4 Georgia poets discuss their art for National Poetry Month

Credit: Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

These writers share how they create great poems

Nearly three months after Amanda Gorman captured the nation’s attention by reading her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, her words still resonate. Issued as a book immediately after Gorman recited the poem on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, it was an instant bestseller. Three months later, it remains so. Her words spoke to the pain, loss, anger of the moment, but also of tenacity, goodwill and hope.

“There is something in poetry that speaks to us in these times of intensity, times of confusion, times when we have trouble articulating the complexity of what we are feeling, this is often when we see people turn to poetry,” said Chelsea Rathburn, poet laureate of Georgia and assistant professor of English and creative writing at Mercer University. “They’re attempting to make sense of their own complex emotions, and in a poem, there’s something about the art form that is attempting to express complexity in a very small amount of space.”

With the growing number of poetry apps, poem-a-day newsletters and an abundance of performers on Instagram, there is a clear appetite out there for the clarity that can come through verse. But let’s face it, poetry can sometimes feel intimidating (remember the epics like Beowulf?) or perhaps too simplistic (think greeting cards). Or maybe you haven’t turned to a poem since high school language arts or your sibling’s wedding. Since it’s National Poetry Month, we talked to four Georgia poets, including Rathburn; Kamilah Aisha Moon, Pushcart Prize winner and assistant professor of English at Agnes Scott College; Travis Denton, the McEver Chair of Poetry at Georgia Tech and associate director of Poetry@Tech; and Kodac Harrison, musician and poet, who has hosted poetry readings for 20 years. Here, they talk about poetry from the way they teach it and their own methods of composing verse. Their interviews have been edited for clarity.

As Rathburn said, the idea is to find one poem that unlocks something inside you. It’s sure to lead you to others.

“If people read one poem and they dislike it, or they find it confusing or frustrating, a lot of times it turns into, ‘I don’t like poetry, I just don’t get it,’” Rathburn said. “I would never say, ‘Gosh, this Quentin Tarantino movie, I didn’t like it, and therefore, I don’t like movies. I always tell people, look for that one poem that you do like because all it takes is one. Sometimes, they can just work their mystery on you.”

Credit: Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

Chelsea Rathburn

Rathburn’s latest collection of poems, “Still Life with Mother and Knife,” deals with her own struggles with postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter as well as Rathburn’s sometimes fraught relationship with her own mother. The book was widely praised for its honesty and bravery. The following advice is what she tells her students at Mercer.

I typically, on the first day, share a poem by Richard Blanco, who was another inaugural poet (for President Barack Obama in 2013). It’s called “Looking for the Gulf Motel.” It’s very straightforward. It’s beautiful. In this poem, the speaker is recounting growing up in Miami and taking family vacations over to Marco Island. Blanco was recounting that growing up in Miami, they don’t have enough money to take fancy vacations, but they go over to this other town on the west coast of Florida with whiter sands.

His Cuban American family pack all of this luggage including a pork roast and a pressure cooker. It’s reeking garlic all across the hotel lobby as they go into the Gulf Motel. It’s very, not only visual, but it just appeals to all of the senses and you feel as though you’re there in this motel lobby and in the motel room. ... It’s so richly detailed. It’s the specifics of a person’s experience that brings a poem to life. And you know what happens when I’m reading Richard Blanco, about his family embarrassing him with this garlic reeking in all of their food that they are carrying through this hotel? It’s ‘I completely understand that experience.’

My father drove a used Ford Pinto he bought for I think, $100. It had a busted-out taillight that he covered with red cellophane. It was awful, and I used to make my dad drop me off about two blocks away from my middle school rather than pull up in front and risk the school seeing me get out of this horrible junk heap of a car. I think that is so amazing to me that I’m reading this specific about Richard Blanco and the embarrassment he experienced. But it’s because he has created this incredibly vivid, detailed world that allows me to access my own memories, my own world.

And that’s why I try to tell my students, communicate exactly what you’re writing about; communicate what’s at stake for you, what’s important to you, and describe it fully and richly, and readers will come along and read your experience.”

Kamilah Aisha Moon

Credit: Kamilah Aisha Moon

Credit: Kamilah Aisha Moon

Moon’s latest poems were featured recently in The New York Times and in the Academy of American Poets’ digital poetry series, Poem-a-day. Her work has also been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2019. In 2020, she not only faced the coronavirus pandemic, but she also suffered the death of her mother who passed after battling pancreatic cancer. The social distancing protocols prevented Moon from visiting her mother in person in her final days. Moon dealt with her grief in two poems, “Disbelief” and “Storm,” the latter written in the aftermath of a storm that left thousands in Atlanta without power for days. Here, she talks about the process of writing those pieces.

This was a particularly hard year for me and my family because we lost my mom. If you lost family during this time, you couldn’t have a normal funeral. We couldn’t be with her in the hospital. And to not be able to visit her for much of that time was agony. But when I published the poem about the aftermath of the act of burying my mom and being back home alone and just dealing with the absence of her being on this side of the sun, I got letters from people all over the country. Anybody who saw it on Poets.org … just to say, ‘thank you. I’ve been dealing with so much grief this year and this poem helped me get through that grief.’ And so, again, that connection, like we’re all in the tribe of loss right now, we’re dealing with this loss together.

A subject like that can be enormous, and you don’t know where to begin, so I tell (my students) to start small. Find a moment, then focus on that moment, and you will hit the largest thing you are trying to reach. For me, it was the fact that I had all these plants, (after the funeral) which clearly showed that people loved and cared about me, that they were sorry for my loss. And they sent these plants, but then it was like, it hurt to look at them because they symbolized that she was gone. So, I focused on just that one detail; ‘I have all these plants but not you,’ and let it unfold from there.

I find when I kind of know what I want to write ahead of time, those usually aren’t my best poems. Poems are stumbled upon or revealed to me. Those two poems were born out of a moment. Like there literally was a storm happening and that had really been a hard day. My mother was struggling really bad that day. We had five minutes to talk, then the power goes out later that evening, and I’m sitting there in the dark in my house. I just decided to describe what was happening. And again, using the circumstances, I lit a candle and then thinking about the fact that dang, you can’t even go out on a date. Then thinking about my mother and all the people who had already passed on and my friends and loved ones who were lost. And so that’s why I say, (in the poem) ‘Candlelight for two is a date. Candlelight for one is a séance.”

Credit: Kamilah Aisha Moon

Credit: Kamilah Aisha Moon

Travis Denton

Part of Travis Denton’s goal in teaching poetry at Georgia Tech for the past 15 years is to spread the love of poetry to the community. He brings between 15 and 18 poets a year to Tech to give public readings. Tech began streaming those readings online during the pandemic and found that its audience extended across the country and overseas.

Credit: Katie Chaple

Credit: Katie Chaple

The foundations of page poetry and spoken word poetry, I think they’re pretty much the same. They both hinge on figurative language, simile and metaphor. You always want to share with your reader what it was like. They are also both founded in music and sound. You want to cultivate that rhythm, that music and sound. In page poetry and spoken word poetry you want to have concrete images, you want to avoid the abstraction, stick with that concrete. They both deal with who we are, our shared humanness. We can have this discourse through poems.

We have a strong community (of poets and fans) at Georgia Tech and in Atlanta. That happened because of the generous spirit of (the late Tech professor) Thomas Lux in those early days. We had these gifts, and it was important that we share these gifts with the community. Too, it was the types of poetry and poets we bring to Tech. We have a no-boring-poets policy. You get one chance to bring someone into poetry, and if you present a bad poetry reading, they’re going to say, ‘Damn! I hate poetry.’ But if they know they are going to be presented with a new exciting poet, who is going to make them happy, or make them sad, that’s what keeps them coming back.

A huge part of poetry is experience: experiencing the world, traveling, meeting people. For a young poet, oftentimes you can teach them. You say, take your headphones off, walk down the sidewalk, look at the sky, smell the sewage, figure out how all of these things are connected.

Credit: Jacquline Carr

Credit: Jacquline Carr

Kodac Harrison

Atlanta singer/songwriter Kodac Harrison has hosted poetry reading events and slam poetry contests for more than 20 years. He has been chair of Poetry Atlanta and sent teams to national competitions.

A big part of the slam poetry movement is performance. This is a contest, you’re getting judged on content and performance. It forces you to be more than just a page poet; it forces you to learn to deliver your work.

In 1983 Russell Shaw, the music editor of Creative Loafing, wrote that I was Atlanta’s best poet, musically or otherwise. I thought, no, I don’t know anything about poetry; don’t lay that on me. But after getting those reviews I thought, OK, I’ll accept that label. And when I went to a poetry reading, I recited a song. . . Whatever I would write I would turn it into a song.

I had my first reading in January 1997. I did one at the Margaret Mitchell House, one at the Gravity Pub, then one at (Decatur coffee shop) Java Monkey. That was the one that took off ... In the early days, our biggest crowds (at Java Monkey) were slam crowds. During the first championship we had there, we had a whole patio full, and there were 25 people out on the street; we were blocking the street. The next week they started building those bleachers and brought in extra chairs ... I had features (the featured poet at a reading) from 19 or 20 different countries, from every continent. They got paid a small amount; that was one thing that made that reading successful because you could actually get paid. ... I would get poets from every kind of group, sex preference and age. The oldest was 91, the youngest 16 or 17. Natasha Trethewey, she featured for me three different times. I listened to her doing an interview on NPR she talked about it, people lining up at a local reading at Decatur. I felt toward the end I’d been doing it long enough, and I needed to pass it along to someone else.

(Java Monkey burned Nov. 11, 2018, in a fire set by a disgruntled former employee.)