Jo McDougall Brian Chilson

Arkansas Youth Poetry Day, held this year on April 10, showcases the youngest poets of the state — ages 6 to 18. Work by those young writers will appear at noon on the Facebook page for the Wednesday Night Poetry series, hosted by Kai Coggin, Hot Springs poet and winner of the 2021 Governor’s Arts Award in Education. 

Arkansas Youth Poetry Day, heralded with a proclamation by Governor Hutchinson, is the brainchild of Coggin, Little Rock haiku poet Stacy Pendergrast and current Arkansas Poet Laureate Jo McDougall. The Porter Prize Foundation and the Hot Springs Area Cultural Alliance are sponsors for the poetry showcase.

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Arkansas Youth Poets 18 and under may submit video-recorded original poems (.mp4 or .mov files) to be shared at the Arkansas Youth Poetry Day Virtual Open Mic. Poets should state their name, age, school and title of their poem. Videos should be two to three minutes in length maximum. Interested youth poets may send video poem submissions to Coggin by April 9 at kaicoggin@gmail.com.

A former student of famed Arkansas poet Miller Williams, McDougall is easily one of the state’s most celebrated and honored living poets, and her Pushcart Prize in 2020 cemented her reputation as a nationally recognized writer. Growing up on a rice farm in DeWitt always finds its way to the first or second paragraph of McDougall’s biography, and while rural life in Arkansas has been bedrock for some of McDougall’s poetry, it is hardly the only subject. To read McDougall is to sit next to an especially dry, funny, insightful wit. We talked with McDougall ahead of the showcase about her work, her drive to foster new young poets and her tenure as the state’s poet laureate. 

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Did you write poems when you were in middle or high school?

I wrote my first poem when I was 11 or 12 and never stopped writing.

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How did the idea of the Youth Poetry Day and the videos sent in by young poets come about?

In 2019, I was invited to a spoken word performance in the then-AETN (now Arkansas PBS) studios in Conway to witness young poets, directed by Karen Walker at Arkansas PBS educators Stacey McAdoo and Stacy Pendergrast, perform their original poems. I was so impressed by their talent that I thought to myself, “I have to do something to honor Arkansas’s young poets.” So with the help of Poets Roundtable of Arkansas members Frieda Patton and Stacy Pendergrast, I drafted an idea for a proclamation for the first annual Arkansas Youth Poetry Day in 2020, presented it to Governor Hutchinson, and he graciously proclaimed the day. Because of the pandemic, Stacy, teaching artist Kai Coggin, and I decided on a virtual gathering of poets ages 6 through 18, put out the call for them to submit videos of themselves performing their original poems, and put the event on the web. It was a success. The governor again proclaimed AYPD day in 2021, and again it will be virtual, on April 10. We’re calling all Arkansas young poets to respond!  

The financial support of the Arkansas Porter Prize Fund and the Hot Springs Cultural Alliance for the Arts make the annual event possible.  

Is there one piece of advice above all others that you would give to a young poet?

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Read. Read all the poets and writers you can — all nationalities, all forms, all styles.  Read every day. It’s fuel for your work.  

You’re a former professor. How do you defend the writing of and the study of poetry for school students?

Isn’t it sad that we have to defend the teaching of any of the cultural arts? In the arts we find what it means to be human, the strength to sustain ourselves through crises and an appreciation of the range of the human spirit. Because poetry is a language art, reading and writing it also refreshes our language, reinvents it and forges our ties to one another. Not to offer the arts is to court shallow thinking and the inability to live richly and fully.

How long have you been Arkansas’s Poet Laureate?

Since 2018. My tenure ends on Dec. 30, 2021.

Brian Chilson
Jo McDougall

What has it been like? Any surprises? Do you have a sash or a Poet Laureate crown?

It has been a great honor and a joy. I’ve met amazing poets from around the state and I’ve been asked many times to talk about my passion, poetry. The saddest surprise is that I discovered very few people know Arkansas even has a poet laureate and they don’t have any idea what poets laureate do. The happiest surprise is that Governor Hutchinson asked me to read a poem he had commissioned from me about hope for Arkansas’s future and then asked me to read it on the Capitol steps at his 2019 inauguration.  

I have no sash or crown, not even one with laurel leaves; that didn’t come with the job. But I do have a poet laureate celebratory hat a friend made for me.

You’re a famous night owl who stays up late working on poems. Is this still your practice?

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Yes. I like the still and silent hours.