A Conversation with the President of the Poetry Foundation


I walked into the Poetry Foundation in Chicago Tuesday night to hear readings by Dr. Brett Foster and Dayna Clemens, both members of the Wheaton College family. They were featured at this month’s Open Door series, which occurs once a month. Each hour-long reading features two Chicagoland college and graduate writing program instructors and two of their current or recent students (Dr. Foster and Srikanth Reddy were the faculty members from Wheaton College and University of Chicago, respectively, accompanied by students Dayna Clemens and Clara Mitchell).

What I didn’t expect was being able to sit down with Robert Polito, President of the Poetry Foundation, before the reading to hear about why the Open Door faculty/student reading series exists, and to hear his thoughts on the importance of faculty/student mentoring, literature, art, community, and culture. Polito’s collections of poetry include Hollywood & God (2009) and Doubles (1995), and the first book I saw upon entering his office was a Bob Dylan biopic. Needless to say, he had some wonderful things to say – here are a few sound bytes:

Q: What sort of impact would you like the Poetry Foundation to have on Chicago society and culture?

A: Part of what I’d like to do–it won’t happen overnight–is change the conversation about the role of poetry in culture. I think poetry is often presented as merely enrichment and enhancement of someone’s life, and while I think that’s absolutely true, I also think there are incredibly important and vital skills you pick up reading and writing poems that have to do with habits of close attention and close reading. I’m absolutely convinced if you can do a close reading of a William Carlos Williams or George Herbert poem, you’re a better reader of all other sorts of texts and writing, whether those are speeches, or legal briefs, or journalism.

I think we live in a country that either doesn’t want us to pay close attention to much of anything, or almost assumes we don’t know how to pay close attention to anything. I think within that structure, close attention to language turns out to be an inherently political and social action, and an incredibly valuable one. I think you could make a really great case there’s an intimate connection between the close reading of language and citizenship in some basic way. So I’m very interested in changing the way poetry is taught in high school and grammar school as well as in college and graduate programs. The [Open Door] series tonight focuses on universities and colleges, but I think K-12 is where you’re really going to change the game for future readers and future poets–people who will gain a lot from studying poetry, even if they don’t continue to write poems.

Q: Why do you host the Open Door Series at the Poetry Foundation?

A: For the previous 20 years of my life, before I came to the Poetry Foundation on July 7, 2013, I directed an undergraduate writing program at the New School in New York City. It seemed to me that Chicago, defined as “Chicagoland,” across a wide swath of geography, has lots of terrific writing programs—graduate and undergraduate—and I wanted to open the foundation to those faculty and students. There are a lot of wonderful poems being produced by people here in Chicago, and creating this reading series was a way to feature them on a regular basis. It happens once a month, on the third Tuesday of every month. The format is it’s two schools with two faculty members who introduce two students at the readings. It’s a way of bringing together established and emerging writers, and the hope is that over time the students and faculty will come back to the poetry readings even if it’s not their school that’s being featured that night.

Writing programs are about the forming of communities.  Those can be communities within a school, but I’m hoping they’ll be communities that expand schools. Because I think the poets in Wheaton have a lot in common with the poets at the University of Chicago or at Columbia College, or at the School of the Art Institute, and on and on. This is an ongoing series–I hope it continues many years into the future—and the goal is to cycle through all the schools, and to keep cycling through all those schools, so all the faculty will eventually have the opportunity to read. Tonight is the first time I’ll hear Dr. Foster’s work, but I’ve read poems by him, and he’s a very impressive person. He’s a Renaissance scholar, a Shakespeare scholar, as well as a poet. So I’m honored he’s here.

Q: Why is it important for writers to engage in communities and come to events?

For most people who write, it’s a very lonely, isolated way of spending your time. I think most of us like that, or we wouldn’t do it. It’s the kind of introverted, introspective people we are. But it’s also great to come out of your office, your desk, or your carrol in the library and talk to people who are as involved in the art that you’re pursuing as you are. That’s actually one of the ultimate values of writing programs: that it’s a chance to concentrate on this art very intensively with other people that are concentrated on it intensively for however long your program is. In my experience, students learn as much from one another often as they do from a teacher. And you can learn a lot at a poetry reading. When I was at the New School, we did lots of public events—I think we did 100 events out of the MFA program, and the goal was very much to bring different and diverse voices into the program.

Featured photo credit: Robert Polito / The Poetry Foundation

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