It is strange to be an American watching America from afar right now. I live in England, near the village of St. Albans, which has been continuously inhabited since Roman times. I often wonder what it must have been like to be a Roman living in Britain around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. News would arrive over weeks and months that illiterate Vandals had again plundered Rome, and burned its great libraries to the ground. Books, after all, were useless to them as compared with weapons and gold.
News that the current U.S. administration plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and its sister organisations arrived in my social media feed at the speed of light, and hit me straight in the gut.
In 2003 I was living in South Central Los Angeles, writing poetry, attending seminary, and surfing. All of these were attempts to discover what life is about. Through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, my poetry began to get better, though my surfing never did. Then something happened that changed my understanding of why poetry matters. I entered and won a prize called Poetry in the Windows, sponsored by the Arroyo Arts Collective.
As part of the prize, poems were translated into one of the many languages spoken in the diverse Highland Park area of East Los Angeles. Then, with the permission of the shop owners, they were displayed in the storefront windows along the main street. A special day was arranged where groups were led from storefront to storefront to hear us poets read our winning poems aloud.
I don’t recall what I did with the small prize cheque; I probably spent it on In ‘N’ Out burgers and gas for my truck. But I do still recall the beaming face of the Armenian shopkeep listening to a young Armenian poet read out the poem hanging in pride of place in his store window, in his native tongue. To this day, I have never been more proud of one of my poem’s placements than outside the Rub-A-Dub Laundry on Figueroa Street. This is because on this day, we were not natives or immigrants, poets or shopkeepers. We were one people united by a love of words.
That organisation, and that prize ― the first poetry prize I ever won ― was supported by the NEA. It gave me a much-needed sense of hope and encouragement early in my vocation as a poet. It mattered more than I can say.
According to the Academy of American Poets, the NEA has supported more than 3,000 writers with small fellowships to afford them the time to write. They also support critical programs for teens like Poetry Out Loud, where more than 300,000 teens memorise and recite poems in an inspiring annual competition.
If you feel, like I do, that organisations like NEA represent a vital part of a healthy society, I encourage you to contact your representative and make your thoughts known. PEN America has put together a useful web page with more information.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the richness and diversity of America’s cultural heritage. The NEA has been protecting that heritage, and encouraging new voices ― like mine ― to join in the conversation since its founding in 1965. I can’t imagine America without it.