On March 15, Joan Cusack Handler and I sat in the Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University and listened as eight high school students each recited three poems in the New Jersey Poetry Out Loud finals. The winner, Kavita Oza, and the runner-up, Cameron Clark, both recited one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets: “The Sun Rising” by John Donne. As I listened to their very different yet equally as heartfelt interpretations of the poem, I realized how much those interpretations were challenging my understanding of the poem, were opening up new possibilities of meaning in it. The “out loud” reading of a poem by someone who has established a deep relationship with it can tell you more than a hundred “silent” readings can. Kavita and Cameron’s recitations revealed the poem’s heart. The next day I opened a volume of Donne’s poems and dove into the depths of “The Sun Rising.”
Joan and I were honored guests at this event. Since its earliest days CavanKerry Press has given GiftBooks to the students who competed in the Region 3 poetry recitation contest held at the Bergen Performing Arts Center. In fact, at this year’s Region 3 finals, Carol Messer from the Bergen County Office of Cultural and Historic Affairs, presented Joan with a beautiful print as a “thank you” for all that CKP has done. In 2012-2013 we decided to expand our support and to cover the entire state. Thus, we donated books to the libraries of all schools that participated in the program PLUS gave a book to every participant in the regional contests PLUS gave a signed copy of Neighborhood Register, by Marcus Jackson, to each state finalist PLUS gave a scholarship to the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching to the teacher of the winning student. Whew.
So why have we chosen to give this high level of support to NJPOL? Well, in his opening remarks at the finals, the poet Paul Muldoon stated, and I’m paraphrasing here, that if we don’t teach poetry at the primary and secondary levels then we might as well forget about teaching it at the tertiary level. I’ll go even further and say that if we don’t find ways to encourage students to engage with poetry then we risk losing them as readers of poetry later in life. The Poetry Out Loud program encourages students to engage with poetry: this year 123 high schools and 20,000 students participated in NJ Poetry Out Loud. Let me repeat: 123 high schools and 20,000 students. As a press, we have a commitment to expand the audience for poetry; NJPOL is one way in which we meet that commitment. Oh and another reason: how can you not support a program where an African-American boy from a public school in Jersey City and a Asian Indian girl from a private school in Hightstown end up not only reciting but also embodying a poem written over four hundred years ago by a white Englishman?