Smile Politely

Champaign-Urbana’s 2024 poetry month is in the books

A Black woman in a red hoodie is on the left of a white man with a beard and glasses, and next to him on the right is a Black woman with a pink coat and white fluffy scarf.
Ja Nelle Davenport-Pleasure, Will Reger, and Dr. Ruby Mendenhall at the Urbana Free Library; Photo by Amy Penne

Begun in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, April’s National Poetry Month is one of the largest literary celebrations in the country. Every town has its own take on NaPoMo (of course there’s a nickname for it). Here in the Champaign-Urbana area, our own poets and writers blossomed all through April among the tulips and crocuses.

This year, just starting up as the Arts Editor for Smile Politely, I experienced April as a whirlwind of cram-every-single-arts-event-into-one-of-the-shortest-months. Next year, I tell myself, I’ll be more prepared. But for now, here are a few events or happenings that might not have gotten enough attention while we were all running from a play to an exhibit to Boneyard to Ebertfest and back again.

A white young woman hold her Poetry Out Loud Illinois State Runner Up award in front of a white wall.
Kate Roth

First up: Central High School’s own Kate Roth was state runner-up for the Illinois Poetry Out Loud competition. Over 7,000 students participated in this year’s program and back in March, the top 16 students in Illinois competed at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield. I asked Roth about her experience. She told me, “this was my fourth year participating in Poetry Out Loud. I was first introduced to the program in my freshman year acting class, where Poetry Out Loud was an annual unit. My first year, I didn’t advance past the school level. I have since had the privilege of competing at the Eastern Illinois Regional level three times, and at the State level twice.” I asked Roth what she thought about the importance of poetry in schools (I’m an English teacher so of course I am going to exhort the virtues of poetry in school), she said: 

Poetry is an incredible tool for processing and communicating complex emotions and ideas, something that I think everyone, especially students, need. Not just writing it — the process of reading and dissecting poetry has helped me to process my own feelings. Performing poetry has empowered me in public speaking and as a person. No matter how you interact with it, poetry has something to offer you. 

It certainly does. Congratulations to Kate Roth on her accomplishment and to all students who participated in the competition. Offering up a special shout out to the high school English, Drama, and Speech teachers for their work supporting these crucial programs. 

Janice Harrington’s wonderful event at the Urbana Free Library in early April was a delightful blend of poetry, history, art, and community. It wasn’t simply a reading (not that there’s anything wrong with a good poetry reading), but because Harrington, also a former librarian, is such a masterful teacher, the event included community building and collage-making. It also brought together two former Urbana poet laureates, Will Reger and Ja Nelle Davenport-Pleasure, with Urbana’s new laureate, Dr. Ruby Mendenhall. And yes, all three of them (pictured at the top of this article) hung out and made some art before running off to a poetry open mic that night at Rose Bowl Tavern. A poet’s work is never done.

A Black man stands at a microphone reading poetry from his mobile phone. The stage is colorfully lit with bright pink and blue lights.
Gallery Art Bar on Facebook

We are fortunate to have such welcoming venues for poets to read in town, and not just during April. Champaign-Urbana Poets regularly hosts an open mic on the first Tuesday of the month at Rose Bowl Tavern. And the fine folks at the Gallery Art Bar have an ongoing commitment to open mics and spoken-word events. The Poets Perspective Network hosted a poetry and comedy night on April 25th, “On the Mic.” Keep an eye out for more poetry events from these groups and the venues that offer poets a chance to speak their art out loud.

The University of Illinois is a hub for creative writing and creative writers. Analog Wine Bar hosted U of I creative writing professor Corey Van Landingham for her book launch on April 25th. Her new collection of poems, Reader, I came out this month and I’ve already enjoyed reading through the poems in this gorgeous collection. Stay tuned for Serenity Stanton Orengo’s review coming in the next few weeks. 

Two white women, one wearing glasses, hold up their books, Twenty One Farewells, and Songs Are Like Tattoos.
Elizabeth Majerus and Emily Kerlin

If you didn’t make the book launch at The Literary of Emily Kerlin’s chapbook, Twenty-One Farewells, you can catch that review here. Kerlin and fellow Glass Room Poet Elizabeth Majerus, author of Songs Are Like Tattoos, both attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Kansas City earlier this spring in support of their outstanding poetry collections.

The Humanities Research Institute at the U of I hosted former United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo for two glorious days. In her talk at the Foellinger Great Hall on Tuesday, April 23rd with the U of I’s Associate Professor Jenny Davis, Harjo talked about the impact of stories and genealogy. “Generations are stories. When I write, I think about holding seven generations in my arms. My children and grandchildren and their grandchildren.” Davis asked Harjo about the rules of poetry, when to adhere to them and when to break them. Harjo noted that, “of course, it’s important to learn the rules. But it’s just as important to break them. I guess don’t overthink it. Learn what you need.” 

A colorful white man stands in front of large bookshelves. He is wearing a black cap, green jacket, purple shirt, and tie-dyed pants.
Jim O’Brien of C-U Poets at Jane Addams Bookstore; Photo by Amy Penne

The creative community in Central Illinois is wonderfully active, diverse, and evolving. The Gallery Art Bar’s Jonah Weisskopf noted during Boneyard Arts Festival weekend that Champaign-Urbana “has such a huge pool of creative talent and we are so excited to work with musicians, poets, actors, and artists as a space to both gather and celebrate art and music, but also as an actual space in which to create art.” Thanks, Jonah. And we’ll see you at open mics and much more in the merry month of May.

Arts Editor at Smile Politely

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