Nervous about Poetry?

Our Big Read 2021 book announcement day was last week and there’s already lots of excitement around our chosen book, An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo. We have lots of poetry fans along the Lakeshore, many of whom have been waiting a long time for our Big Read program to choose a book of poetry.

We’ve already heard from community members who have shared with us that they are nervous about poetry because they aren’t sure how to read or make sense of poems or even if they like poetry! If this is you, you are in good company!

When I read poetry in my high school English classes in high school, I was not a fan. I read the assigned poems diligently, but the deeper meanings my classmates often found were lost on me. Poems scared me!

It wasn’t until I took a creative writing class in college for my English secondary education major that I began to appreciate poetry. 

We had to write several poems, which I was incredibly nervous about. I had no experience with poetry other than several weeks of a poetry unit in high school. I was pleasantly surprised by how my perception of poetry changed and I respected poets more after writing some poetry myself. Poetry still makes me nervous, but with every poem I read, I enjoy it a little more.

Someone shared Billy Collin’s “Introduction to Poetry” with me recently and I felt it was the perfect way to kick off our first book of poetry. 

I enjoy the lines, “or walk inside the poem’s room/and feel the walls for a light switch.” In some instances, it is easier to find the “light” in certain poems than in others.

This poem reminds me of a few of my favorite lines from An American Sunrise. Harjo’s collection begins with the poem “Break My Heart”. She writes, “Before, though, even words/ Are creatures of habit./ You cannot force poetry/ With a ruler, or jail it at a desk.”

We are hopeful that with practice and an open mind An American Sunrise will be an impactful collection of poems. Harjo describes her story as a Mvskoke Native American and her emotions throughout are raw and powerful.

If you get a chance, read through our previous blog posts as for the past few weeks, we’ve featured poetry and strategies for how to read poems. We’re so excited to continue sharing strategies, reflections, and poems in the months and weeks leading up to our Big Read month! 

Introducing Our 2021 Selections!

We are excited to announce that we have received an eighth consecutive grant from the National Endowment of the Arts! Our program will highlight poetry and Native American history this November. 

An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo

This year, we will concentrate on Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s An American Sunrise, a collection of poems that traverses the homeland from which her ancestors were uprooted in 1830 as a result of the Indian Removal Act. A Writer of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation, Harjo celebrates her ancestors and reminds the reader to remember the past.

“I’m elated to announce that we’ve received NEA and NEH grants again this year. As our program has grown over the last eight years, each year, I am more excited for our community to participate,” said Dr. Deborah Van Duinen, who is director of both the Big Read and Little Read and an associate professor of English education at Hope.  “Each year we learn so much as we listen to and learn from each other while encountering important stories together.”

Writer, musician, and current Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. “An American Sunrise:her eighth collection of poems—revisits the homeland from which her ancestors were uprooted in 1830 as a result of the Indian Removal Act. It is a “profound, brilliantly conceived song cycle, celebrating ancestors, present and future generations, historic endurance and fresh beginnings,” wrote critic Jane Ciabattari. “Rich and deeply engaging, An American Sunrise creates bridges of understanding while reminding readers to face and remember the past” (Washington Post). 

Harjo’s many awards include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas; the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America; the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets; and two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships. Joy Harjo previously visited Hope College in the fall of 1993 and spring of 2012 through the college’s Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series.

“While the Big Read has not yet focused on poetry, I’m excited for the Lakeshore to be immersed in Joy Harjo’s beautiful verse and the history it tells,” Van Duinen said.  “Harjo’s poems encourage us to contemplate whose histories are told and whose are silenced, and why we must learn about history and culture. They also remind us of the ways reading poetry can lead to greater empathy and understanding.”

Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard

Our Little Read Lakeshore accompaniment for children will feature the picture book Fry Bread, written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinze Neal.

Debut author Kevin Noble Maillard’s Fry Bread is an evocative depiction of a modern Native American family. Told in verse, Maillard’s book captures the complex Native American identity and shared tradition through beautiful illustrations by Pura Belpre Award winner and Caldecott Honoree Juana Martinez-Neal. Fry Bread celebrates warm food, but also the similarities and differences of nation. 

Author events for the programs are Joy Harjo, Kevin Maillard, and Cynthia Leitch Smith. Specific event details will be released in August.

The NEA Big Read Lakeshore program has received $20,000 from the NEA, one of several grants announced on Wednesday, June 9. The Little Read Lakeshore programhas received $15,000 from Michigan Humanities, one of 17 grants to be announced this summer.

Our 2021 Books

In addition to Hope, our community partners include the Allegan District Library, Allendale Township Library, Alliance for Cultural and Ethnic Harmony, the City of Holland, CultureWorks, Fellowship Reformed Church, the Fennville District Library, the Gary Byker Library of Hudsonville, the Georgetown District Library, the Herrick District Library, the Holland Museum, the Holland-Hope College Sustainability Institute, the Howard Miller Public Library, the Loutit District Library, the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, the Outdoor Discovery Center, the Patmos Library, Ready for School, the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, the Saugatuck-Douglas District Library, the Spring Lake District Library, Western Theological Seminary, the Woman’s Literary Club and many individual area residents.

Find out more about our 2021 selections, our program and more at!

Every Word Counts!

Words in a poem are like sentences in a novel. Poems tend to vary in length but each word is usually chosen by the author for a reason.

For those who read poetry, a good strategy is to pay attention to the diction, or the choice of words within a poem. 

One way to do this is to read through a poem twice and notice words that surprise you the second time you read it.

Let’s try it.

Read or listen to the poem, “Digging” by Seamus Heaney.

What words or phrases stuck out to you or surprised you after reading? 

I was surprised by the phrase “gravelly ground.” It surprised me that the poet did not just say “sinks into the ground.” The word “gravelly” makes the line very specific.  

I looked up the definition of “gravelly” in a dictionary and found it means there was gravel scattered throughout the ground. This caused me to think about how difficult it must have been to dig into the soil and plant the potatoes. 

Finding definitions for unknown words is another popular strategy to better understand the words in a poem.

I researched the word “squelch” from the lines, “The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge.” I could imagine the sound of the shovel sinking into the ground as the speaker’s father worked in the field. 

Lastly, paying attention to repeated words throughout the poem may help the reader understand the main themes within the poem. Oftentimes, the poet will repeat words or phrases that are important to the poem’s meaning.

The repetition of the word “digging” and the phrase “the squat pen rests” within the poem caught my attention. 

These phrases are placed together in the final lines, “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it.” 

Through these lines, the speaker decides to follow a new path and not farm like his father and grandfather. 

Sometimes readers have to “dig” into the definitions and word choices the poet makes to better understand the poem.

Did any other words or phrases confuse or capture your attention? Write them in the comments! 

Happy Memorial Day: Remembrance through Poetry

Memorial Day usually means the kick-off to summer with picnics and time with family and friends. 

I sometimes become so excited by that summer has arrived that I forget about the origins of Memorial Day and its purpose of helping us remember history and those in our country who lost their lives in service to it. 

Poetry can help us remember the past and give us insights into the lived experience of those who fought in wars. John McCrae’s well-known “Flanders Field” is one such poem.

One strategy when reading poetry from the past is to think about or research the historical time when the poem was written. This can help you understand the context, setting, or background of the poet. 

The lines, “Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,/Loved and were loved, and now we lie/In Flanders fields,” spoke to me as I read the poem.

My mood shifts whenever I read this poem and makes me feel sad and contemplative. Yet, I am reminded that loss connects people across different times, countries, or cultures. Poetry lets the reader to understand the life or memories of the poet.

John McCrae was a Canadian physician and poet who lived in Guelph, Ontario. A fun fact is that our Big Read director Dr. Van Duinen grew up in Guelph and lived a few streets away from the historic John McCrae’s house. Dr. McCrae wrote Flanders Field during World War I after witnessing the death of his friend and fellow soldier the day before. His poem and its mention of poppies led to the Canadian tradition of wearing remembrance poppies in the weeks leading up to Canada’s Remembrance Day on Nov 11. Click here to read more about this poem and the historical context!

Did you know that the poem “Flanders Field” inspired another poet named Moina Michael to write “We Shall Keep the Faith?”

Michael refers to the field of poppies in John McCrae’s poem. She writes, “We cherish, too, the poppy red/That grows on fields where valor led.”

What words or phrases jump out at you from this poem? How does this poem make you feel?

What poems or poets have you researched to learn more about the time period or experience?

Poetry: Tell Me How You Really Feel

Sometimes when we study poetry in school, it can be easy to focus on analyzing the literary aspects of a poem. We can forget to simply delight in how a poem makes us feel.

In some of my English classes over the years, I have talked so much about rhyme schemes, metaphors, and meanings that I forget to think about the ways particular words and phrases, lines and stanzas speak to me or help me pause and notice.

One strategy I’ve found helpful when I read poetry is to focus on my mood while I’m reading a poem.  Some poems make me feel joyful and whimsical. Others make me feel sad, tired, or confused.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth is a poem that made me feel nostalgic and at peace.

Here’s a photo I took from one of my hikes
back home!

I spent a lot of time as a kid wandering around my home in the Appalachian Mountains and running past fields of wildflowers and this poem reminds me of this.

My favorite lines are, “I gazed—and gazed—but little thought/What wealth the show to me had brought.” 

These lines summarize exactly what I felt as I read the poem. I became lost in the beautiful words and just felt like I was back in the words as I was reading. 

I also love the final lines of the poem, “And then my heart with pleasure fills,/And dances with the daffodils.”

After being outside in nature, I can take the photos or memories of trees or flowers with me in my mind. This poem reminded me that I can reflect back on the beauty of nature, even if I’m not physically there.

Now, you try! I encourage you to read or listen to “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth.

How did it make you feel? Why? Which lines or phrases stood out? Share in the comments below!

Poems Can Be Confusing! Strategies for Reading Poetry

Last week I challenged readers to choose a line from the poem “Relic” by Jennifer Foerster and reflect on the meaning of the line. Using reading strategies like this can help make poetry more accessible to readers new to poetry by breaking up the poem into more manageable parts.  

Poetry has a reputation for being confusing because of the word choice and complex meanings.

One of my favorite strategies is to read a poem out loud or listen to it being read out loud. It’s a simple strategy but it helps me better experience and make sense of the poem.

Use the following link to listen to one of my favorite poems, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson:

Was listening to the poem helpful? What phrases stood out to you as you read? Poetry can take practice, which is why reading strategies that help you is so important.

Reading a poem out loud is just one strategy. If you are looking for more, the blog post by educator Shaelynn Farnsworth entitled “Strategies to Help Students Unlock Poetry” provides many helpful suggestions.

What are your favorite poetry reading strategies? Which ones do you want to try? Over the next months, I’ll be sharing more of my favorite strategies and my favorite poems. Stay tuned!

Celebrating Traditions and Stories Through Poetry

My name is Brooke Carbaugh and I am a current Hope College sophomore from Orbisonia, Pennsylvania. I am a newcomer to the lakeshore community, but I love the proximity to Lake Michigan, eating ice cream, and hiking through Michigan’s beautiful landscape. As the newest member of the BigRead team, I am excited to begin the month of May with some thoughts about poetry. April was poetry month, but the BigRead team wanted to continue sharing some of our favorite poems.

The first week of May brings Holland’s Tulip Time Festival with blooming flowers, street vendors, and years of tradition. This is my first year in Holland for Tulip Time and I have been reminded of the beauty of celebrating and participating in new traditions.

Poetry has a long-standing tradition of granting insight into the experiences and emotions of others. Even though the language is sometimes confusing, the images and stories within literature create understanding between the author and reader. There are many ways to connect with and appreciate poetry when the meaning of the poem may be difficult to understand. I challenge you to choose a favorite line or lines after reading the selected poem and reflect on why those lines speak to you.

Relic by Jennifer Foerster 

An atlas

on the underside of my dream.

My half-shut eyelid—

a black wing.

I dipped sharp quills

in the night’s mouth—

moths swarmed

from my throat.

I pulled a feather blanket

over my skeleton

and woke—

a map of America

flapping in the dark.

Once I dreamt

of inheriting this—

my mother

who still follows crows

through the field,

my sister’s small hand

tucked inside hers,

me on her breast

in a burial quilt.

Foerster, Jennifer. “Relic.”, 2015. 

As I was reading this poem, the phrase “I pulled a feather blanket/ over my skeleton/ and woke-” stood out to me. These lines reminded me of the countless times I crawled into bed with a blanket and slowly drifted to sleep. Additionally, the decision to use “skeleton” instead of “body” grabbed my attention. I could clearly see this image in my mind and admired the simplicity of these lines. This poem contains many vibrant images and appreciating a poem can be as simple as choosing a few lines that speak to you as the reader.

The Asian American Community is too, America

In light of news reports of increased anti-Asian American violence, our Big Read team can’t help but reflect back on our 2017 Big Read program with Julia Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine and the powerful discussions we had about prejudice and discrimination both in our nation’s past and present.

Along with Otsuka’s book and our conversations around the history of Asian Americans in the United States, we thought of this poem and wanted to share it with you:

I, Too by Langston Hughes.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Hughes, Langston. “I, Too.” Poetry Foundation, 2002, Accessed 18 03 2021.

Documentary Recommendations you Should Listen to During Black History Month

Previously this month we released a list of books and podcasts you should read during Black History Month, but maybe books and podcasts aren’t your thing. If they are not, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Check out these documentary recommendations provided by Hope College’s Black Student Union.


Filmmaker Ava DuVernay explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans. 13th is available to stream on Netflix.

Dark Girls

Dark Girls is a fascinating and controversial documentary film that goes underneath the surface to explore the prejudices that dark-skinned women face throughout the world. It explores the roots of classism, racism, and the lack of self-esteem within a segment of cultures that span from America to the most remote corners of the globe. Women share their personal stories, touching on deeply ingrained beliefs and attitudes of society while allowing generations to heal as they learn to love themselves for who they are. Black Girls is available to stream on Sling TV, Amazon Prime premium, and available to rent on Youtube and Amazon.

We hope you enjoy viewing these documentaries as we are preparing for the Kwame Alexander event taking place on Thursday February 26th at 2:00 pm EST. Kwame Alexander will discuss how he became an author, about his lastest book on race and hope, why he writes poetry, and why he writes the books he does. You will not want to miss this event.

See you there!

Podcast Recommendations you Should Listen to During Black History Month

Since coming to college, I have driven back and forth from Chicago and Hope countless times. After hours of listening to music, the words eventually blend together and the music becomes as monotonous as the road ahead of me. Lately, when my music becomes background noise, I switch over to podcasts. Not only can you expand your knowledge, but there are a plethora of options.

Take your multitasking to a new level this month and listen to these Black Student Union recommended podcasts.

Brené with Austin Channing Brown on
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

Austin Channing Brown’s anti-racism work is critical to changing our world, and her ability to talk about what is good and true about love, about our faith, and about loving each other is transformative. She is a writer, a speaker, and a media producer providing inspired leadership on racial justice in America. In this episode, we connect on her book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, and talk about her online television show, The Next Question.

Ibram X. Kendi: The Difference Between Being “Not Racist” and Antiracist

There is no such thing as being “not racist,” says author and historian Ibram X. Kendi. In this vital conversation, he defines the transformative concept of antiracism to help us more clearly recognize, take responsibility for, and reject prejudices in our public policies, workplaces, and personal beliefs. Learn how you can actively use this awareness to uproot injustice and inequality in the world — and replace it with love.

Therapy for Black Girls

The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible version of ourselves.

I Think This is Love

From dating and dealing with friendship break-ups to going home for the holidays– the love(or hate) between people has a way of bringing out our best and worst sides. But we all come to the table with different ideas about what exactly love is. Every week Sharee and a guest host will be sharing their most embarrassing, hilarious, and sometimes heartbreaking stories of this mysterious force in all of our lives. Whether you love love or think love sucks, this podcast is for you.

Pass the Mic (The Witness)

Pass The Mic is the premier podcast of The Witness – A Black Christian Collective. Tune in every week for engaging discussions and high profile interviews addressing the core concerns of African Americans biblically.

Happy listening!