Poetry in the time of Covid (and now)

Mary Pom ClaiborneOur Town Readers

In the midst of the pandemic, when Knox County Public Library programs were shelved for the duration, Alan May was pondering ways to help bring the library to patrons at home. As a reference librarian by day and with poetry in his DNA, he knew the power of a good poem, but he also knew how intimidating it can be for a lot of people.

Even so, the idea of starting a podcast featuring poets reading their work aloud took hold.

With the help of KCPL fellow librarian (and podcast enthusiast) Melissa Brenneman, May launched The Beat in late March of 2021 just in time for National Poetry Month. Now in its third season, May has hosted 30 episodes of poets and their poetry, the most recent of which features Knoxvillian Anna Laura Reeve reading her poems, along with two sonnets by William Shakespeare.

“A long time ago, when I taught college freshman, I realized that students were much more engaged with poetry when we read poems aloud in class,” said May, “I’ve always thought that poetry would have a much wider readership if we didn’t teach poems as if they were riddles. With the podcast, I thought we’d probably have an audience of people who already read poetry, but we might also be able to engage readers who don’t read poetry by just ‘throwing them in the deep end.’ That’s really how most people learn to read a poem – you find a poem you love and maybe you don’t know why. But you just keep re-reading (reading aloud helps) until you have a much deeper understanding of the work.”

If you’re shy about poetry, you’re not alone. David Orr, a poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, describes a common idea that some people have about poetry – that understanding it “is like solving a calculus problem while being zapped with a cattle prod.” But it’s worth giving it a go. Poetry can move hearts. In each show, May introduces a new poet who reads their works aloud.

For experienced poetry aficionados, welcome. We hope you enjoy the poems. For those fairly new to poetry, relax. When you feel a connection to a poem, listen to it again or look for links about the poet in the show notes. You don’t need to be an “expert” to enjoy poetry. Often, with enough time and attention, the poem itself will teach you how to read it.

Go ahead and give it a try. Thirty episodes of The Beat are waiting for you. One of the poems is bound to have an impact.

Alan May holds an MFA in creative writing and a master’s in library and information science, both from the University of Alabama. He’s published three books of poetry. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Hollins Critic, The Idaho Review, The New York Quarterly, New Orleans Review, DIAGRAM, The Hong Kong Review and others. He works as a reference librarian for Knox County Public Library.

Mary Pom Claiborne is assistant director for marketing, communications and development for Knox County Public Library

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