Amie Whittemore: the necessity of poetry

Part of the indomitability of human nature is our use of lightheartedness and humor as a foil to oppression. Given that, I expect we’ll get some stellar work this year for the Kennedy McIntyre Light Verse Award.

Amie Whittemore will be our judge. This is her take on the role of the poet today:

I feel as though the myriad challenges of 2020 have made it at once more difficult to write poetry and, potentially, more necessary. A difficult combination.

I think the onslaught of tragedies—from the pandemic to the ongoing police brutality against Black people to the presidential election to wildfires ravaging the American West to whatever personal sorrow each of us is carrying—has made it hard to maintain the traits I find most beneficial to my writing: silence, calm, clear-sightedness, stillness. At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt some of that stillness and calm as professional and personal obligations melted away, as time slowed down and grew murky and thick. But now, though I am still maintaining relative isolation, I feel like my personal and professional obligations have ramped back up, making it even more difficult to process and partake in the systemic changes—social, economic, and environmental—that so desperately require our attention and energy. The cynic in me would say this is in the best interest of capitalism and hegemony; the more overwhelmed we are, the more unlikely it is the collective action required to render widespread change will take place.

Which brings me to the necessity of poetry. I think poetry wears a lot of hats and somehow looks dapper in all of them, balancing precariously on its exquisite skull. For some poets, at this point, poetry is a place to release anger, grief, rage, to do the work of toppling oppressors and oppressions. For others, it is a way to cultivate beauty and peace, to reflect on love and connection—these nourishments that feel in short supply. Sometimes a poem can do both, rage and frolic, and that is a dazzling thing.

I think sometimes writers can feel guilty for writing about joy in times of collective grief (which is of course, a perpetual paradox, just one that feels particularly fraught at the moment). I know I have felt that way. I know sometimes joy also feels flimsy living in this age of extinction and decline; this era of earth-grief.

So, while no one’s asked me for advice, I feel compelled to offer some. I think 2020 is a year of reckoning in many ways, and all reckoning begins with an interrogation of the self: how can I be an antiracist? What does it mean to be a good citizen in a problematic nation? How can I demonstrate kindness to others and myself? How might being gracious with myself allow me to have grace with others? What does a sharing economy look like? What is the name of that bird I hear every morning?

Follow the questions. They will lead you somewhere new, likely a meadow full of new questions. Bring some good snacks for the road ahead. Drink water. Breathe deep. Wear your mask.

Here is Amie’s bio:

Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and the 2020 Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Nashville Review, Smartish Pace, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She is the Reviews Editor for Southern Indiana Review and teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.

You can read one of her poems here:

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