We are honored and thrilled to have Chelsea Rathburn, Georgia's Poet Laureate, join us for our sixth episode of Politics & Poetry. Part two of our conversation, join us as we discuss the power of poems and political words to connect with others. We'll also talk about the work of the Poet Laureate, Chelsea's new project with Georgia Center for the Book, Georgia Poetry in the Parks, and other ways that our communities are joining together to enable artists to create and share their ideas, inspirations, and work.
To learn more about Chelsea Rathburn visit: https://chelsearathburn.com/
Publications ~ Poetry Collections
Still Life with Mother and Knife. Louisiana State University Press. 2019. ISBN 978-0807169742
A New York Times Bestseller “New and Noteworthy” Book
Winner of the 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Award in Poetry
A Raft of Grief. Autumn House Press. 2013. ISBN 9781932870794.
PUBLICATION DATE: 2013
Carrollton GA (September 26, 2020). Georgia Poet Laureate Chelsea Rathburn https://carrolltonga.com/event/georgia-poet-laureate-chelsea-rathburn/
Georgia Center for the Arts. (n.d.). What we do.
Mercer University (n.d.). Faculty and Staff.
National Endowment for the Arts (2009). Impact
Poetry Foundation (n.d.). Poets
Poets.org. (n.d.). About Chelsea Rathburn
Poets.org. (n.d.). Poems
Washington & Jefferson College (March 10, 2022). Poetry Reading
Welcome back to Politics & Poetry, the podcast about the intersection of poetic words and political action. In Episode 6, Part 2, we interview Chelsea Rathburn, the Poet Laureate of Georgia. We’ll discuss what it’s like being a Poet Laureate, she shares some surprising things she did not know about the role and how it’s changing. She also gives us a hint at her new project, Georgia Poetry in the Parks, AND her next book of poetry. We’ll start by asking Chelsea Rathburn what some of her favorite things about her experience as Poet Laureate.
Yeah, I was thinking about sort of looking back over these questions. I mentioned sort of at the start of the conversation that some of my, my favorite parts of being Poet Laureate have been, you know, actually getting to see elected officials in action, you know, governing versus campaigning. that's been, that's been really impressive. But you had asked, like, what, what are some things that aren't known about the role of the Poet Laureate? Also, how are the roles of Laureates changing? So I thought I might speak to that. For a minute, particularly one thing that people are always surprised to learn here, here in Georgia, and also, I think a lot of other places, the Poet Laureate is a purely honorary position. So what that means is, there is no, there is no money attached. There's not least here in Georgia, it's actually written into to the creation of the Poet Laureate position, it says, you know, the Poet Laureate shall receive no remuneration. People are surprised by that sometimes. Somebody reached out to me last year and said that their community was looking to create a laureateship in in their town, and would I mind telling them what the stipend was stipends. Really, you know, it's a position it is, it is absolutely an honor to serve as a state laureate, a huge honor. I love going and speaking, and I'm able to do this less in person, obviously, with COVID. But, you know, in normal times, I'm able to go and speak to libraries and community groups and go into high schools and meet with the creative writing clubs and the magazines and things, and that is just absolutely fabulous. But when I do those sorts of things, it sometimes means that I'm actually taking time off of work. I don't get a paycheck for doing that.
And so, I think one of the things that is changing, you know, is largely, the Academy of American poets, thanks to the support of the Mellon Foundation. You know, in 2019, they launched this program, a fellowship program for Poets Laureate, and not just at the state level, no, but at County, Townships, you know, at that level, that there's an application process where, if a Poet Laureate has a particular civic project in mind, they can apply for these funds. And they're funded, partially, that helps. But also, there's a stipend that is intended to further the poet's personal work, creative work. Yeah. So I've been really amazed by the kinds of projects that are coming about, you know, thanks to the support of the Mellon Foundation, and the Academy of American Poets. I'm unbelievably lucky in that, I applied this past year with a project, and I got funded, which has just been amazing.
That that's still very much, we're still in the planning and development stages there. And I can talk about my project in a minute, but it's just been really, I think, just amazing seeing, you know, these thanks to this, this funding mechanism, you know, different states, counties, townships, people are able, you know, all across America, able to implement things, you know, educational opportunities, workshops, literary festivals, you know, things that wouldn't exist without, without this support. So I think that's really, really amazing. And you imagine, you know, the, these individual Poets Laureate have these projects, they can implement them. And then, you know, some, some of them, I think, are sort of one off projects, but others, you know, they're setting a framework in place that's going to continue beyond the year, the year of the funding. It's just, it amazes me, you know, I'm so grateful. My project, I think it's mostly in the parks.
I'm so excited to hear about that project. To me that's another just great example of, you know, the importance of good governance, and the connection between our legislators and what we value. So I found it really interesting in researching the history of the Poet Laureate that, it very early on nationally and in the state of Georgia, legislators and the culture deemed that poets were really instrumental leaders in our society and voices we wanted to hear about. So the designation, but then the dissonance, and the disconnect around the funding of that, literally the funding of the role. Then the funding of arts in school, over time, diminishing. And so on the one hand, we're saying, it's very valuable, we really appreciate it. Then over here, but we're not really going to invest in it. So, from a political perspective, I think that's another place where we have a lot of opportunity to tap into great minds, spirits creativity to help us accomplish the things we want to accomplish. So if we want more well-rounded, educated, healthier individuals, one way of doing that is through arts and exposure to arts involvement in the arts, participation. So it just kind of following on what you were saying that I think, again, it's just another place whereas a culture, there's initial hint, an idea, yes, this is important to us. But how do we continue to strengthen that? That may be a lead in to talk about your project, too?
I was just think thinking about engagement in the arts. I think that poetry getting young people interested in poetry, writing poetry. I certainly don't think everybody needs to be trying to publish, you know, writing poems and trying to publish them. But I think that there's something I, I believe, you know, really empowering to be a young person and be composing poems or spoken word pieces, performing them. I just really believe that, that that is, just, it's an empowering act. For young people in particular, being introduced to poetry, given the tools to compose poems, or spoken word pieces, to deliver them to perform them, I just think it's a really important step for developing just a strong healthy sense of self-a sense of personal empowerment. I don't think every poet is necessarily a political activist. But I do think that there's maybe a connection between, you know, giving young people the tools, whether it's through poetry or debate. There's a wonderful program through the National Endowment for the Arts, called Poetry Out Loud, where students aren't composing their own poets, but they're reciting poems. You know, I think all of these things, these tools, giving, giving young people the tools to be comfortable with language, and to be comfortable with performance. I think that that is a way, I would like to think it, it leads directly to more comfort with political engagement or civic engagement with becoming leaders. However, that looks, whether that means, pursuing politics or just thinking about business, other things.
But my, my project Poetry in the Parks, essentially came about because we were thinking about COVID, and everyone having been on a lockdown. I wanted to partner with the Georgia Center for the Book. We were sort of talking about, what are ways of extending library services beyond the walls of the library. A number of Georgia libraries, during the pandemic had done a story walk project, which essentially took pages of children's books and sort of took them outdoors, and families could come along. So we essentially thought, how might we do this in a way that would celebrate poetry and celebrate Georgia’s poets? The idea behind the project is that we'll be creating kind of interactive poetry trails, featuring poems by Georgia poets. Interactive in the sense that people will be outdoors encountering these poems, but then they can also via QR code. They can access, you know, poets’ bios, creative prompts, maybe recordings when available, recordings of the poems. Or videos of the poets reading. We're also going to have some community workshops. I'm really, really excited.
But it's been really interesting. You know, in the planning, we're still selecting, selecting poems, really thinking about, you know, what, what, what makes a Georgia poet, you know, what makes? What constitutes a Georgia poet? Isa a Georgia poet, someone who was born in Georgia, is it someone you know? Does one need to have lived it as in a place for a certain number of years? That's just been kind of interesting to think about. Because I'm not. I was born in Florida. I've lived in Georgia longer than I've lived anywhere else at this point. But, you know, what about people who are raised in Georgia and moved away? So the answer for us has been? Yes. Well, is that is this, you know, is this category we are going to be featuring some poets we're transplants to, to the state, I'm thinking like Jericho Brown, who teaches it at Emory has, you know, just an incredible, incredible poet, but he came from elsewhere. I'm also looking at poets like Adrian Sue, who was raised in, in Georgia, and now lives in Pennsylvania.
It basically just a broad mix, as well as people who have been, you know, born and raised here. David Bottoms, for example, who was a previous Poet Laureate, who was born believe in Canton, Georgia, and has lived to the state for just about his whole life.
I was going to say I love the idea of the parks, and getting outside, getting connected through nature, and to the voices using technology in that way. I think is also really a great way to to keep poetry alive. What were you going to say Dad?
Well, the question about what makes a Georgia poet? Our society globally is so mobile that I think part of that answer has to be an emphasis on where you are now, if you're in Georgia, now, you are one. You might not have been born here; you might not have had many years here. You might not have been here many years. But if that's where you are now, hey, tag, you're it, you're on. We love you. We hope that you know your time in Georgia, whatever that may be, will serve you well, wherever you may go. We all have roots and we don’t all have the opportunity to stay in one place. Many of us are forced out. Many of us leave by choice. So it's where you are now as a way obviously that is the answer to the question.
I'm also planning on including some people who, you know, spent really formative years here and then moved away, but they're still absolutely writing poems that are informed by the landscapes of Georgia by early memories. So I definitely including some people who have who have come and gone.
You have shared several times around, the literal connection between poets and politicians and politics. One interesting fact that we learned was that Elizabeth Warren actually has a poet on her campaign staff, not necessarily writing poems for her but thinking about the power of language. It reaffirmed for me, after talking to you today, that I would love to see more of that in our public discourse within our political leaders. This emphasis on the, the power and the importance of words, and how they can really bring us together, divide us, to help us cover, you know, areas that are extremely difficulty. Without that, I think the sensitivity, the awareness, acute awareness of the words and the power that they have, sometimes we miss out on these opportunities to connect with people where they are and to bring them along or to understand their version of transformation or their version of change. So we are supporters of, if people wanted to be more involved in Georgia, in poetry and in your project, is there a particular way that they could do that they just maybe that'll be forthcoming? Maybe we can talk about how to help that along.
I would just say stay tuned. We're planning on launching everything in April and for National Poetry Month. And so I think, as we get closer, there will be announcements on the Georgia Center for the Book site, and probably the Georgia Council for the Arts, on my website as well. But we're we are still in the selecting, putting things together stage.
Well, that's exciting. And we look forward to Georgia being put on the map again, in that particular way.
Thanks. I'm excited too. I have also one of my one of my jobs as Georgia Laureate is I judge a High School contest. It is just starting for 2022, it is open. It's called the Georgia Poet’s Laureate Prize. It was founded by Judson Mitchum, and it is open to any high school student in the state of Georgia, whether public school, private school, homeschooled, absolutely anything. And there is an entry form on the Georgia Council for the Arts site. So that's ninth grade through 12th grade. I think the only restrictions of the poems need to be unpublished. I think they may, there may be a line limit of 30 lines or so. But that those entries that that submission periods open between now and late February of 2022.
That's always just a real, it's, it's a joy, it's a little bit of a stressful joy. Because I read, I personally read all of the submissions. There are usually a few 100 poems come in. It’s a joy. It's stressful because it's difficult to make decisions. Often I am able to winnow the pile down to gosh, you know, I usually start getting stressed out around, I would have about 25, we always pick for their four finalists and one winner. Getting from the top 25 poems down to five, I agonize over it. There are so many interesting, interesting poems that come in. But it is a joy because it is just, I think, an amazing experience.
We've been, you know, talking about how poetry, you know, gives us insight into, into other’s experiences, other people's concerns, others, you know, frames of reference, and having this opportunity to, to, to hear all of these individual voices, you know, all of these high school students across the state, I just, it just amazes me every year, you know, looking at the variety of the poems, the wide range of subject matter. The fact that all of these students feel empowered to share. From time to time, there'll be a submission where it seems clear that the poem was written under duress, you know, sort of requirement in a class. But usually there's a few and far between. Typically, it really is, you know, this just amazing insight into what are high school students concerned with right now? And yeah, yeah, it's amazing. A lot of it, of course is the same kinds of things that I was concerned with. You know when I was in high school, it was family, you know, identity crushes, breakups. But also, you know, I have a lot of poems about experiences. There are poems about race, there are poems about gender, there are poems about people's experiences growing up in families of immigrants, their homes, concerns about school shootings and lockdowns. Last year, we had, of course, a number of poems that were about pandemic learning, and, you know, frustration about the things that this generation of high school students is, is losing, you know, by being in isolation. But anyway, they're really beautiful. It's a great experience. One of the many privileges that I have as a Poet Laureate here in Georgia, is getting to look at every year.
Well, we are fans of expanding opportunities for reading poetry, as you said. Writing poetry sort of this in the background now, strange backlash to increased conversation around different voices, inclusiveness, you know, the book bans that maybe have not come to Georgia yet, and we hope don't. But, poetry and contests like this are opportunities, training workshops, having it in the curriculum, we think just, we agree, critically important for having broader conversations, for having greater acceptance of all the nuances that are the human experience. Giving our young people an opportunity to, as you shared, know that they're not alone in all of these spaces of discrimination, experiences of trauma, experiences of isolation, of loss of so we applaud all efforts in that space.
Yeah, and experiences of joy too!
We have this reputation as being down. You know, yeah. About triumphs. And yes, yeah, I have. I had a one of my students this semester, wrote a poem about her, she, she actually didn't even turn it in, at the end of the semester is one of her official poems for the class, but it's just a creative exercise. I had a student, right, it was, in response, just an exercise in my introductory creative writing class. She wrote a poem, praising her mother, and it was just essentially an ode to her mother, her mother, the Nigerian immigrant. She was thinking about the things that made her Nigerian mother, you know, particularly different from the mothers of her classmates. It’s a poem that was exuberant and filled with love and joy. I like having the reminder, sometimes that, you know, I tend to be drawn toward in my own poetry, toward the darker subjects. But it's always good to read poems of joy as well.
Well, the smile on your face, despite the darker subjects that come through and much of your poetry Chelsea. It has a triumphant joyful end, which is also a beginning, as you well know, a new beginning.
I think sometimes, my own family has a very dark sense of humor. And so you know, the story, I read the poem, Postpartum Fairy Tale, earlier, you know, by life people relatives like these to actually joke about, you know, oh gosh, I had postpartum you know, after you were born and I just wanted that the cat to jump on you, I didn't want to kill you myself, but I wanted the cat to jump on you and, and you know smother you. It's not hilarious, but that really was sort of this atmosphere my family just really is they have a dark, dark sense of humor. I think maybe my personal stories aren't quite as dark as they seem in the books.
Well, thank you so much for joining us today. We feel very honored for your time and to get to know you and to hear your views about poetry.
Thank you for having me, it's been a real pleasure.
We look forward to reading more of your work and sharing it and learning more about your projects. And just look forward to the next book. Any hints? Well, you said you're working on it.
So we'll just say it's, it's about loosely about home, the concept of home. And so I, that's probably all I should say, as I said it's still in in a very amorphous stage. But I'm sort of exploring, you know, the, what exactly are the foundations that shaped us both in terms of, you know, physical spaces, and also kind of emotional frameworks. And I'm very much wandering and wandering in the dark of the sweat still, you know, just writing individual poems and kind of waiting, waiting for the larger shape to emerge.
Well, we can relate to that as our three generations of activists, politics, politicians, campaigners, writers. And this idea of students in this idea of, of home and family and how do we how do we support each other? How do we inspire each other? How do we have fun together? How do we build sustaining relationships early, in the early days and then as we age. Well, it's been really a joy. Thank you!