The United States of Poetry

by Bob Holman

You can’t tell a book by its cover, agreed, but imagine flipping open the “book” of television and discovering a Poem there?!?

Welcome to The United States of Poetry, a 5-part series on PBS. USOP is a Marriage of Opposites (poetry + television = oxymoron2), predicated on bum rushing the nation’s living room while subverting the mass medium itself. To accomplish this, the team of director Mark Pellington, producer John Blum, and I collaborated with over 60 poets to create filmed translations of their poems—poets and filmmakers together reshaping the very idea of what a poem is. Our attempt was to revive the stodgy art that has come to define poetry, while adding a dimension of content to the Cyclops of Boredom we know as TV.

And what poets they are! From Nobel Prize-winners Brodsky, Walcott, and Milosz to rockers Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, from rappers Michael Franti and Ismail Azim-El to cowboy poets Sue Wallis (women can be cowboy poets, too) and Henry Real Bird (Indians can be cowboy poets, too), the series covers the aesthetic, geographic, and emotional states of the union. The United States of Poetry even has its own President (see below)!

And what a trip it was! A film crew of 15 traveled over 13,000 miles in ten weeks in a pink and magenta Dolly Parton tour bus, watching rushes on the VCR while cameras timelapsed the country from the dashboard. We flew Nora Marks Dauenhauer in from Juneau to Seattle, we met up with Besmilr Brigham on a dirt road by her house in Horatio, Arkansas, we found the Cook Boys on the curb outside of a 7-11 in Milwaukee. We spent years in tracking down poets and poems, discovering poets everywhere, coming to understand that poets are our true voices, true heroes.

Thirteen thousand miles may seem a long way to go just to get you to hear a few poems. But absolutely the way to go, if you’re a concerned citizen of a country that is threatening to legalize an Official Language and is branding CDs with condemning, ill-defined labels, that has confined the terribly live art of poetry to a sub-section of the Dust Museum.

Like all poems, the pieces you see on The United States of Poetry demand to be seen more than once. The dense and provocative blend of cinema and language is a new means of transmission—Not Since Gutenberg! has the power of literature latched onto such a swelling popularizing propellant. For this is all in the service of that most humble of human artifacts, the non-product called poem. By seeing the poet in flight, reading the poem, you realize, hey, poets are people too! as if this were a secret. The only secret is how the originators, the dreamers, the writers, have not been given their props. ’Til now.

So alright, let BOMB rewind the explosion of these poems to their originating constructs—the text themselves. Welcome to The United States of Poetry.


Sawyer Shefts, Untitled

President Jimmy Carter, Considering the Void

Vess Quinlan, Sold Out

Jim Northrup, Shrinking Away

Besmilr Brigham, Tell Our Daughters

Michelle T. Clinton, Solitude Ain’t Loneliness


The accompanying anthology to The United States of Poetry will be published this spring by Abrams. The accompanying soundtrack will be released by Mouth Almighty.

American culture
Spring 1996
The cover of BOMB 55