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Many years ago, after covering a dreary meeting of the New Hampshire House Ways and Means Committee, I found myself struggling to craft a compelling story about state taxes and revenue forecasts. With deadline looming, an editor in my small newsroom offered this dispiriting advice: “We’re not looking for poetry here. Just bang it out.”
A few weeks back, Marc Lacey, The New York Times’s national editor, had a contrary and more uplifting idea: What if we actually went looking for some poetry?
As an assistant editor on the desk, I wrote to the nation’s many state poets laureate — nearly every state has one — and asked them to provide us with some words of gratitude in a relentlessly difficult year. What did the residents of their particular states have to be thankful for?
I harbored some skepticism. Would poets turn up their noses at a tight newspaper deadline and a 100-word limit? No, as it turns out. Most were happy to help bring a little positivity to Times readers.
The nation’s poets laureate have a real sense of mission. They aim to encourage an appreciation for poetry, to challenge us, to generate some buzz for the art form. That has required more effort and ingenuity during the coronavirus pandemic. And so, like firefighters waiting in a quiet station for the call to duty, they embraced the Times assignment quickly and wholeheartedly.
“Poetry is spirit and can’t be stopped by calamity,” noted Grace Cavalieri, the poet laureate of Maryland. She reported that poetry is actually thriving online during the pandemic, at least in her corner of the world: “I was asked to do a remote poetry workshop for horse therapy participants. A first for poetry.”
Many poets laureate serve two- or three-year terms and are eager to make the most of their short tenures, traveling their states (in ordinary times), giving readings, teaching classes, composing poems for special events. A rare few are appointed for life. Larry Woiwode, for example, has been the poet laureate of North Dakota for a quarter century. In North Carolina, the poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green told me, the state switched from lifetime appointments to short terms in an effort to diversify the voices on the public stage.
In their Times pieces, the writers gave thanks for some phenomena specific to their states — “proximity to water, August at Narragansett Beach, / and lobster,” in Rhode Island, for instance. But there were also many common threads: gratitude for natural wonders, for neighbors, family and health care workers, for health itself.
Pulling the project together was not without drama, though.
Illinois, for instance, had been without a poet laureate since 2017. We received quite a good submission from the former laureate, but then came an urgent call from Chicago. Gov. J.B. Pritzker would be naming a new poet laureate on Monday, Nov. 23, an aide assured me — ample time to include her in our story on Thanksgiving Day. But Monday came and went with no announcement. Tuesday, too. Finally Wednesday arrived and with it a new bard for Illinois: Angela Jackson, just in the nick of time.
Some poets were tricky to track down. The writer from Vermont has no email address. But her friend, the poet laureate of Rhode Island, knew her phone number and sent her a text message to make sure she had received our query.
The poet from Oregon, much like every never-satisfied reporter in the world, kept finessing his poem, even as our deadline crept closer. One poet worried she might have contracted the coronavirus, but she still managed to send a submission.
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish submitted a poem in plenty of time, but something about her ode to Oklahoma set off the suspicion of the Times email system and it landed in my spam folder, hidden from view. “This message seems dangerous,” my computer warned, when I finally tracked it down. We quickly added her piece — not scary at all — to our collection after its initial publication.
Shawn Hubler, a national correspondent based in California, artfully wove together a story about the three dozen submissions we collected, highlighting some of the most evocative language and ideas, like the one from Beth Ann Fennelly of Mississippi, who was “grateful to be counted on: One Mississippi, Two. Grateful for the word y’all. Grateful for the emphatic all y’all.”
Clinton Cargill, another assistant editor on the National desk, commissioned several lovely illustrations to accompany the story. And Carrie Mifsud, a designer, created a graceful two-page spread for the Thanksgiving Day newspaper.
The result: On a day that also included alarming news about the pandemic, shrunken holiday plans and ceaseless squabbling about an election already weeks in the past, Times readers also got a large helping of poetry to make it all go down a bit more easily. Even in a post-pandemic world, this might be a terrific tradition to continue.