Define Poetry: A My Tribe Interview Series Special for National Poetry Month

For National Poetry Month, I asked women poets to do a difficult task: define poetry. Their responses are both personal and accessible, lyrical and practical. I hope these thoughts inspire you as much as they have inspired me.


Jen Lambert (@JenLambert1):

To me, poetry is like an emotional clown car or maybe like the multicolored scarf pulled slowly and dramatically from the magician’s sleeve. As a reader, I am always struck by how the economy of language and form can hold so much magic, layer after delightful layer of bright meaning. It’s hard work for the poet, to be so precise, so practiced, to make it appear to happen so effortlessly, and how simple and lovely for us to just have to open up the door and let the whole world tumble out.


Naomi Shihab Nye (featuring high school student Juna Hewitt):

In Japan recently I learned about the concept – yu-to-ri – life-space. The high school student who wrote me about it gave many definitions – including, “like leaving early to get somewhere so you don’t have to hurry. Like giving yourself room to make mistakes.” She felt, and I feel, that poetry gives us more yu-to-ri – a sense of larger vivid presence or attention floating in the air, in the silence after hearing or saying or thinking about a poem.

We are living in a poem.


Monica Ong (@Mongmedia):

When I read poetry, it is an opportunity to empathize beyond one’s own lived experiences. I think of poetry as a portal to new perspectives and a way to broaden my own.  When I make poetry, it is to move narratives out of erasure and into their own articulated space. Perhaps this is why I also like the tactility of making a poem into objects, books, images, and installations. It is a way to be seen, not just with eyes or knowledge, but another’s heart and skin.


Allison Seay:

The theologian Richard Hooker wrote: “Every good and holy desire, though it lack the form, hath notwithstanding in itself the substance, and with him the force of a prayer, who regardeth the very moanings, groans, and sighs of the heart of man.”

Sometimes I feel like my life is in two parts: before I came to think about poetry as prayer, and after. Sometimes I feel like one of the miracles of my life is coming to know something necessary, before I knew to need it.

It is not too far-fetched to think that every poem is written with a “good and holy desire”—to understand the world, the self, the other, suffering, love, mercy, God. In that way, it isn’t only that every poem might be considered a form of prayer, but that every gesture and each silence might also be born of and into the sacred, with the force of the sacred.

If it is the Point (capital p) of poetry to understand, imagine, articulate, explain, examine, the sighs of the heart of man, (which is to say the essence of life itself, place, purpose, meaning), then for me the point of poetry is prayer, and the point of prayer is poetry.  I found the sacred in poetry before I found poetry in the sacred. And I realize only now that they existed inextricably for me, long before I ever knew to name them.


Dahlia Seroussi (@DahliaSeroussi):

I’ve never really gotten behind the Culture of Chill. People love chill. But I’m not chill; I’m intense! So on a personal level, poetry gives purpose to my intensity, transforms it into something others can understand and hopefully enjoy. Who wants a chill-ass poem? Not me. I think that in a greater sense, poems offer us (all of us! even you!) insight into the great calamities of life—what it is to love, to lose, to be broken, and to heal. What a beautiful and rare thing, to be reminded of our universal humanity. Thanks, poetry.


Kelsi Villarreal (@Kelsinite):

Poetry for me is a way to process complexities. It’s a method through which I can be subtle and deliberate when I am not naturally either of those things.