Long before Amanda Gorman’s poetry reading at President Joe Biden’s inauguration generated a massive interest in poetry, the art form has been thriving in Kansas City. Before the pandemic, regular meetings and slams drew dozens of poets and enthusiasts across the metro.
But the past 11 months have taken a toll on Kansas City’s poetry community. As with many arts circles, poetry groups have tried out virtual events and found them less than ideal.
For decades the Midwest Poets Series, The Writers Place, and Poetic Underground — to name just three groups — have supported and promoted poetry as a way of interacting with other people and with the world.
The series, which is sponsored by Rockhurst University, has typically featured four regionally or nationally known poets each year since 1983. After postponing events in spring of 2020, organizers decided to reschedule them as virtual readings.
“Compared to the silence of last spring when we didn’t have anything, it’s pretty wonderful,” says Elizabeth Barnett, the series’ director.
Barnett says the online format brings a few advantages. She enjoys watching the faces of 100 people up close as they listen to a poem together. It’s also wonderful to have a poet’s fan base tuned into a reading, in part because veteran listeners ask insightful questions that someone new to the work might not.
But those few perks don’t seem close to a fair trade for all that is lost by having to forgo live gatherings, Barnett says.
And for Poetic Underground and the Kansas City Poetry Slam, virtual events simply don’t work. Program director Abby Bland says they tried moving events online, but the format didn’t serve the community well.
Of course, they had no idea they’d be suspending operations for a year or more when they set up a Zoom account.
Poetic Underground’s monthly slam competitions, hosted by The Brick, a downtown bar, are hugely popular. The competitions are a sort of game that’s been around since the 1980s. Participants perform stories and poems on stage and rack up points from the audience.
“They’re always hooting and hollering and making sure that the poet feels validated with snaps and claps. It’s just an experience that isn’t like any other to be doing poetry on stage, especially for a slam, but also at the open mics,” Bland says.
None of which works online, since on most platforms only one person can make sound at a time.
Bland says that, for her community, poetry isn’t always written in solitude, as some might imagine. Groups sometimes both compose and perform together. She says newcomers don’t expect the interactive aspect, possibly because of a perception that poetry must be very serious and requires very careful listening.
“We do that too, but we also — because we value a poet’s ability to tell their story and we know how vulnerable it is to be on stage — we’re always vocally, and quite noisily, supporting whoever is performing at the moment,” Bland says.
The Poetic Underground board recently decided to pause all events and regroup. Their Instagram account, @poeticundergroundkc, remains active, and Bland says a lot of the poets have focused on writing and publishing for the time being, which the Instagram account supports.
The Writers Place, which was founded in 1992, made the decision to move online for much of its programming, namely the Writers Place and Riverfront reading series, despite losing most of the social aspects.
Maryfrances Wagner says the Writers Place, where she’s vice president, tries to stay connected through activities she promotes through website announcements, e-blasts, and Facebook posts.
Over the summer, about 50 participants signed up for an event that involved physically mailing each other small pieces of art and literary works.
“I received a hodgepodge of things, but it was wonderful,” Wagner says. As a poet, she mailed collages accompanied by very short poems.
She says the Writers Place, like Poetic Underground, has advertised members’ recent publications through the same channels they use to stay connected. They’ve also collected sound files of poets reading their work that will be publicly available.
But the Writers Place parties, fundraisers, partnerships with galleries, musicians, and theater groups, as well as workshops and children’s programming, are all suspended.
At Rockhurst University, Barnett tries to look on the bright side. She says the digital programming gives people who aren’t normally poetry lovers a low stakes opportunity to see what it’s all about.
“My hope is that this could build our audience here in Kansas City by letting people experience a poetry reading and see that they like it,” Barnett says.
As far as 2020-inspired poetry goes — and there’s plenty — judging by Barnett’s students’ reactions, most people are as burned out on the pandemic showing up in art as they are on Zoom interactions.
But a lot of 2020 still requires processing. Barnett points to a line in Gorman’s inaugural poem: “a nation that isn’t broken / but simply unfinished.” That, she says, “seems to offer us a way forward as a country, acknowledging past wrongs and traumas while also saying the founding ideals are still relevant and worth keeping.”
What’s great about poetry is that it can address all the burnout and uncertainty of the pandemic months in a manner unique to the art form, Barnett says.
She explains that in addition to timely poems like Gorman’s, poems from a different time give us a way to think about the isolation and various frustrations many people are feeling right now.
In consuming poetry, Barnett says, the reader has the agency to connect the past and the present rather than being told what interpretation is appropriate.
Midwest Poets Series presents Nicole Sealey live on Zoom at 7:00 on Thursday, February 25. Free and open to the public. Register here.
Midwest Poets Series presents Ross Gay live on Zoom at 7:00 on Thursday, March 4. Free and open to the public. Register here.
The Writers Place presents the Riverfront Reading Series featuring Janet Banks, Stanley Banks, and Gena Bardwell live on Zoom at 8:00 on Friday, March 12. Free and open to the public. Register here.