What better way to honor National Poetry Month than to celebrate the very poems and poets that embody the spirit of Indiana? This poetry collection that will have you falling in love with the state all over again is recommended by local professors, poet laureates, award-winning poets, and authors.
“I Am a Black Woman” by Mari Evans (1970)
I am a Black woman / music of my song / some sweet arpeggio of tears / is written in minor key / and I / can be heard humming in the night / Can be heard / humming / in the night
You might have seen her on Mass Ave towering high above, painted on the Davlan building, wearing a pink cardigan with a penetrating gaze. Evans may have been born in Toledo, but she made a living in Indy as a poet and a teacher for many years.
Mitchell L.H. Douglas, associate professor of English at IUPUI, poet, and author of “Dying in the Scarecrow’s Arms” and “\blak\ \al-fə bet\,” recommends this seminal work of Evans as it displays her advocacy for Black women and contribution to the Black Arts Movement.
“This is a poem with the power to make you feel as tall as her mural,” Douglas says.
“On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” by Paul Dresser (1897)
Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash, / From the fields there comes / the breath of new mown hay. / Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming / On the banks of the Wabash, far away.
This nostalgic piece is more of a lyric rather than a poem as it reminisces on life near the Wabash River. Written by American songwriter Paul Dresser, the tune was adopted as the official state song of Indiana in 1913.
Current Indiana Poet Laureate Matthew Graham, who is widely respected for his contribution to poetry and the arts, recommends this song for its power to evoke such vivid imagery.
“I love the nostalgic, romantic longing these lines evoke about a place and time that probably never existed except maybe in the imagination. And that’s just fine with me,” Graham says.
“Haiku” by Etheridge Knight (1986)
Eastern guard tower / glints in sunset; convicts rest
Natalie Solmer, founder and editor-in-chief of The Indianapolis Review—a quarterly poetry and art publication—and assistant professor of English at Ivy Tech, enjoys this piece by Knight as it suggests the longing for freedom and demonstrates Knight’s mastery in haiku poetry.
Legendary Etheridge Knight is widely known for the poetry he wrote while incarcerated in an Indiana prison. As a blues poet, he once wrote, “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.”
“The Idea of Ancestry” by Etheridge Knight (1986)
I know their dark eyes, / they know mine. / I know their style, /
they know mine. / I am all of them, / they are all of me.
Mitchell L.H. Douglas also recommends the work of Etheridge Knight.
“Knight’s story is one of personal redemption through art. His transformation as a poet while incarcerated ensured that there would be more to Knight’s story than the time he served. ‘The Idea of Ancestry’ is a poem of valuing family and understanding the consequences of your actions,” Douglas says.
“Spoon” by Ross Gay (2015)
Who sits like this on the kitchen floor / at two in the morning turning over and over / the small silent body in his hands / with his eyes closed fingering the ornate / tendrils of ivy cast delicately into the spoon / that came home with me eight months ago
“Spoon” was written by Ross Gay, an associate professor of poetry at Indiana University Bloomington, as a tribute to IU colleague Don Belton—an assistant English professor, novelist, and essayist—who was murdered in December 2009.
“The poem is a celebration of the writers’ friendship that shows the reader Belton’s vibrant and humorous personality and how much we’ve lost in his absence,” Douglas says.
“The Ballad of the Avenue” by Wendell L. Parker (1985)
From all its early prosperous years / Black heritage has disappeared, / an era lived … an era ends.
“The Ballad of the Avenue” praises the rise and demise of Indiana Avenue. It was written by Wendell L. Parker, who was a longtime teacher at Arlington High School and was the first Black poet to serve as the poet laureate of Indiana in 1985. Parker comes recommended by contemporary poet Adrian Matejka.
“His poetry is simultaneously local and universal, elegant and unexpected,” Matejka says. “Even when the poem is set in Indianapolis, the events are available to anybody willing to listen.”
“Don’t Cry for Me Indiana” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (2000)
I feel like I / got beamed down by Scotty in Star Trek / What is this place—Indianapolis 2000?
Want to know how an outsider views Indiana? Read “Don’t Cry for Me Indiana” written by Lawrence Ferlinghetti during a brief stay in Indianapolis. Norman Minnick, author of two poetry books and editor of The Indianapolis Anthology, recommends this piece.
“It is a raucous and perspicacious view of Indiana at the beginning of the 21st century. Like the Hoosier Hurricane roller coaster, you will immediately get back in line to ride it again,” Minnick says.