“As a child, I marked the year by the honking of Canadian geese making their way south and then north,” said Abby Travis, editor at Minneapolis nonprofit publisher Milkweed Editions. “Migration was part of my calendar, the way I marked time and the change of seasons. I knew if the geese were early or late, I was fascinated by how they knew when to go or where to go, how to get there, and where they stopped along the way. I learned that migration meant something different for each species, each type of flora and fauna and people, each geographic location. I learned that migration was an important part of the survival of each ecosystem—and I also learned that migration was part of what connected different ecosystems to one another.”
This is the theme of the newest undertaking of the Poetry Coalition, a group of Twin Cities publishing houses and booksellers, who have come together to release pocket-sized weekly poems in places around the Twin Cities. The series, called Because We Come From Everything: Poetry and Migration, was initiated by Travis in partnership with Mandy Medley, a publicist at Coffee House Press. Fellow indie publishers Birds LLC and Graywolf Press are also participating.
The short, easily transportable poem format gives readers a different way to interact with poetry, Travis explained. “A single poem can be read in two minutes or less—they are immediately consumable—but their power takes longer to digest and thus carries with us throughout the day, a week, or more. Entering into a poem means becoming a migrant into the poet’s thought process, into their world. Collecting and entering into a new poem each week means we’re engaging meaningfully with this theme—entering into a new world!—eight times! We all have something to gain by meditating on what migration means for eight weeks straight. It’s like a mini course on migration, self-taught, with readings provided.”
Each press selected two poems, mostly by local artists, to comment on the theme and its diverse interpretations, especially in the current political climate. “Many of us chose to highlight local authors so that we could shine a spotlight on what migration means here in the Midwest,” said Travis. “Migration has proven to be an access point for rich work about home, family; about being a refugee, about losing or learning the language of your ancestors or parents; about not belonging or finally belonging. These poets have been writing on this theme for their entire careers, but especially now, in the wake of the election, audiences are finally more widely receptive to what they have to say.”
The poets represented are Chris Santiago, Sean Hill, Ana Božičević, Lauren Hunter, Bao Phi, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, and Mai Der Vang, of which the first two were chosen by Milkweed Editions. Santiago was notable because his debut collection, Tula, won the $10,000 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry in 2016. A Bloomington native and currently a professor at the University of St. Thomas, he mostly writes about his experience as a second-generation immigrant, Travis said.
“Since winning the prize, the trajectory of Chris’s career has skyrocketed, and this is an excellent opportunity to introduce his work to more local readers,” she added.
Sean Hill also has close ties to the Twin Cities, and his collection Dangerous Goods won the Minnesota Book Award when it was published in 2014. Dangerous Goods is about displacement, transatlantic crossings, and exile—or, more specifically, the experience of the traveler, as someone marked with the warning sign of “dangerous goods.” In Travis’s words, “Hill’s travelers are people, but they are also the imported flora and fauna that assume the status of ‘invasive species’ once they arrive where they’ve been taken.”
Poem releases began March 9 at Common Good Books, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, Moon Palace Books, Milkweed Books, and Subtext Books, and will continue through Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 27. Travis said that several other bookstores and libraries also participate. The bookstores have really embraced the initiative, even inviting visitors to write (or type) a poem of their own.
The publishers involved with the project take turns printing, hand-cutting, and distributing the poems. In addition to physical copies placed in the shops, poems appear digitally on Thursdays as well. Travis has been pleased with the positive response that the series has garnered over the first half of its run.
“We hope to see readers engaging with poetry in a public way—and, in fact, we already have,” she said. “All five participating stores have had customers coming in each Thursday morning, asking, ‘Are the new poems here yet?’ It’s gratifying, and also incredibly wonderful, to hear that people are collecting all the poems, that they’re sharing them with friends, that they’re leaving them at restaurants and in apartment building lobbies. We see people sharing poems across the Internet, too—a testament to the many ways these poems, too, are migrating.”
Travis says that the Poetry Coalition is already discussing plans for a 2018 collaborative venture, which will happen in March of each year.