National Poetry Month: Celebrating Creative Expression

Written by Caiti McGowan

April is National Poetry Month and during a time when creative arts seem to be of growing interest, it is more important than ever to celebrate and appreciate them, including the art of poetry. National Poetry Month was established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. It was created to allow poetry to shine through media outlets, encourage community members to read more poetry, promote poetry within classrooms and learning environments, and support poets across the country.  There are numerous ways to celebrate National Poetry Month—you don’t have to be a poet yourself to do so!

If you happened to tune into the historical Presidential Inauguration of Joe Biden earlier this year, you may remember the powerful inauguration poem read by now 23-year-old poet Amanda Gorman. The reciting of “The Hill We Climb” touched the hearts of so many Americans after going through the challenging and unprecedented year that 2020 was. In the piece, Gorman focuses on the need for unity as a country, across all differences. In her ending lines she says; “for there is always light / if only we’re brave enough to see it / if only we’re brave enough to be it”, reminding us all to step into our bravery to promote positive change within ourselves and our surroundings. 

Just in time for National Poetry Month, there is now a special edition copy of the monumental piece. The forward for this special gift edition is written by television host Oprah Winfrey. Additionally, a new episode of Winfrey’s show “The Oprah Conversation” features an interview with Gormon where they discuss the historical inauguration poem as well as the inspiration of the young poet. This interview is available to watch now on Apple TV+. 

To find out more information and to purchase a copy of “The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country” by Amanda Gormon, be sure to check out her website. Whether it be a gift for yourself or for a loved one, this is a great way to celebrate the art of poetry. 

Another way to celebrate poetry and creative expression this month is by interacting with the writers around you. I had the opportunity to chat with two EOU faculty members about their experiences with writing poetry, as well as their latest publications. Both James Benton and Ryan Scariano shared with me their journeys as poets, information about their new collections, and ways to celebrate National Poetry Month. 

James Benton

James Benton received his BA and MFA from EOU and currently teaches numerous writing courses at EOU, including Expository Writing and Introduction to Poetry. Benton started to dabble in poetry writing in high school but really started to see it in a new way while taking an extension course when he got out of the Navy. Benton says, “I thought ‘Oh, this is what poetry can be, this is way different.’ There’s a lot more to it than I understood.” After taking this course two times, Benton started to take writing poetry seriously and obtained a handful of poems that he thought were okay. After inevitable life interventions, he returned to college in his 50s and took a class in poetry from professor David Axelrod who teaches in the English/Writing department here at EOU. 

“I since have learned quite a bit,” Benton says. He completed his undergraduate work through EOU and his graduate work through California State University. Through studying with Joshua McKenny and Doug Rice, Benton said “I really came into my own as far as understanding poetry, and how it works.” His Master degree thesis was Benton’s first book, called Sailor which is available here. When he came back to teach at EOU, Benton decided to pursue his MFA degree. His second and upcoming book, The Book of Sympathetic Magic (Winter Goose Publishing) was produced out of the work he did for the MFA degree.  

I asked Benton how his second collection of poetry differs from his first, and he explained their differentiating focuses and inspirations. For his upcoming work, he was intrigued by the thoughts of James George Frazer in his book The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. “When you look at the cultural history of magic, it will break down into two kinds”, Benton paraphrases. “One is the idea that like produces like. And the other is that things once in contact, continue to influence each other even after that contact has been severed”. This and the idea that “things from the past continue to influence the present” (Benton) are themes that play a large role within The Book of Sympathetic Magic. Benton’s second collection of poetry will be released on April 22nd and will be available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  

Ryan Scariano is an Academic Support Coordinator here at EOU. He coordinates tutoring services and teaches in the First-Year Experience program. He took his initial interest in songwriting and over time transitioned into writing poetry. His experiences in taking creative writing classes and workshops while working towards his undergraduate degree are what made him “get serious about being a poet”. 

Ryan Scariano

When asked what poetry means to him, Scariano says, “Writing poetry helps me reconcile myself with the universe. It allows me to organize my thoughts and feelings and say what I otherwise couldn’t. I write poetry because I’d be miserable if I didn’t” he admits. He goes on to explain how important creative expression is when it comes to handling life’s ups and downs. “Creating poetry/art is the best way I’ve found to make meaning out of my life, especially the difficult and painful moments,” Scariano says. “It blows my mind that something that is sad or brutal or catastrophic in every way can somehow take on beauty when we use it to fuel the creative spirit—this definitely seems to me like one of the closest things to magic in this world.” 

Scariano’s second collection of poems is called Not Your Happy Dance (Finishing Line Press). When asked about his new collection, he said, “I would say the poems in this book are primarily concerned with celebrating the sublime as it surrounds us in our everyday lives. The poems are grounded in the Pacific Northwest, and recurring thematic elements include relationships, domesticity, insects, and driving.” Not Your Happy Dance is available for purchase through Amazon or through the website of Finishing Line Press. More of Scariano’s work can be found on his website, as well as Ink Node, The American Journal of Poetry, and SOFTBLOW. Additionally, here is a link to the recording of Scariano’s recent reading for a virtual event held by Arts Center East. 

When asked what their favorite part about writing and creating poetry is, Benton replies, “It’s an art form. If you think of it in terms of ceramics, what do you get out of that? You have an artifact at the end of the day. You have a creative effort that has manifested itself in physical space. The act of creation is the biggest satisfaction. It has said something that I want to express.” Scariano echoes the joy that comes out of creating something by saying, “Even if it’s not my best work or something that I share with others, I get tremendous enjoyment out of making a poem and then tinkering with it.” He mentions that another positive part about writing poetry is when readers are able to connect with his pieces. “I’ve heard many times that we shouldn’t seek validation through the creation of our art,” he says “but, I’m not going to lie, it is validating when peers or teachers or editors or strangers think you’re producing good work.”

Benton and Scariano offer numerous ideas on how to celebrate National Poetry Month for those interested and/or unsure where to start. Benton advises searching around on the internet for different pieces of poetry to read and to pick out some favorites. The Academy of American Poets offers Poem-a-Day; a free email subscription where they send a daily poem to your inbox. Scariano suggests celebrating by challenging oneself to write poetry. “If you are new to writing poetry and interested in participating in National Poetry Month, then I think I’d recommend that you start off by challenging yourself to write a very short poem every day for the entire month,” he says. “Or, you could find one or two people in your friend group and convince them to embark on the poem-a-day challenge alongside you.” Two websites that he suggests checking out for writing prompts this month are writermag.com and pspoets.com.

Additionally, although there are so many to choose from, I thought I’d ask Benton and Scariano who some of their favorite and most inspirational poets are. Benton mentioned Chad Sweeney, his former mentor Joshua McKinney, Walt Whitman, Dorianne Laux, and Denise Levertov as some of his favorites. Scariano brought up Pablo Neruda, William Stafford, Rochard Hugo, Paulann Peterson, and Ross Gay as poets he finds himself coming back to. 

Lastly, I asked Benton and Scariano for any last pieces of advice that they could offer to any aspiring poets out there. Benton quotes poet William Carlos Williams in saying “no ideas but in things”. He explains the importance of being aware and taking in the experiences and sights around you and putting them into writing; being a good reporter to become a good poet. Scariano encourages writers to write regularly without the expectation of perfection. Even if not actively writing, he stresses the need to “still be engaging with life as poets” by, again, being observant of our surroundings. Scariano also reminds aspiring poets to “regularly read poetry and pay attention to what resonates…and what doesn’t—then we can find ways to do (or not do) these things in our own writing.”

A huge thank you to Benton and Scariano for taking the time to talk with me about all things poetry. Take some inspiration from them, your favorite poets, or yourself, and see what kind of poetic masterpieces you can come up with this month. All you need is a pen, some paper, and your mind. 

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