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Poetry for the 99 Percent

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Temperatures warmed and the Occupiers went back to the streets in April, which also happened to be National Poetry Month. The month usually dawns with the usual list of celebrations by the usual list of suspects: events scheduled by the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets and, of course, mayoral proclamations regarding the value of poetry. In this era when we have our numerical abbreviation for our common predicament, the 1% v. the 99%, it seems fitting that the good folk over at the Y/A Review Network (YARN), decided to take their effort to a new audience, a range of mostly unsung citizen-poets, each bound to the other by the ties that make or break a movement. I talked with Colleen Oakley about their initiative.

Freeman: First of all, what, exactly, is YARN?

Oakley: YARN, is an online literary journal that publishes the short fiction, poetry, and essays of aspiring teens and adults alongside established writers like Alisa Libby, Mitali Perkins, and Tomas Mournian. We also interview luminaries like Barry Lyga and Meg Cabot about their approaches to the writing process. We offer classroom lesson plans and cultivate a reading and writing community through our editors' blogs and annual writing projects, including our National Poetry Month series. In 2011, YARN was honored for these efforts with an Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation.

The Founding Editor of YARN, Kerri Majors, was writing a Y/A short story and discovered there weren't any venues where adults could publish short-form Y/A, and teens had only a handful of options. A digital magazine seemed the perfect fit for the Y/A demographic, so Kerri founded YARN with the help of Shannon Marshall, a high school English teacher. I taught with Kerri at Fairleigh Dickinson University at the time, so they brought me on board as the poetry editor.

Freeman: How did this particular project get started?

Oakley: YARN has a tradition of developing projects that get our readers involved as writers, from our lighthearted "cookie and candy poem drive" to our co-contest with Figment. We've also had poets like Nikki Grimes and Samantha Schutz write fresh pieces for previous YARN's NPM events, and readers loved them.

So for this year's NPM project, I decided to combine the two: We'd commission notable poets to write poems exclusively for YARN, and then ask those poets to solicit new work from their own writing networks. I invited a handful of writers I knew -- starting in Maine and Alaska, with several states in between -- to write a poem inspired by Donald Justice's "Crossing Kansas by Train" and Ravi Shankar's :Crossings." Those writers then "commissioned" poets across state lines to write a poem in response to their own. The goal was to create a genetic and geographic lineage of poems crisscrossing country through poet-sourcing.

Freeman: Did things turn out as you hoped?

Oakley:The project took on a life of its own. We were hoping to reach all 50 states. We made it to almost 40 poets with a few repeat states. I'm glad it wasn't the perfect 50. I didn't want to micromanage the chain mail of poems; the joyful chaos of poets creating their own online community became more interesting. If I had really needed 50, I could have individually commissioned 50 poets. But I find it more satisfying that the poets commissioned themselves and we followed (literally, on a Google map) the trail of poems as they crisscrossed the nation.

We gathered -- well, the poets themselves gathered -- an incredible array of talent, diversity and writing styles, including a visual poet (Leila Monaghan). It turns out that friends-of-poets are a safe bet for quality and craft. They were also incredibly gracious, generous with their time, and easy to work with, to boot.

I am amazed by the quality of craft we saw coming in. We took every poem exactly as it was submitted -- and each one felt finished, needing no editing. This is remarkable given that the entire project took place in fewer than six weeks; many of these poets wrote the poems in a few days or less. I think you can sense the urgency and energy in these poems. I don't know if that came from the quick deadlines, the desire to please the friends who requested the poems or the adventure of producing something half-blind... these poets had seen only their preceding poem, not the whole chain of poems to which their work belonged.

Freeman: Were they linked thematically or by style?

Oakley: The resulting poems cover a vast landscape stylistically, and yet shared themes thread through them all. All the poets at the beginning of each chain used the theme of "crossings" and beyond that our only criteria for each poem was that it be a response to the one before it. I expected the themes to fan out from there, but I was genuinely surprised to see crossing remain strong throughout entire chains of poems. Coming of age, traditions and objects passing through generations, loss and love -- these threads of themes were great for our Y/A audience.

Stylistically, some poets used syntax and sounds of their predecessors (Sara Taddeo, a Maine-based writer, honored both Donald Justice's and Gibson Fay-LeBlanc's "oohs") while many in the Alaska chain took exact lines from their preceding poems. As each new chain was published, we also discovered that poets from one chain knew poets in others from contexts outside of YARN. This became a six-degrees of separation game for poets.

Freeman: Almost everybody who writes, whether or not they consider themselves to be poets, yearn for community. Do you have any thoughts to share about how your work with this project may hold some lessons for them?

Oakley: Considering that we did not know who might be invited to join the project, we really trusted our first poets. And they and their poet friends, in turn, trusted us. Many of them admitted to me that it was not easy to write a poem for a large project in which they were just one piece of the puzzle. For many, this was their first foray into writing for a Y/A audience, as well. They took enormous creative leaps.

So my take-aways were, first, that it was important to have an original prompt to get things started, and then to let the participants generate forward momentum. Secondly, that being able to have a light touch, to be able to let go of almost all control, generates solid work from the widest and most diverse range of poets possible, in terms of their socio-economic backgrounds (an electrician in North Carolina to the usual academics), to their ethnicity: a Tagalog interpreter in San Francisco (in fact, three Filipinas, who could have arranged that by trying?!), two Eskimo natives, and on and on. Just look at the bios/photos. Not a bad reflection of America. Third, it is important to trust each others' networks and poetic karma. Our poet friends have very talented poet friends. Among those who happened along was a Donald Justice Prize Winner, Ned Balbo, very appropriate considering we started the whole thing with a Justice poem, a Philip Levine Prize winner, Angela Narciso Torres, and a Vassar Miller Prize winner, Gibson Fay Le-Blanc, as well as Fellows from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

Freeman: Final thoughts?

Oakley: The creative results of the NPM project became a collective AND independent work of art. The work on this project was both collaborative and one-one-one on all levels, from creating the prompt, commissioning the poets and generating new work, one poet to another. We're planning to show-case the project and some of the poets at an AWP event in Boston, in 2013.