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How the art form is going digital

Monitoring Desk

US poet Amanda Gorman wowed the world with her impressive inaugural recitation in January. Now, we take a closer look at the modern pull of this literary form.

“For there is always light / if only were brave enough to see it / if only if were brave enough to be it.”  From “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman, 2021 Inaugural poet

Those closing lines by US poet Amanda Gorman sounded like a call to action to people witnessing her poised, uplifting performance at the Biden-Harris inauguration on January 20. Her words reminded us that there is a different narrative to feeling entrapped in the doom and gloom of a (former) Trump administration and the grip of a global pandemic.

It was a rallying cry urging us to pick up a pen (or laptop) and see the light; to put faith in democratic ideals and envision a better future.

Poet Amanda Gorman at the Biden-Harris inauguration in January 2021: at the microphone, wearing a yellow jacket and a red headband, gesticulating.

Poetry unites

Poetry’s power in the contemporary world was not lost on UNESCO, when at a General Conference in Paris in 1999 it first adopted March 21 as World Poetry Day.

Aptly, it coincides with the beginning of Spring, at least in the Northern Hemisphere  when a sense of hope and renewal permeates the air.

“Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings,” the UNESCO website reminds us.

“Arranged in words, colored with images, struck with the right meter, poetry has a power that has no match. This is the power to shake us from everyday life and the power to remind us of the beauty that surrounds us and of the resilience of the human spirit,” said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General, on occasion of World Poetry Day in 2020.

The UNESCO celebratory day centerstages the literary form and promotes its reading, writing, publishing and teaching. With travel restricted and large public gatherings like literary readings and fairs canceled due to the pandemic, we can dust off and crack open those volumes of Shakespeare on our shelves or comb through the 24/7 net for poetry events.

Young boy sitting atop a stack of books with a mountain range in the background.

Traveling the world of poetry

Google Earth’s “Poetry Around the World” multi-lingual platform joins forces with US literacy organization “Reading is Fundamental” to enable users to enjoy poetry from around the world. It zeros in on map locations that prompt pop-ups about poetic traditions in different countries, such as the haiku in Japan, limericks as popularized by British writer Edward Lear, and works such as I Am Loved for children by award-winning African American poet and civil rights activist Nikki Giovanni.

Partner project “Literacy Central” enables teachers and pupils to together dive into books and poetry written for children and young people, anything from The Classic Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes to Thirteen Moons on Turtles Back: A Native American Year of Moons. Cross-word or memory puzzles can be created based on poems users read.

An international approach to poetry

The  Poetry International (PI) Festival in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, one of the major poetry festivals in Europe, has for over 50 years attracted poetry greats such as Pablo NerudaJoseph BrodskyMargaret Atwood, and Rita Dove as well as rising stars of the genre, like Sayaka Osaki of Japan and Zheng Xiaoqiong of China.

Last year’s PI festival was canceled due to the pandemic, but “Poetry International’s online collection of works by poets from around the globe has expanded immensely over the past 20 years, making it one of the largest in the world,” PI director Inez Boogaarts told DW.

This year’s festival is slated for June and will be a mixture of live-streamed readings, interviews with poets and translators, and perhaps small, outdoor events.

Boogaarts said the pandemic makes planning for any festival difficult. “In the past, many visitors have come to the festival not only to hear poetry, but for the ambiance and to meet other people: that is normally half the fun of going to a festival. That is a completely different experience than participating on the computer,” she said.

Poetry among millennials and digital natives

The rise of rap music in the 1980s and the onslaught of slam poetry, spoken word and open mike performance events in the 1990s and 2000s demonstrated the interest, especially among young people, in the artistic medium. But the digital developments of the past two decades have been a major boon to poetry, taking it to a whole, new level.

A crowd of people sitting outside on the grass at a poetry slam event in Germany in 2017.

“Young people now have grown up with the internet, smartphones and especially, social media. For them, the internet a place for meeting other poets and poetry lovers around the world,” she noted.

“Poetry online has exploded in the past five years, even before the pandemic – from poetry blogs to online platforms to social media,” Boogaarts pointed out.

Poetry, social media & democracy

It makes the publication of poetry democratic, because people can self-publish. Also, “for young people, Instapoets are completely normal,” Boogaarts punctuated.

Take, for instance, Indian-born Canadian poet and illustrator Rupi Kaur, who enjoys over 4 million followers on Instagram. Considered one of the forerunners of Instapoetry, the now 28-year-old has become a star of the genre. Social media led to her fame, with her self-published poetry catapulting her onto The New York Times bestseller list and having sold over millions of copies worldwide. But it is her online presence that trumps. In 2019, The New Republic called her the “writer of the decade.”

Indian-Canadian poet Rupi Kaur standing in front of plants and smiling into the camera.

She writes and posts, among other things, about the immigrant experience, relationships, femininity and trauma. Her third collection, home body, was published in November 2020, after she moved back to her parents’ house during the pandemic.

“Kaur cannily understands the contradiction that we want technology — in this case, a very powerful computer — to connect us to real people. She uses her verse, her drawings, her photographs, to give us persona, which is the next-best thing, and also an age-old poetic technique,” The New Republic wrote.

“[Kaur is] onto something: The canonical poetry most likely to endure the next century is the one that can fit comfortably within the glowing window we spend so much of our time gazing into,” The New Republic forecasted.

Countless contemporary poets meanwhile post videos of their work on YouTube and Instagram.

Actually reading poetry vs. a poetry event

The popularity of poetry on social media, however, is a far cry from the actual reading of it, says Michael Schmidt, founder and managing director of British publisher Carcanet. Among those of many poets around the world, the house publishes the works of US American Louise Glück, who garnered the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.

“For the poetry reader rather than the poetry enthusiast who goes a certain distance and then is distracted by another fashionable thing (yes, poetry is rather fashionable at present), the experience of poetry is cumulative and slow, and it really can’t be usefully accelerated or it becomes diluted,” Schmidt told DW.

“We publish for readers. Zoom events have made a difference in terms of the discussion and presentation of poetry. We generally insist that the texts of poems be included in our zooms so the viewer can be a reader and not just a passive listener,” he said.

We are not alone

Publishers, especially small ones, and poets around the globe have had to tackle how to stay afloat without large gatherings like readings in auditoriums, without real audiences. It has meant, as in most spheres, communicating primarily on the internet. “But nothing, no online event, can replace a live reading — in person,” Thomas Wohlfahrt, director of Berlin’s Haus für Poesie (House for Poetry), told DW.

In these trying times, being online has been the next best thing; it has kept us all going. It has been our community. In Rupi Kaur’s words:

“you are not alone / alone would be if / your heart no longer beat / and your lungs no longer pulled / and your breath no longer pushed / how are you alone if / an entire community lives in you / you have all on your side” — From home body, by Rupi Kaur.

Courtesy: DW