As a literary genre, poetry faces a perpetual struggle to remain relevant to American readers. Lacking the general readership of fiction and nonfiction, American poetry has retreated into its own corner of academia. But students and faculty at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, along with some local poets, are doing something to change that.
"One Makes Many: A Conference of Poetic Interactions," a collaborative two-day conference devoted exclusively to poetry, take place this weekend. Panelists and performers from around the country will gather for six themed discussions at Duke's John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute in the Smith Warehouse during the day on Friday and all Saturday afternoon at the UNC YMCA.
The conference grew out of an informal poetry working group that Duke and UNC students formed with other poets in the community. Each person had a foot in a unique discipline in addition to a shared foot in poetry. Conversations were so lively, a conference was inevitable.
"The various concerns that emerged from the group that organized the conference reflect the community of poets and lovers of poetry around here," notes poet and professor Fred Moten, who teaches English and African and African-American studies at Duke.
"It happens every time a bunch of us get together" he adds, "so in some ways it's almost like an extension of the conversations we're always having, making those conversations public and opening them up to other folks."
Funded primarily through the Kenan-Biddle Partnership and Duke's English department, the conference is also supported by a slate of individual departments at the two schools that have rarely, if ever, collaborated before.
The conference's format and locations were chosen to encourage both the glutton who will consume every minute of every session and the curious who merely want to drop in to see one topic discussed or one reader perform.
The panel topics range all over the spectrum of knowledge and history, reflecting how poetry integrates with pretty much any other discipline one can think of. Some panelists will read or perform their work; others will present more of an academic paper.
After day sessions on religion, Latin American translation and new media, Friday night peaks with the keynote reading by poet and anthropologist Nathaniel Tarn at Smith Warehouse. With the disciplinary specialization that academia requires these days, Tarn is a formidable throwback to the days when poets tapped into many disparate areas of knowledge in order to establish poetic connections between them. The event promises to be a treat—he performs (and travels) infrequently.
Saturday's schedule at UNC includes panels on Black Mountain College's legacy, African diasporic forms and oral traditions.
J. Peter Moore, a Ph.D. student in English at Duke, will moderate the Black Mountain panel, but he's looking forward to the translation panel as much as his own. "That's going to be great because all of the people on the panel know each other. It's kind of a dream team. These guys are getting together to talk about a topic that they've been talking about for quite some time and they're familiar with each other. That's going to be really loose and great."
It's that casual, conversational spirit that has Moten excited. He finds that spirit unique to the Triangle poetry scene.
"This conference is happening here—and that's not an accident. They haven't had one like this in New York yet, or in San Francisco yet. This is a thing that could only happen here."