in cyberspace. For example, the Wednesday Night Poetry Reading Series, the longest-running consecutive weekly poetry reading in the country, rises to the new normal by meeting virtually. Last week the group, currently hosted by poet Kai Coggin,  got a mention in the New York Times  and is set to virtually hold the first Arkansas Youth Poetry Day event on April 18.

PBS also calls for the voices of poets during this uncertain time.

”American Portrait” is a nationwide initiative looking to include stories from people anywhere in the U.S. Poets, if you want to be considered for the featured topic, all you need to do is answer a prompt on the website via a quick self-recorded video that you upload to the website. There are great open-ended prompts on the site.

PBS encourages creatives to answer in spoken word or as creatively as they wish. Participants are welcome to share video, text, or photo responses to as many prompts as they like or on any platform topic they choose.

But you don’t have to identify as a poet to submit. Remember, here in Arkansas, we’ve got poetry in our blood. Whether you speak from your six-foot social distance or from cyberspace, just pull from what’s in your heart and your message will soar “straight to the heart” of others.

Stacy Pendergrast, an education and instruction specialist at Arkansas PBS, is also a seasoned haiku poet and teaching artist. She earned her Master of Education from Rutgers University and a Master of Fine Arts from Chatham University.