Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker is among 23 wordsmiths from across the county named a 2021 fellow by the Academy of American Poets.
The group members will lead public programs in their respective communities in the year ahead. Each will receive $50,000. The Academy also will provide more than $100,000 to 14 local nonprofits that have agreed to support the fellows’ proposed projects.
“As we begin emerging from COVID-19 restrictions, poetry, which has provided such comfort these past 15 months, will continue to be a source of insight,” said Jennifer Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets. “Poets will most certainly help guide us forward.”
The Academy has become the largest financial supporter of poets in the nation. The fellowship program is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which in January 2020 provided $4.5 million to fund the initiative.
Elizabeth Alexander, poet and president of the Mellon Foundation, said the fellows represent urban and rural areas throughout the United States.
“We are delighted to support them as they create their own poems, collaborate with other artists and center poetry in their engagement with communities across our vast country,” she said.
South Carolina has been well represented in the program. Last year, Angelo Geter, poet laureate of Rock Hill, was among the fellows. Columbia’s poet laureate, Ed Madden, was part of the 2019 cohort.
Amaker said he was delighted to learn last month that his application was approved and now plans to do three things: revel a little in the good news, release a new children’s book and start a “Poets in Schools” initiative.
“It is a wonderful thing to be able to be reassured that being an artist is a viable thing, and being a writer is a viable thing,” he said. “Schools and society don’t always encourage that.”
Instead, poets too often are told to get a real job and to practice their craft on the side, despite their clear public value, Amaker said.
“People need what poets do,” he said. “They might not know it because it isn’t a tangible thing, but people do need this.”
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, affirming that sentiment, declared June 3, 2021, "Marcus Amaker Day" in honor of the poet laureate's contributions.
Amaker's children’s book will be about Black music, he said. It should be ready in August — in time to distribute free to every school in Charleston County at the onset of the new academic year.
The Poets in Schools project will begin as a citywide experiment that Amaker hopes can eventually expand well beyond Charleston, he said. He will engage local and national poets to lead workshops and inspire students to write. At the end of the school year, those poems will be curated and assembled in book form.
Perhaps the effort can be sustained over time, with a new anthology produced each year containing the work of young writers and edited by established poets, Amaker said.
He is looking to the past, when a local nonprofit launched a similar project at Burke High School, in order to create a model for the future.
“I’m hoping to get this statewide at some point,” he said.
The Academy of American Poets fellowship adds to Amaker’s established duties. He continues to offer workshops in schools near and far.
He will serve as Charleston’s poet laureate until June 2022.
“This is a good thing for me to go out on,” he said.