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Jennifer Benka, the new Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, is queer, political, and has pretty awesome taste in music. Having served as Managing Director of Poets & Writers for almost a decade and, most recently, as the National Director of Development and Marketing for 826 National, she’s also an accomplished writer in her own right. She holds a BA in Journalism from Marquette University, an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry from The New School, and is the author of two books of poetry: Pinko (Hanging Loose Press) and A Box of Longing With Fifty Drawers (Soft Skull Press). Lambda Literary had the chance to ask her some questions just after her official start at the Academy.
What would you say is the guiding mission of the Academy of American Poets?
The mission of the Academy of American Poets is to support poets in the U.S. at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry. The organization accomplishes this by administering nearly 200 College Prizes to budding poets at schools across the country as well as seven major awards for poets—from a first-book prize through a lifetime achievement award. Our website Poets.org is full of excellent biographical information about poets, thousands of poems, and offers an Online Poetry Classroom, which provides free poetry lesson plans and other tools for teachers. The site also houses the Poetry Audio Archive, a collection of nearly 500 recordings dating back to the 1960s of poets reading their work. And, in April 1996, the Academy launched what is now the largest literary celebration in the world, National Poetry Month.
Do you see yourself expanding on that mission?
I think we will be innovating new ways to deliver on that mission. The Academy of American Poets was founded by a visionary 23-year-old woman, Marie Bullock, who believed that poetry was underappreciated in the U.S. and that poets here should have more opportunities to be celebrated for their art. That was 78 years ago, and while the Academy has been the leading organization during the past seven decades advocating for poetry to have a meaningful location in American culture, it’s clear we must continue to make this case.
Given the long history of queer writers, and queer poets in particular, it feels quite vital to have a queer woman as the Academy’s new Executive Director. Can you speak a bit to the relationship between poetry and queerness for you personally?
This is obviously a subject that deserves much more than I might offer here. But, I am reminded in this moment of something Minnie Bruce Pratt said at a National Outwrite Conference in the early 1990s. She noted that (and I am paraphrasing from memory) “queer” descended etymologically from an idea of “outsider.” She suggested poetry, too, has had outsider status and that we gain a particular sensitivity living and creating at the margins. And this is true of course for LGBT writers and also writers of color and working class writers. One has, perhaps, a different relationship to language when it has been used to isolate and divide one’s community, to oppress, or enforce powerlessness.
I am personally interested in exploring the possibilities of poetry—to counter rhetoric, reinvigorate language, and uplift the material of the everyday. To help us understand ourselves by translating and communicating experience and deep emotion. To help us envision new ways of being and new worlds. To say what has been unsaid. I’m interested in poetry as a means to transfer knowledge and as a place to conceptualize freedom, as well as beauty.
How do you think your work as a poet informs your work as an administrator?
I have always been dually serious about my creative life and my work in nonprofit management. I feel absolutely fortunate to be working at an organization that speaks to both of my passions and to get up in the morning to go serve poetry. Being a part of the poetry community personally as a writer and an events organizer has given me an appreciation of the breadth of our community. Adrienne Rich, in a 2006 interview with the Guardian, said, “There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong.” I am looking forward to meeting and working with poets, readers, and educators working in and celebrating the range of our art form.
What book had the greatest influence on you as a young poet?
Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems.
–and any current influences?
I have recently returned but yet one more time to Muriel Rukeyser’s collection of essays The Life of Poetry (Paris Press), which offers insight into the resistance to poetry in the U.S. and also articulates an aspirational case for the art form. Simply put, Rukeyser believes people want poetry. She writes: “We wish to be told, in the most memorable way, what we have been meaning all along.”
I read broadly and, fortunately, as I step into this job, the diversity of the Academy’s Chancellors speaks to my interests: Victor Hernández Cruz, Toi Derricotte, Mark Doty, Marilyn Hacker, Lyn Hejinian, Juan Felipe Herrera, Edward Hirsch, Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, Ron Padgett, Carl Phillips, Marie Ponsot, Arthur Sze, and Anne Waldman.
Of the Academy’s current programming (Poem-A-Day, National Poetry Month, Poets Forum, etc.), what’s your favorite?
I think all of the Academy’s programs present unique and very interesting opportunities to learn more about and engage with poetry. On October 18 – 20 we will be holding our annual Poets Forum in New York City. The event explores contemporary poetry and features panel discussions, readings, and walking tours. And if you’re interested in starting your day off creatively, you might consider signing up for our Poem-A-Day feature, which delivers a provocative and inspiring poem to your inbox every morning.
(Photo via Poets.org)