A student writes out a poem at a poet workshop hosted by Naomi Shihab Nye at Lanier High School. Photo by Scott Ball.
A student writes out a poem during a workshop hosted by local poet Naomi Shihab Nye at Lanier High School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” – Salman Rushdie, 1989

Each February, when the San Antonio Book Festival — now fully flourishing and in its fifth year — announces its lineup of authors, I eagerly look for one thing in particular: poets. There’s just something about poets and poetry that, for me, always carries a special gravity. These mystical conjurers of deep meaning, these bold pursuers of the ineffable, hold a special place for me, even as I recognize and value the work of other types of writers.

The other thing is, as much as I dig book talks and panels about all the important topics that literature and non-fiction can help us deal with in new and better ways, there’s nothing quite like the experience of hearing a great poet (or even a decent poet) read their own work. I believe that the experience of poetry, especially live poetry, can, as the estimable Salman Rushdie suggests, awaken us in a variety of ways.

This year’s author lineup offers up a distinguished and diverse selection of 13 poets, all of whom will read from and/or discuss their work. Among the poets slated to participate are local literary luminaries like San Antonio Poet Laureate Jenny Browne, Texas Poet Laureate Laurie Ann Guerrero, Sharon Olinka, Alexandra van de Kamp, Sheila Black, B.V. Olguín, and Joe Jiménez.

Meanwhile, distinguished visiting poets include Martín Espada, Hayan Charara, David Biespiel, Tim Z. Hernandez, Morgan Parker, and Nikki Grimes.

A few weeks ago, I read a piece in The Guardian called “Why poetry is the perfect weapon to fight Donald Trump.” The article got me thinking about whether or not anybody would buy such a thesis. The question I found myself asking, which I’ve had occasion to ask myself too many times in my life, is this: “What good is poetry, really?”

Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye Credit: Al Rendon

Looking for answers to this question, I turned to San Antonio Book Festival poets Grimes, Charara, and Espada. For local perspective on the matter, and for some expert commentary on these three poets, I also looked to beloved San Antonio poet Naomi Shihab Nye.

For her part, Nye explained via email that we need poetry now more than ever because “we need language of truth, language which sings genuine hope in a time of Public Speak (empty, empty) which keeps trying to use words (like “explode,” “bloodbath,” “carnage”) to stir fear and division.”

Continuing, Nye explained that, in hard times, poetry can meet important needs because it “respects life in all its dimensions of difference and possibility — poetry trembles at the heart of friendship and memory and love and care.”

Grimes, who is a California-based poet for adults and children, a New York Times bestselling author, and an award-winning writer of children’s books, told me via email that “the strongest pull poetry has on [her], now, is its power to make an emotional connection with the reader.”

Nikki Grimes
Nikki Grimes Credit: Aaron Lemen

Grimes, who Nye described as a “wonderfully prolific poem-singer of crucial songs, beacon of soul, encourager of the young and old,” sees poetry as a “source of beauty and inspiration, both sorely needed when times are tough.”

Perhaps even more importantly, poetry is “a therapeutic outlet for dark emotions, which are more prevalent in hard times than in happier seasons.”

In the hands of adults and kids alike, Grimes believes that poetry teaches “that a single idea can have more than one interpretation” and that it challenges readers (and writers) “to think multi-dimensionally.”

Charara, a poet, children’s book author, essayist, and editor who currently lives and teaches in Houston, explained via email that “great poetry, even bad poetry, often attempts to resolve one of the most common problems of being a human being: finding meaning in our lives, especially during hard times.”

Hayan Charara
Hayan Charara Credit: Rachel de Cordova

For Charara, the son of Lebanese immigrants,who Nye calls “one of the most talented Arab Americans (or human beings) writing today,” poetry is especially important in difficult times because “poetic language, for better or worse, reimagines ordinary experience, and even ordinary language.”

Continuing, he explained that “in this way, a poem allows its readers, and writers (by way of practice) to see the world differently.”

Espada is an activist, a longtime professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, a poet, an editor, a translator, and an essayist. He is a giant of American letters, a historian in the Howard Zinn sense, a rememberer, a resuscitator, an advocate, and a political poet par excellence. Nye called him “a powerhouse of conscience and respect for stories, immigrants, and undersung or overlooked citizens.”

Espada’s latest book, 2016’s Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, is a tribute to his father, a civil rights activist who created the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project, and a celebration of the contributions of activists and would-be heroes whose efforts, judged by history to be unsuccessful, have paved the way for important dialogue and change. Vivas also is a lament for all those who are still suffering the corrosive and (often) deadly effects of injustice today.

Martín Espada Credit: Courtesy / David González

Speaking over the phone earlier this week, Espada said that “we live in an age of hyper-euphemism.” Continuing, he explained that “because those in power today use language in a certain way, a perverse way, language has become divorced from meaning.” In order for people, like those in the Trump administration and certain sects of the media, to accomplish their goals, they have to “drain the blood from words” and this practice leaves the populace “hungry for meaning.”

Not surprisingly, Espada argued that “poets can restore the blood to our words” and that, “filling the role once filled by preachers, poets can combat the perceived lack of meaning” which threatens to put us all to sleep.

The answer, then, to my question about the true value of poetry is probably heftier than any one article can lift. It is, however, undoubtedly a plural, tolerant, inclusive, and imaginative answer. It includes the practice of empathy, the act of advocacy, the excavation of the self, and the questioning of power structures.

For these reasons, poetry is, certainly, as vital and necessary now as it has ever been.

The San Antonio Book Festival will be held on April 8, 2017. See saplf.org/festival for the full schedule and location information. Here’s where and when you can catch Grimes, Charara, and Espada:

  • The Harlem Renaissance: The Cultural Capital of Black America with Nikki Grimes, Renée Watson & Michael Soto
    • 11 a.m., Southwest School of Art, Rogers Hall
  • The Personal Is Political Is Poetic with Hayan Charara & Morgan Parker
    • 12:30 p.m., San Antonio Public Library, Launch SA
  • “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed”: Poems for Unknown Heroes with Martín Espada
    • 4:15 p.m., San Antonio Public Library, Launch SA

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Espada is a giant of the Chicano movement, when he’s a giant of American letters.

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James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.