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Poetic possibilities: Grant recipient Margaret Gibson seeks to expand programs state-wide

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Connecticut Poet Laureate Margaret Gibson is the recipient of a $50,000 grant from the Academy of American Poets. The award, part of the organization's 2020 Poet Laureate Fellowship Program, was one of 23 similar grants presented to 23 writers who serve as poets laureate of states, cities, counties, and the Navajo Nation.

In an email, Gibson explains the grant is multi-faceted in purpose. "The Academy is not only supporting individual poets laureate, giving them money to buy time to write, but also asking that a portion of the grant award to poetry projects in the community — state-wide, not just locally," Gibson says.

The grant was made possible after the Academy received a $4.5 million grant in January from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the Poets Laureate Fellowship program. In a statement announcing the awards, Jennifer Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets, said, "As we face the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more people are turning to poetry for comfort and courage. We are honored and humbled in this moment of great need to fund poets who are talented artists and community organizers, who will most certainly help guide their communities forward."

Gibson, who lives in Preston, was named state poet laureate in 2019 and is the author of 12 poetry collections from LSU Press. They include 2018's "Not Hearing the Wood Thrush" as well as "Broken Cup," "Earth Elegy" and "Autumn Grasses." She's also the author of a memoir titled "The Prodigal Daughter." Among her other many honors, Gibson has won a Connecticut Book Award, a Pushcart Prize and has been a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and the 2016 Poet's Prize. She is also Professor Emerita at the University of Connecticut.

Gibson is editing an anthology of poems about the natural world as part of the grant programs, and her own next book, "The Glass Globe," is due next year. The latter features a fusion of two rhyming, elegiac meditations. One is about her late husband David, who died of complications of Alzheimer's in 2017, and the other reflects on the earth "as its climates change, oceans warm, species become threatened, cities begin to sink, weather patterns alter, and the problems we humans have set into motion begin to reveal their consequences, often dire ones."

Earlier this week, Gibson discussed the grant and her plans for the near future. Her comments have been edited for space and clarity.

Q: Ecology, the natural world and the environment are major sources of inspiration for your work. You had even conceptualized Green Poetry Cafes — spaces, preferably outdoors, where communities can gather to read and listen to poetry — before the virus hit. How do you plan to move forward until we can all get together again?

A: My original idea was to sponsor these Green Cafes all over Connecticut with the hopes they'd catch on. We're in the early stages of climate crisis, but there's not nearly enough conversation about it on a local level. Poetry helps start conversations by raising ideas, stirring feelings, asking questions ... (Virus-dictated isolation) presents challenges as we go carefully back into the community. For a while, the Green Poetry Cafes would be online or on videos that could be shared or posted on websites. But we're taking up that challenge. We're going virtual in the summer and coming fall.

Q: How would that work?

A: We're in the planning stages to film readings this summer in land trusts and nature preserves and will do that also for Green Poetry Cafes featuring Connecticut poets reading works — in appreciation, anger and hope — about nature and the climate crisis.

Q: You've spoken many times about the distinct qualities of poetry in terms of therapeutic value, both for the writer and reader. Is this more accurate than ever in the context of what's going on right now in our country and the world?

A: Writing, talking with others, reaching out to others via poetry — yes, it's therapeutic to realize "I'm not special; I'm not alone." It's healing to connect with others. Right now, following George Floyd's murder and in the midst of outcry and response, we are given an opportunity — once again — to face the challenges of racism and injustice and to revise our lives towards unity with others.

The suffering the virus has caused can also be seen as a real catalyst for changes of the most positive sort. We should take care, I think, not to let divisiveness dominate ... To "social distance" is one thing; it's quite another to stand away from people because they're "different." The work of Connecticut poets like Marilyn Nelson, Bessy Reyna, Kate Rushin, Frederick Douglas Knowles, Ryan Parker, Sean Forbes, and poets and academics like Elizabeth Alexander and Claudia Rankine becomes vital at times like these.

As for the so-called nature lovers and tree huggers? We need them more than ever, to reflect back to us the living world we're part of and depend on. Whether it be by poem or peaceful vigil or non-violent protest, we have to invite everyone into the discussion.

Q: Similarly, you've always been very vocal and supportive about young people and in particular their interest in poetry. Talk about that in the context of your grant plans.

A: Poetry doesn't really come into its fullest expression until the poem reaches a listener or reader, and getting poems out to others is so crucial — and so is providing workshops for young people. Locally, the Mystic Arts Café has annually invited young high school poet laureates to the Mystic Museum of Art for an afternoon workshop with a renowned poet, followed by each laureate reading a poem that evening to an audience. It's an inspiring program, and we hope not only to support the Arts Café but to spread word of how it does its magic.

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