Desperate times call for desperate measures. And really desperate times call for poetry.
That is why, all this month and next, local small presses are seeding Twin Cities independent bookstores with poems printed on small, colorful cards, yours for the taking. New poems will appear each Thursday throughout March and April.
Each poem — by Bao Phi, Mai Der Vang, Chris Santiago, Sean Hill and others — will explore the theme of migration.
“I think that poets have always been the moral compass of our society,” said Mandy Medley of Minneapolis’ Coffee House Press. “They have a way of distilling all of the outrage, all of the fear, but also all of the love and the hope into these very compact little packages.”
The initiative by Twin Cities small presses was inspired by a national project begun after Election Day. Last November, 22 nonprofit poetry organizations formed a “poetry coalition” to present programs across the country on the theme “Because We Come From Everything: Poetry & Migration.”
Medley of Coffee House and Abby Travis of Minneapolis’ Milkweed Editions put their heads together to plan something for Minnesota. “After the election, everything was in a state of turmoil,” Medley said. “So we decided to help distribute poetry into the world.
“Someone like Bao Phi, he’s been writing for decades, and his poems have always dealt with migration, the feeling of being an ‘other.’ People are realizing that these voices are more important than ever.”
Bao Phi’s poem, “Ego Tripping as Self-Defense Mechanism for Refugee Kids Who Got Their Names Clowned On,” kicked off the initiative this week. It is from his book “Thousand Star Hotel,” to be published in July by Coffee House Press.
“My given name, Thiên-bảo, translates to / treasure from heaven,” the poem begins. It ends, “because everyone who has ever addressed me from bullies to crushes to haters / has had no choice / but to call me / valuable.”
Poetry, many have noted, has seen something of a resurgence since the election. “Citizen,” Claudia Rankine’s groundbreaking collection on racism, was published by Graywolf Press in 2014, but it hit the bestseller list again unexpectedly last October.
“When there’s something in our culture that is so shaking us up and sending us off balance, it’s a little harder sometimes to access a longer narrative,” Travis said. “It can take a long time to write a novel, but it’s easier to connect to something short.”
Poems, she said, are short enough to be tweeted, or e-mailed, or shared in their entirety on a Facebook page. Or printed on a small card and handed out at a bookstore.
In a Q&A last fall, Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine, spoke about the recent rising impact of poetry.
“The work of Danez Smith has been shared a lot in the past couple of days,” Share told the Atlantic Monthly. “And the work of Ocean Vuong. And of Javier Zamora: He’s writing about how his family, basically, traveled through a desert to get to this country, to get work, and to become citizens, and to become documented.”
Poets, Share said, come from “many kinds of backgrounds, and in a way they are the fabric of the country. And they’re being heard from. And that’s in part because they’re speaking to what’s going on right now — and they’re good at it.”
In the Twin Cities, the eight poems that will be handed out will come from four Minnesota nonprofit presses — Milkweed Editions, Graywolf Press, Coffee House Press, and Birds LLC. The cards will be available at Milkweed Books, Magers & Quinn and Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis, and SubText in St. Paul. Other bookstores might join in.
They will also be posted each week on the Milkweed website at https://milkweed.org/poetry-coalition.
Milkweed Books will also make available blank cards so that people can write their own poems or quote from a favorite poem to post on the back wall of the bookstore.
In addition, the American Academy of Poets will include a week’s worth of migration poetry in its poem-a-day e-mail blast that goes out to 350,000 people each weekday.