Iowa Arts Council
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Iowa Arts Council

Poems for Uncertain Times

Don’t feel too bad if you missed National Poetry Month. This April wasn’t normal. There were, you know, a few other things that demanded our attention.

But in these strange and anxious times, poetry might be just what we need.

“It’s been interesting to see how much people are relying on poetry to find some wisdom or a place to shelter,” said Debra Marquart, the Iowa poet laureate, who teaches at Iowa State University.

However, she was quick to point out that poetry can be more than a pacifier.

“It informs and argues and creates awareness,” she said. “It’s not that poetry is just a calming-down medicine. It can also be an antidote to poison.”

When asked for recommendations, she points to Robert Bly’s translations of the ecstatic poems by Kabir, the 15th century Indian mystic who wrote about “the human spirit and the human imagination,” Marquart said. “That was the first book I went back to” after the coronavirus broke out.

She also picked up a book of Chinese poetry that goes back 3,000 years. “It makes me feel better,” she said, “because I think about what goes on, what lasts, what sustains itself beyond these day-to-day troubles and larger catastrophes that we’re in the middle of right now.”

Along those same lines, she mentioned the poem “Japan” by the former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, which contrasts the permanence of a one-ton temple bell with the fleeting life of a moth sleeping on the bell’s surface.

She also recommended “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, who recalls how his father rose early every Sunday morning, “in the blueblack cold,” to stoke a fire and warm the house before his son got out of bed.

“He remembers speaking indifferently to his father and he regrets that,” Marquart said. “I love that poem right now because there are these small things we’re doing for each other, these small but meaningful gestures that signify what it means to be human.”

Marquart lives in Ames but has spent the last few weeks teaching her Iowa State students remotely from Michigan, where her partner, Thomas Rice, teaches at Kalamazoo College. She was planning to lead students on a literary tour through Ireland in May, but the trip was canceled.

She also had to call off other plans for National Poetry Month — or at least shift them to an online format. Instead of visiting schools in person, she is developing a series of lessons to help Iowa teachers coach young writers, with support from the Iowa Arts Council. She launched an online video series called “Poems Across the Distance,” with help from Humanities Iowa, in which she reads some of her favorite poems and interviews other Iowa poets.

She is also putting the finishing touches on a “Telepoem Booth,” another Humanities Iowa project, which will open soon in Council Bluffs. Visitors will be able to pop in and dial a number to hear one of 150 poems Marquart helped curate from statewide submissions.

“I can’t wait for people to see the variety of experiences and the different kinds of expression and viewpoints and backgrounds,” she said.

“There’s a really vibrant literary culture in Iowa,” she added. “We need to lift that up and celebrate it and think about what’s unique about the state and what we have to offer the national conversation.”

Because these days, especially, there is plenty to say.

— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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Iowa Culture

Iowa Culture

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov