Crowd-Sourcing a People’s Poem for the Inauguration

When I was in Florida for the Miami Book Fair this past November, I got the chance to see The Takeaway’s Miami affiliate, WLRN, launch a cool crowd-sourced short story project on Twitter.  They recruited Junot Diaz to supply their story with an opening line, sent it out over Twitter, and then watched as listeners pieced together a narrative. It was a real, live, many-headed story — messy but compelling.

Inspired by WLRN’s success, last week, my WNYC colleagues and I decided to attempt a similar project– this time with poetry rather than prose.

The inauguration provided a theme.  The Takeaway invited poet Kwame Dawes to kick things off with a discussion of inaugural poetry last Wednesday.  In that interview, Dawes presented the first (original) line for what would become our crowd-sourced poem:  Say nation. In the wake of quarrels, say hope. We Tweeted out the line and asked listeners to follow up with subsequent lines of their own using the hashtag #prezpoem.

Almost immediately, the lines started pouring in.  By the end of the week, we’d recieved hundreds of Tweets.  On Friday, Dawes returned to the program to survey the lines– and to share the poem he’d assembled from them.  (He was joined by poet Elizabeth Alexander, who delivered the 2009 inaugural poem —  and who had some very smart things to say about poetry and politics.  Hear their whole interview here.)

But it didn’t stop there.  For me, the best part of the project was the grand finale, which aired this morning.  After picking out a couple dozen of the strongest Tweets, I asked their authors to send audio of themselves reading their line (plus a few stanzas before and after). Piecing together the lines with the help of The Takeaway’s resident audio wizard Jay Cowit, a gorgeous audio poetry mash-up emerged.

This is what audio of the final poem sounded like.  And this is what the final text of the poem looked like:

A People’s Poem for the Inauguration

Say “nation.” In the wake of quarrels, say “hope.”
Be not divisive nor divided.

Say “neighbor.” Say, “What can I do?”
Doors open. Together walk through.
In the hurly-burly of the day’s governing
remember the freedom of peace.

At the dawn of uncertain tomorrows, say “change.”
While darkness floods our spirit, say “light” and shatter
all our scattering shadows.

Dream, “neighbor.” In the face of fear, sing, “mercy.”
Hear unity from voices that speak.

Say that freedom, both the blessing and right,
remain the provenance of open minds.
Acknowledge the dreams that birthed a great nation — say “freedom.”
Speak it into action and watch our dreams reshape the future.

And heart in hand, for the sake of the young,
of the old,
of all those who
wade thru injustice’s tide, say “freedom.”

Say and shout and sing! Progress is a storm and our voices the thunder.

Say “peace” for the hearts of a nation’s people, in times of grief.
Say one, say all. To abandon hope is to further the fall
Say “take my hand” to the downtrodden, the lost.
Sing harmonies that blend in a spectrum of love.

In the dark of failures, say “try”; encourage, persist to light.
Say friend, my hand for your strength, your eyes for my light as we forward together.
Say hope is ours.
Wash away morose pessimism and the failings of the nascent.
Remember our virtue; remember our lofty intent.
In the wake of the struggle, speak, so that together we all may speak courage.

Say “hope,” eyes turned not to the gauzy sky
nor to the brassy gates of power
but to the frost-bitten grass beneath our feet.

I need to hear, again, those antiquated words
in this new light.

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1 comment
  1. Ann Woodlief said:

    This is an excellent poem–the many voices blend so well.

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