The Academy of American Poets founded National Poetry Month in 1996. For over two decades now we have spent April celebrating what Robert Frost said happens “when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” These are the thirty days when you’re compelled to dig up and enjoy your favorite poetry, whether it’s a dirty limerick by Wilde, a clever two-liner by Silverstein, or an entire Homeric epic.
But how is poetry faring in the internet age? Does the “crown of literature” still stand as a beloved pastime? Or are we all too buried in our comfy electronics to remember how nice a little rhyme sounds every now and then?
“Poetry isn’t experiencing a drought — it’s going through a renaissance,” explained Hans Weyandt of Milkweed Editions, an independent publisher and bookstore right here in Minneapolis. Milkweed Editions has published over 350 books since its inception in 1980, many by locally and internationally renowned poets. “It’s easy to imagine that kids these days don’t care about it, but the allure of musicality and wordplay will always attract young people to poetry. True, many people are put off of poetry when they’re made to study Milton and Byron in school, but when someone finds relevance in poetry in their own lives it becomes personal. That personal significance keeps poetry alive. Because of that, we’re not seeing the digital age as the adversary of poetry, but rather as a wonderful time for people to connect over what best relates to them.”
For a little more insight on the state of local poetry we reached out to two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and National Poetry Slam finalist Bao Phi. His poem Race appeared in The Best American Poetry 2006, and he currently works as Program Director of the Loft, a literary arts center.
“I started doing the art form which would now be called spoken word when I was a teenager,” said Bao. “I was a performance poet for two decades before my first book was published. Due to the stigma against spoken word, I had assumed that no publisher would want my work. I didn’t write a manuscript until I was encouraged to by the late Allan Kornblum of Coffee House Press, may he rest in peace.”
“I draw a lot of influence from the Twin Cities. I was only a baby when my parents fled war and came to the Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis, where they still live. I now live in central Minneapolis, not too far away, with a daughter of my own. My first book of poems had more of a reach. My goal in that book was to be a conduit for unheard or erased Asian American stories, specifically Vietnamese. My new collection of poems is much more personal and is embedded with much more Twin Cities influence — from 1980’s Vietnamese social events to the seedy bars in Phillips that I never set foot into.”
And does the digital age bode well for poets? “Absolutely,” said Bao. “Back in the day, if you liked my poems, you had to come to my show and buy one of my self-produced chapbooks or CDs from my backpack. Now folks can hit up a video of their favorite poets on YouTube. I don’t know what the future holds — I’m pretty backwards with technology. You should see my cellphone!”
It’s heartening to know that poetry, which has survived famine, war, and countless generations, will also fare well in the day of the internet. In closing and in the spirit of National Poetry Month, let us all enjoy one of my favorite poems, Hollandaise by Ogden Nash:
I sing the praise of Hollandaise,
A sauce supreme in many ways.
Not only is it a treat to us
When ladled on asparagus,
But I would shudder to depict
A world without Eggs Benedict.
Milkweed Editions is open 8:30 – 5:00 Monday through Friday at 1011 S Washington Ave #300, Minneapolis. Bao Phi’s books Sông I Sing, Thousand Star Hotel, and A Different Pond are available for sale and pre-order from select book sellers and online.
By David Scheller