Books

Verse at the fair? It’s everywhere

Juan Felipe Herrera is the first Latino Poet Laureate of the United States.
Juan Felipe Herrera is the first Latino Poet Laureate of the United States.

I just finished watching Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, the fifth film in a series where — spoiler alert — all five missions turn out to be possible. The film made more than $600 million, bringing the total gross of the franchise to around $2.7 billion over its 19-year history. The last two films have even been overwhelming critical successes, garnering 93 percent and 92 percent ratings, respectively, on Rotten Tomatoes.

By any estimation, then, these films are massively successful pieces of art. But how come no Mission: Impossible films have been screened at funerals or incorporated into wedding ceremonies? Why have zero teenagers, in the throes of adolescent obsession, made their own Mission: Impossible films as declarations of love? Humanity in the present age is beset on all sides by crisis; why have none of our leaders turned to the Mission: Impossible franchise for guidance?

If this argument seems silly to you, I’d counter that the value of poetry in society has been judged by this exact criteria. Every “death of poetry” argument I’ve ever heard centers on the market share for books of poetry, as if that statistic were in any way reflective of the genre’s value. Most poetry readers don’t go shopping for new poetry books. They get poems only when they need them: at times of heightened emotional crisis and celebration, when their lives dictate language that goes beyond prosaic description. They get them in books handed down to them by elders. They get them out of their own heads and, increasingly, they get them for free online.

Poetry Foundation’s website, for instance, contains an archive of poems searchable by a wide range of categories that gets 36 million unique visitors a year. Right now, even in Miami, there are poetry lovers all around you. You may even be one and not realize it.

If you want to feel less alone, come to this year’s Miami Book Fair. There will be readings by 55 different poets in English and Spanish, an incredibly diverse and vibrant group that includes the first Latino Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera.

Herrera was an inspired choice by the Library of Congress, an incredible performer with a deeply democratic sense of the art form. His project for his laureateship is La Casa de Colores, an epic, crowd-sourced poem that anyone in the United States can participate in authoring. Herrera will be joined onstage by former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, whose dense, pithy poems are the modern heirs to Robert Frost’s moral anthems.

If legends are what you’re after, Gary Snyder is the poet you need to see. One of the original Beat poets, Snyder was the other reader the night that Allen Ginsberg debuted Howl. Snyder is the inspiration for the character of Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, and the poet’s influence is at this point incalculable. His 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Turtle Island, is the book all subsequent ecologically-conscious poets strive toward.

If Snyder’s muse is planet earth, Albert Goldbarth’s is the human intellect. Where Snyder is spare and enigmatic, Goldbarth is effusive and charming, using every discipline imaginable — astronomy, physics, art history, etc. — to create smart and hilarious observations of the world. His contemporary Yusef Komunyakaa (they were born one year apart) focuses more on the interpersonal, albeit within the context of society and global conflict. A Vietnam veteran who is one of the more powerful war poets in American history, Komunyakaa is part of a generation of poets who mentored and paved the way for the current moment of African American poetry in America. That moment is, in a word, dominance.

The range, depth and skill of living black American poets is unmatched, and, alongside Komunyakaa, a few of the best will be in Miami for the fair: Kevin Young, Major Jackson, Reginald Dwayne-Betts, and Carl Phillips. These four poets could not be more different in their approaches, but each is writing poems that carry forth traditional forms and sing the contemporary moment into being.

If you’re searching for future laureates among the book fair offerings, I’d recommend David Tomas Martinez, Caki Wilkinson, Malachi Black and Ed Skoog, and if Spanish is your preferred language, go hear Valeria Luiselli, Francisco Larios or Luis Ambroggio.

There’s even a movie star among the poets this year: Amber Tamblyn, who has not yet appeared in a Mission: Impossible film but can count both The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films in her repertoire. Despite her successful career as an actress, Tamblyn persists in writing and publishing poems; Dark Star is her third collection.

Weird, huh? You’d almost think she enjoys it.

P. Scott Cunningham is the founder of the O, Miami Poetry Festival, which runs throughout the month of April.

Poetry at the fair

Thursday: ‘An Evening With Gary Snyder.’ 6 p.m. Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave. $15.

Saturday and Nov. 22: Other poets appear throughout the weekend; visit miamibookfair.com for a complete schedule.

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