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More young people reading, buying poetry

FLORIDA COURIER — People are clicking on poetry on Twitter.




By Jenna Ross

ST. PAUL, Minn. – People are clicking on poetry on Twitter. They’re listening to poems on podcasts. They’re buying poetry collections on Amazon.

But on a recent Monday night in St. Paul, they were hearing poetry in person. A diverse, mostly 20-something crowd snapped and purred as friends and strangers read their verses from Park Square Theatre’s lower stage during Button Poetry’s monthly slam poetry competition.

Many were drawn by YouTube. (Button’s YouTube channel boasts more than a million followers.) By Instagram. By the changing world of poetry.

“We’re seeing astronomical growth,” said Sam Van Cook, who founded Button, a Minneapolis-based company that straddles poetry’s in-person and online worlds. “Friends who work in book sales … we joke that for the first time in any of our lives, poetry is a growth industry.”

National bump

More people — especially young people — are reading and buying poetry. About 12 percent of adults read poetry in the past year, a bump of 5 percentage points over 2012 and a 15-year high, according to a new survey by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sales of poetry books have swelled over that time, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks book sales in the U.S., “making it one of the fastest growing categories in publishing.”

Social media are driving the trend. Among the top 20 bestselling poetry authors in 2017 were a dozen so-called “Instapoets,” who attract readers by sharing short, photogenic verse on Instagram and Twitter.

Their queen is Rupi Kaur, an Indian-born Canadian poet who boasts 3.4 million Instagram followers, sells out theaters and claps back at her detractors.

New, ‘b-side poems’

But poets published by traditional presses and praised by critics use those platforms too, sharing one another’s work and changing the notion of a poet as an old White dude.

Minnesotans Danez Smith and Hieu Minh Nguyen are among those sharing new and “b-side” poems on Twitter, letting their thousands of followers in on whom they’re crushing on, poetry-wise and otherwise.

“There’s a myth around who a poet can be — or who can be a poet,” Nguyen said by phone. “People are seeing that those archetypes, those barriers, aren’t true.”

More diverse

As the slate of bards becomes more diverse, so do their audiences. Some of the biggest gains in that NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, released last year, came from people of color. About 15 percent of African-Americans reported reading poetry, up from 7 percent in 2012.

Some 13 percent of AsianAmericans had read poetry in the past year, compared with 5 percent in 2012.

Minnesota-based Vietnamese-American poet Bao Phi compared it to the shift in Hollywood, where “we’ve seen that representation can actually pay out huge dividends.”

Spoken word success

For decades, many marginalized people have hustled to diversify the slate of poets performing and publishing, especially by connecting with students and young people, said Phi, who crafted his reputation as a spoken word artist in the 1990s.

Performance-based poetry finally shed some of the scene’s chauvinism. Spoken word artists broke through the glass ceiling of publishing. (Phi didn’t publish his first poetry collection, “Sông I Sing,” until 2011.)

“This didn’t happen overnight,” Phi said. “All that work adds up to what we’re seeing now.”

‘Political poetry’ hot

Erika Stevens, poetry editor at large for the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Coffee House Press, pointed to “Indecency,” by Justin Phillip Reed, which tackles White supremacy with intimate, sometimes confrontational poems.

Last year, that collection, published by Coffee House, won the National Book Award in poetry, showing “how far the institutions have come in terms of what they recognize as innovative and groundbreaking and worthy of award attention,” Stevens said.

U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith recently wrote in the New York Times about why “political poetry is hot again,” arguing that poetry “has become a means of owning up to the complexity of our problems.”

Reaching women

Poets and readers have debated the success of Kaur, who turned a viral Instagram post into bestselling books, a tour and, now, printed canvases.

A recent poem, paired with a pen drawing, nabbed more than 200,000 likes: “i am water/ soft enough/to offer life/tough enough/ to drown it away.”

Whether Kaur’s hugely popular poetry is “for me or not is not the question,” said Van Cook, of Button Poetry. “But I can tell you, if I talk to people about poetry at a wedding or a coffee shop, people — especially young women, women of color — she’s one of the first names on their lips.”

Those young women recognize themselves in her work and find solace in her books, he said.

‘Little less magnificent’

Van Cook founded Button because he believes poetry is “most vibrant read aloud, and read by someone who loves it.” Its YouTube videos of readings by well- and lesser known poets often amass tens of thousands of views.

Composers talk about how film took classical music, which was being relegated to the sidelines, and gave it a new, more prominent home, he said. “People are going to look back and talk about social media that way for poetry,” Van Cook predicted. “What poetry needed was to be a little less magnificent.”

At “Button Poetry Live” on Monday night, a few newbies and some spoken word veterans took the stage, reading from iPhones and journals and memory. Many of their poems grappled with tough topics: micro-aggressions, breakups, coming out. Then, the special guest took the stage: poet, performer and podcast host Franny Choi.

For one poem, titled @fannychoir for her Twitter handle, she took racist, misogynistic tweets and Google-translated them into other languages and then back again, to English.

In short, she garbled their words and made them hers.

“Mrs. Great Anime Pornography, the fruit of the field,” she began with a smirk.

Making them think

Outside the theater, three friends in their 20s perused Choi’s chapbooks, selling for $12 and $15. They started attending Button’s live events after hearing about them from a friend, finding them to be an inexpensive, fulfilling way to spend a night together.

“It’s thought-provoking,” said Katie Snell, 26, of Minneapolis. “I cried.” Snell owns “Milk and Honey,” a book of Kaur’s poetry, she said. But that wasn’t her introduction to the form.

Years back, she said, she came across a book of sonnets at a used-book store and brought it home.

This article originally appeared in the Florida Courier.


MC Arts Gallery Opens During the Marin Open Studio

The Gallery and its website display the art of a number of Black artists which includes: TheArthur Wright, Lumumba Edwards, and Maalak Atkins. Zwanda and Mitchell Howard also display their art at the Gallery. 




From top: Oshalla Marcus (director/curator, MC Arts & Culture) with Osiezhe’s drawings to the right of the photo, Zwanda, Mitchell Howard , ISOJI’s Art Is Health Band: Carlton Carey (drums), Mwanza Furaha, (vocals), Jack Prendergast (bass), Ricardo Moncrief (keyboard), James Moseley (guitar, vocal). Photos by Godfrey Lee.

The MC Arts Gallery, located on 100 Donahue St. in the Gateway Shopping Center in Marin City, is open during the Marin Open Studios, which took place on Saturday and Sunday, May 1 & 2. 

The Gallery and its website display the art of a number of Black artists which includes: The Arthur Wright, Lumumba Edwards, and Maalak Atkins. Zwanda and Mitchell Howard also display their art at the Gallery. 

Zwanda seeks to be creative as she expands her ideas as a sculptress and painter. She is inspired by the human figure and dancers and is fascinated with music and the instruments themselves. Her art is a way to express this love and to share it with others.

Mitchell Howard studied art at San Francisco State University and the Computer Arts Institute of San Francisco. He was an art director at Cummingham & Walsh in San Francisco and has displayed his paintings at the Hannah Gallery, worked on the Rocky Graham Park Mural and has taught art at the Martin Luther King Jr. Academy Elementary School.

“Art can bring people together and illustrate things that people can relate to,” Howard says. “Art can also be powerful in sending social messages to society. Art makes you think, it expands your horizons and makes you use your imagination. People may see different things in the same painting.”

Osiezhe, Shakira Gregory’s son, will be displaying his drawings at the Gallery.

The ISOJI’s Art Is Health Band played last Saturday afternoon with Mwanza Furaha as their guest vocalist.

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City Council Approves $480,000 in Arts Grants

The city made the announcement Tuesday about the grants, which will support 772 distinct arts events and activities that will expose more than 110,000 participants to cultural programming.




The Oakland City Council approved $480,000 in grants to 17 Oakland-based non-profit organizations and 20 individual artists through the city’s Cultural Funding Program, Neighborhood Voices.

The city made the announcement Tuesday about the grants, which will support 772 distinct arts events and activities that will expose more than 110,000 participants to cultural programming.

The grant program seeks to bring Oaklanders together to create and support a sense of belonging within a community, to foster social connections that lift people’s spirits, to encourage community well-being and offer visions for a collective future, according to the announcement.

The following individual artists each won $7,000 Neighborhood Voices awards:

Frederick Alvarado; Karla Brundage; Cristina Carpio; Darren Lee Colston; Maria De La Rosa; Elizabeth D. Foggie; Rachel-Anne Palacios; Laurie Polster; Hasain Rasheed; Kweku Kumi Rauf; Carmen Roman; Michael Roosevelt; Fernando Santos; Teofanny Octavia Saragi; Kimberly Sims-Battiste; Cleavon Smith; Lena Sok; Babette Thomas; Ja Ronn Thompson; Joseph Warner.

Each of the following organizations received $20,000 Neighborhood Voices awards:

Asian Health Services for Banteay Srei;

Beats Rhymes and Life;

Chapter 510 INK;

Dancers Group for dNaga GIRL Project;

Dancers Group for Dohee Lee Puri Arts;

Dancers Group for Grown Women Dance Collective;

East Oakland Youth Development Center;

Higher Gliffs for Endangered Ideas;

Hip Hop for Change;

Junior Center of Art and Science;

Mycelium Youth Network;

Oakland Education Fund for Youth Beat;

Oakland Theater Project, Inc.;

Sarah Webster Fabio Center for Social Justice;

The Intersection for Alphabet Rockers;

Women’s Audio Mission;

Youth Radio/YR Media.

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AHC’s ArtEsteem Program

ArtEsteem is part of AHC, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit located in West Oakland. To find out more visit




This self-portrait was created by 12-year-old Leslie Callejas from Life Academy School in Oakland. As a participant in the ArtEsteem program, Leslie was guided through the art-making process; using photo references, observational drawing, and painting with watercolors. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this class was made available via distance learning under the guidance of instructor Etty Alberto. 


ArtEsteem offers art classes to students in underserved communities, providing a foundation in art techniques while encouraging students to self-reflect and think critically, be inspired, and expand their view of their world. ArtEsteem is part of AHC, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit located in West Oakland. To find out more visit


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