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November 14, 2020

Poetry’s Role in a Divisive World: a conversation with award-winning poets

Three prominent poets from around the world discussed the role of poetry in politics recently via Zoom.

Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Jericho Brown and distinguished German poets Georg Less and Yevgeniy Breyger spoke on the role of poetry in an era of deep division and distrust. Moderated by poet and Berry College professor in English Sandra Meek, the conversation focused on the current racial reckoning in the U.S. and anti-semitism in Germany.

The poets shared that the role of the poet is to express their own life experiences, to write when feeling the need to express something and to do both in the most real and truthful way. Whether or not they are classified as “political poets,” their poems will naturally shed light on the inaccuracies and injustices of the political moment.

“I am not a poet engaging with the political moment on purpose. I’m just writing the poems I’ve been given,” Brown said. “They naturally intersect with the political moment because it is all a part of my life.”

The poets also discussed the effect of political poetry on the audience, sharing that poetry leads to reflection of the past, and sometimes the lens for that reflection is political. The goal of the poet is life change; not just for the reader, but also for the poet.

“The best thing that can happen is if readers learn something about themselves, about me, and about the world,” Breyger stated.

The four poets were part of a group of six American and six German poets invited to participate in translation work sponsored by Haus für Poesie and the International Berlin Poetry Festival in the summer of 2019. The poets were paired together, Brown with Less and Meek with Breyger, and were given a translator in order to create an artistic translation of each other’s poems.

After this experience, Meek asked the poets if they would share their experiences and poetry with the students of Berry. She felt it was important that students become more aware of the political role poetry can take, especially in light of the current cultural moments in both the United States and Germany.

“On the eve of what many people see as the most critical US election of our lifetimes, we felt it was important to have a discussion about the role the art of poetry has in such a divisive world and to share our experiences crossing cultural divides in our collaborative work,” Meek stated.

Brown has received many awards for his books, including the Pulitzer Prize and Paterson Poetry Prize for “Traditions,” the American Book Award for “Please” and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The New Testament.” He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and more. Brown is an Emory University associate professor and director of the Creative Writing Program in Atlanta.

Breyger has received the Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger Literature Prize, the Munich Poetry Prize and the Leonce and Lena Prize of the City of Darmstadt. Originally from the Ukraine, he lives in Frankfurt, Germany.

Less’ work has been published in many magazines and anthologies, and has been translated in many different languages. He received the GWK Prize for Literature in 2014 and the Promotional Prize of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia for Young Artists in 2016. Less lives in Berlin.

Written by Public Relations Student Assistant Hannah-Grace Mann

Office of Public Relations

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