From the wit of Mark Twain to the plays of Tennessee Williams to the poetry of T.S. Eliot to the novels of Jonathan Franzen, St. Louis has a rich history of fostering talented authors. It’s a literary legacy that extends for generations and is continuing today in the voices of young people who call the city home. April is National Poetry Month, and to mark the occasion, the National Poetry Series is bringing an exciting day of celebration to the StL.

The idea for the National Poetry Series began as a lecture given by Daniel Halpern at the Library of Congress in 1977 about how poetry may be published in the future. The question at the center of the discussion was how to make publishing accessible to more writers, and Halpern’s solution was a national contest judged by eminent poets. “I was approached by the novelist James Michener, who had read a transcript of the lecture and was interested in the idea,” he says. “With his backing, we were able to launch the National Poetry Series in 1979, and we haven’t missed a year since.”

Each year, a panel of five distinguished poets are chosen to judge the competition. The works are sourced through an open call, and anyone in the country is welcome to participate. “Each judge picks one book that is then attached to a publisher,” Halpern explains. “We don’t want a committee decision when it comes to making our selections for publication. It’s based on the choice of one author, who then writes an introduction about why they picked this work. Many National Poetry Series winners have gone on to receive other accolades, such as National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes.”

For the first time ever, the National Poetry Series is taking its unique programming out of its home base of New York. “We’ve been talking about doing something outside of the city for a while,” Halpern says. “Lisa Trulaske is a member of our board, and she suggested St. Louis. She’s done an amazing job overseeing things and pulled together a great team.” On April 15, the nonprofit will host a series of events that celebrate the written word. Hearth & Soul will host a free meet and greet with visiting authors. A dinner and auction at The Log Cabin Club will give guests the opportunity to bid on one-of-a-kind items donated by Margaret Atwood, Terrance Hayes, Stephen King, Danny Meyer, Joyce Carol Oates, Padma Lakshmi, Ann Patchett and Amy Tan.

As part of the event, John Burroughs School will host a panel discussion, featuring authors selected by Halpern. Participants include Natasha Trethewey, 19th Poet Laureate of the United States; Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours; and Maggie Smith, New York Times bestselling author and poet of works like Good Bones, Keep Moving and You Could Make This Place Beautiful. They will be joined by Burroughs senior Shangri-La Hou, who was selected as one of five National Student Poets for 2023-2024. The panel will be moderated by Imani Perry, a professor of women, gender and sexuality and African and African American studies at Harvard University.

The panel is themed Keeping Language Alive, and the discussion will focus on the role of poetry in fostering language in the age of social media and artificial intelligence. “We have a wide range of experiences with language represented in this group—our oldest participant is in his 70s, our youngest is 17,” Halpern notes. “They will each bring their own experiences and perspectives with language, whether it’s Shangri-La as a student or Imani looking at how it is used in the Black community. The central question is how can we maintain the future of language, whether that’s prose, poetry or journalism, in a world that includes so many shortcuts that threaten it. Language is something that needs to be maintained, and we’re so excited to bring this discussion to St. Louis.”

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april 15 events
Meet & Greet and Readings
Hearth & Soul | 1:00 p.m.

Keeping Language Alive Panel
Haertter Hall at John Burroughs School | 6 p.m.
Tickets available on Eventbrite

Dinner & Auction
Log Cabin Club | 7:30 p.m.