April 27, 2021

An audience listening to a speaker.
Photo courtesy of James E. Brooks Library at Central Washington University. The library hosted a reading for National Poetry Month in 2015.

“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.” —Emily Dickinson

April is National Poetry Month, and this year marks the 25th annual celebration of poets and poetry. To further honor the importance of poetry in our lives, here’s a collection of libraries and museums across the U.S. that are using IMLS grants to raise awareness and appreciation of poetry in their communities.

Poets House used IMLS funding to pilot a unique partnership between Milwaukee Public Library and Milwaukee Public Museum in Wisconsin, and Salt Lake City Public Library and Natural History Museum of Utah in Utah. Field Work: Aligning Poetry and Science is a three-year program aiming to foster STEM learning through poetry. With guidance from poets-in-residence Alison Deming and Katharine Coles, students were exposed to an interdisciplinary public programming model that explores the benefits of aligning poetic and scientific thinking for increased understanding of the world around us.

Deming and Coles worked closely with museum and library staff to develop dialogues between poets and scientists, science-based nature walks with poets and science educators, observation-based writing workshops, and place-based mapping and field research combining poetic and scientific thinking.

Poet standing in front of microphone.
Photo courtesy of Poets House.

Since its inception, the Emily Dickinson Museum has welcomed more than 150,000 visitors from 50 countries and serves as the premier center for study, interpretation, and celebration of Emily Dickinson’s place in literature, history, and culture. Thanks to an IMLS Museums for America grant, the museum improved the management and accessibility of its entire collection of 7,000 artifacts encompassing the personal effects of Dickinson and her family, upholding its mission to spark the public’s imagination by amplifying Dickinson’s revolutionary poetic voice from the place she called home. The collection’s records and images will be publicly accessible and searchable online on the museum's website.

When celebrating the importance of poets and poetry in our culture, many libraries and museums look to and foster creativity with their own community members through workshops and contests.

In 2020, with help from IMLS funding, the Detroit Zoo began expanding its Thriving Together program, which engages youth ages 13–19 and the broader community in conversations around environmental issues. InsideOut Literary Arts students from neighborhoods throughout Detroit can learn from experts in the fields of conservation and animal care, and then show their own self-expression and the pressing issues in their own communities through poetry and other literary works about these topics.

The three-year program will conclude with youth participants planning a series of performances where they share their knowledge, understanding, and experiences with their community using poetry as a catalyst to communicate the interconnectedness of the world around them. The team hopes to have the students wearing waders in the Detroit River and interacting with the animals at the zoo, but for now, they are all safely observing and writing about what they witness in nature within their own neighborhoods.

You can watch Thriving Together participant Ife perform her poem “An Open Letter From The Forest To The Young Sapling” here.

Handwritten poetry on paper.
Photo Courtesy of the University of Illinois Rare Books and Manuscript Library.

The University of Illinois Rare Books and Manuscript Library is using funds from a Save America’s Treasures grant to stabilize, clean, selectively repair, and digitize the works and life of Gwendolyn Brooks, a poet and teacher who is widely recognized as one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. The library has hundreds of boxes filled with manuscripts, drafts, correspondence, scrapbooks, clippings, recordings, photographs, awards, artifacts, notebooks full of personal notes and lists, and several homemade chapbooks of handwritten early poetry.

In addition to these wonderful programs, many other libraries across the country often host poetry contests or programs that encourage youth to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of poetry.

For the past 16 years, the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs has hosted Poetry Out Loud, a poetry recitation competition that encourages high school students to learn about great poetry through memorization and performance. Recently, the state competition was hosted virtually, and the winner will represent New Mexico in the national finals of Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest in May.

Meanwhile, in addition to several workshops and events throughout the year, Dayton Metro Library and Milwaukee Public Library host annual poetry contests that coincide with National Poetry Month.

These museums and libraries and many more are searching out ways to serve their communities and help bring people together. To learn more about IMLS grant programs, visit the IMLS website.

National Leadership Grants for Libraries
Museums for America
Save America's Treasures