Spotlight: Jen Benka

Poems in the Public Square: Jen Benka

Interview by John Deming

Jen Benka opens her latest poetry book, Pinko, with these lines: “push the needle of the pen burning sensation / then pour grief in // there are many kinds of loss.” The lines underscore a theme that has coursed through Benka’s entire professional career: that language can be transformative. The former Managing Director of Poets & Writers, she was named Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets last year. She brings 25 years of non-profit experience to the Academy. Her life in the service sector has also coincided with the publication of two volumes of politically active poetry–Pinko, and her first book, A Box of Longing With 50 Drawers, which contained a poem named for every word in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Her poetry has always featured uncompromising social conscience, and six months into her tenure at the Academy, she is finding new ways to bring poetry to the public. We met up one morning at the AWP Conference in Boston to discuss her new job and the Academy’s plans for National Poetry Month 2013.

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How did April come to be named National Poetry Month?

The Academy of American Poets originated National Poetry Month in 1996, and it began on the steps of a post office in New York City with our staff handing out copies of The Waste Land on April 15, tax day – so there was some playful irony its original year (“April is the cruellest month.”). Every year since, the Academy has used National Poetry Month as an occasion to provide poetry materials and resources to educators around the country. We continue to do that in partnership with the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the National Council of English Teachers, and other organizations. We distribute National Poetry Month materials to more than 150,000 schools and libraries across the country, and we offer additional educational resources on our website, Poets.org.

What is the Academy doing for National Poetry Month this year?

This year we’re doing something a little different. We have launched the Dear Poet Project through which we are inviting young people across the U.S. to read poems by the distinguished poets who serve on our Board of Chancellors and then to write letters to them—to hand write letters, old school. And, some of our Chancellors will write back. Our Chancellors act as our artistic advisors and kindly take time out of their busy writing and teaching lives to assist with some of our programming, such as this project.

 High school students?

We are targeting grades 7-10, but certainly any young person can find the materials on our Web site and participate. We’ve put out an initial call to schools across the country, and we’ll be continuing to invite more schools in the weeks ahead. We will accept letters throughout the month of April, and then in May we’ll be posting some letters and responses on our Web site.

Is it part of your goal to increase youth interest in and involvement with poetry?

We do feel it is important for young people to engage with contemporary poetry. While we want to encourage young people to read poems by historical poets like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, we also hope they’ll start thinking about what it means to be a poet in the world today.  It seems important for students to just simply consider that idea, and to know that, yes, there are still poets writing about current events and topics they can relate to. It’s been great seeing that happen in some of the Dear Poet letters that have already come in.

Poetry not only as a historical artifact, but as a living thing.

Yes, exactly.

So how long have you been at the Academy now?

I have now been on board for nine months. I moved back from California, where I had been for three years. I worked for an internet startup called The Bay Citizen that was innovating journalism. We were a membership-based, online-only newspaper, which I know sounds like a contradiction in terms. After that, I was lucky enough to go work for 826, a national arts education project that was launched by the novelist Dave Eggers, and has chapters in 8 cities around the country and a national office. 826 is devoted to assisting young people strengthen their writing skills– creative writing mostly, but also essay writing and other non-fiction.

And you were at Poets & Writers before that.

I worked at Poets & Writers for nine years as the Managing Director. Somehow, I’ve been working in the non-profit sector for almost 25 years.

How did you first get involved in the non-profit sector?

I went to Marquette University, which has a commitment to community service. I volunteered at a homeless shelter while I was getting my degree in magazine journalism, and when I graduated, I decided that I wanted to spend a year in service. I thought about going into the Peace Corps or another kind of program, but I joined the staff at the homeless shelter instead.  And what I originally thought would be a year of service became four years at the shelter and then a life in the non-profit sector.

What other kinds of projects are you working on for the academy?

You know, I’m very interested in technology, and that will be a focus in the next couple of years. Poets.org has grown to become our largest and most visible program. We have many millions of people coming to the site each year, and we know that we have a great opportunity to serve poets, to inspire readers, and to assist teachers. So we will be dedicated to doing everything we can to make sure our site is an excellent resource.

And what’s up with your own writing projects?

Well, I had a book come out about a year ago, Pinko, thanks to the wonderful and generous people at Hanging Loose, who have been publishing poetry books since the ’70′s—so I have been still working in support of that project. I’m actually working on a non-fiction prose project right now that is a little bit longer—I’ve been working on it for a number of years.

There has been consistent political engagement in your own poetry. What attracts you to it? 

Many years ago on a panel at Poets House, the poet Etel Adnan described the poem as a place to exercise freedom. While obviously not its only possibility, the poem can be a kind of public square. I have always been personally interested in the intersection and inter-dependence of art and democracy, of cultural and civic engagement. I think the work that Americans for the Arts has done through their Animating Democracy Initiative has been instructive.

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