The Poetry Foundation Honors Black Living Legends As Part Of Poetry Magazine’s 110th Anniversary

Photo by Udo Salters Photography/Getty Images

The Poetry Foundation began its year-long celebration of Poetry magazine’s 110th anniversary last month by honoring 11 legendary poets with a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize—one of the largest and most prestigious literary prizes in the nation.

Held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where the Poetry Foundation is based, the award ceremony brought together the likes of Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and many other acclaimed poets whose literary work has shaped American poetry. 

“This year, to mark both the 110th anniversary of Poetry magazine and the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of the Poetry Foundation, we were able to have this one-time special moment to honor 11 legendary American poets with a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize,” Ydalmi Noriega, the Poetry Foundation’s Vice President of Programs and Engagement, tells ESSENCE. 

Established in 1986 by philanthropist Ruth Lilly, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize is part of the Poetry Foundation’s family of literary awards known as the Pegasus Awards. The $100,000 prize is awarded annually to one living U.S. poet for their extraordinary lifetime achievements. However, in recognition of Poetry magazine’s 110th anniversary this year, the Foundation decided to award 10 additional Ruth Lilly Poetry Prizes, totaling more than $1.1 million in prizes. 

The 2022 Lilly Award recipients are: Nikki Giovanni, Sandra Cisneros, CAConrad, Rita Dove, Angela Jackson, Juan Felipe Herrera, Sharon Olds, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, Patti Smith and Arthur Sze. In honor of National Poetry Month, all 11 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winners will have their work featured in Poetry magazine’s forthcoming April 2023 issue. 

The Poetry Foundation Honors Black Living Legends As Part Of Poetry Magazines 110th Anniversary
Rita Dove [L] receives a 2022 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from Michelle T. Boone [R] as part of the Pegasus Awards on October 26, 2022. Photograph by Harvey Tillis. © 2022 Poetry Foundation

“Everyone has turned to poetry over the last couple of years to understand our lives and the challenges that the world is presenting,” Noriega says. “We’ve recognized that there were so many important American poets that have not appeared in the magazine and on our stages, and were not the recipients of our awards historically.”

“This moment of celebrating the magazine gave us an opportunity to think: Who are those legends? Who are those critical voices that have built American poetry to this moment of acknowledgement and celebration?” Noriega continued. “This anniversary of the magazine gave us the opportunity to look at our history and see what had been some of the voices that we had not given space to.”

The anniversary of the magazine coincided with the Poetry Foundation’s new strategic plan, which is a three-year plan on accountability, purpose and focus. According to Noriega, the organization’s new strategic plan is about transparency and “our values around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The Poetry Foundation Honors Black Living Legends As Part Of Poetry Magazines 110th Anniversary
Haki Madhubuti [right] receives a 2022 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from Ydalmi Noriega [left] as part of the Pegasus Awards on October 26, 2022. Photograph by Harvey Tillis. © 2022 Poetry Foundation

She acknowledged this way of thinking as “a shift,” one that used to be peripheral for the Foundation. But over the past few years, and since the organization welcomed Michelle T. Boone as its first Black woman president in 2021, the Poetry Foundation has firmly dedicated itself to supporting and amplifying diverse voices in poetry communities by committing itself to anti-racism work. 

“There’s a real thought about how we, the Poetry Foundation, can help sustain a field,” Noriega tells ESSENCE. “Over the last two years, $2 million in grants went out the door to support literary organizations that were struggling with responding to COVID. This year, we just wrapped up the application process for an additional $3 million in grants—one of them very specifically for organizations that do literary and poetry programming for BIPOC audiences, and literary organizations that are run by BIPOC leaders. So, even at the level of granting, we’re looking at how we can support an ecosystem that places people of color at the center of editorship, leadership and writing.”

In conjunction with the organization’s ongoing strategic plan and commitment to change, the Poetry Foundation plans to continue its year-long commemoration by offering an array of inclusive events and programs. For example, the organization will open its upcoming winter/spring season with a celebration of the “Latinx Poetics” anthology, edited by Ruben Quesada. Currently, the Foundation regularly offers free in-person and virtual book club discussions, poetry readings, writing workshops and more. 

Whether through spoken word, jazz or hip-hop, poetry has always been an integral part of Black culture and Black literary and art communities. From Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou, to Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde, poetry continues to be a source of healing and connection for many of us during life’s highs and lows. 

In its new mission statement, the Poetry Foundation aims to amplify and celebrate the diversity and richness of talent of past, present and future poets by “fostering spaces for all to create, experience, and share poetry.” 

“We used to hear that poetry doesn’t matter, that no one reads poems anymore,” Noriega says. “I think it’s really important to pause those narratives and say no: Poets matter. Poets do really significant work. We find meaning in that work. Let’s pause and acknowledge the importance of that work for all of us in our lives, in our culture [and] in managing the challenges of the day. I think it’s really important to pay attention and acknowledge that there is a role for poets and for poetry in our world.”

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