Home > Blog > Save the NEA: One Poet’s Story of How the Arts Build Community
Published: Mon Mar 27 2017
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Save the NEA: One Poet’s Story of How the Arts Build Community

I wish the Trump administration had some understanding of how essential the arts and humanities are to civilization, but I don’t have a lot of hope for this realization to strike them, because Trump is a philistine and he’s got a lot of company these days—philistinism seems to be a burgeoning thing in America. Several years ago, Kansas (the state I live in) became the only state in the Union to have abolished its arts commission (one of the first acts of far-right Tea Party pet Gov. Sam Brownback, whose tax cuts for the rich have also decimated the public schools in this state). Now the US may end up the only developed nation in the world to have axed its national arts endowment. The White House budget office has drafted a hit list of programs that Trump and his advisors would like to eliminate, and that list includes the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps, and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

Just to give some idea of what killing the NEA will (or more aptly, will not) accomplish, the $146 million budget of the National Endowment for the Arts represents just 0.012% (about one one-hundredth of one percent) of our federal discretionary spending. According to 2012 NEA figures, the annual budget for the arts per capita (in dollars) in Germany was $19.81; in England, $13.54; in Australia, $8.16; in Canada, $5.19, and in the United States just $0.47. Yes, 47 cents annually per capita. For all the arts combined. And the new POTUS feels that’s too much.

It would be impossible to enumerate all the programs that will likely die when the NEA and the NEH are killed, and the many people these cuts will deprive of things like public television programming and National Public Radio; school enrichment programs in the arts; and community programs to encourage music, dance, theater, visual art and literary art, literacy, and the pleasure of reading.

Just speaking from my own experiences as a poet and a teacher of poetry in the wide-ranging community work that I’ve been privileged to do in California, Kansas, and other states across America over my long (I’m old!) career as a poet, nearly all of my community work has been supported directly or indirectly by the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities through local, state, or regional arts organizations.

Contrary to popular perceptions, artists working in their communities all across the US are not doing “fluffy” projects. Here’s a list of just some of the work that I’ve had the opportunity to do as a poet in my community, with support from the NEA, NEH, and state or local arts agencies:

  • For four years in the late ‘70s, I ran poetry workshops for inner city San Diego kids, the message of which was that poetry can be an expression of personal power. (Funded by the California Arts Council’s Poets in the Schools Program and the NEA.)
  • A five-year project teaching deaf and hearing-impaired elementary school students in Salina, Kansas, that writing is the great equalizer. Had to learn sign language for this job (although, according to the kids, my hands never quite lost their “accent”). (Funded by the Kansas Arts Commission and Salina Arts & Humanities, with support from the NEA.)
  • A writing class I taught for nearly twenty years at a local senior center in Salina. These people, ranging in age from sixty to their nineties, were eager to tell their stories in both poetry and prose, describing lives of making do during the Great Depression, the devastating Midwest dust storms of the Dirty Thirties, and two world wars. Fresh into Kansas from California, I learned more about my new community and its history from those seniors than from any other source. The end result: the publication of Vintage, an anthology collecting their vivid memories in both prose and poetry, dating back to World War One. Yes, One. All of these people have since died, so I love that their memories are on the record. (Local and state arts commissions, with support from the NEA.)
  • A second personal history project, this one for people of all ages and from all over the state, resulting in the publication of another anthology, In Our Time, which was reviewed in and lauded by the Chicago Tribune. (Funding: local and state arts commissions and local public library, with support from the NEA and the NEH.)
  • Decades of writing projects in the Kansas public schools, K thru 12, including individual writing sessions for students with learning difficulties, as well as classes for gifted and mainstream students, and one-on-one mentoring sessions with students who already had their own writing projects in progress. (Local, state, and NEA funding.)
  • As an outreach project during my stint as Thurber Poet at Ohio State University, a 2-month workshop with nine formerly-homeless women who had been given shelter at the Columbus, Ohio, YWCA. Most of these women had previously been incarcerated or institutionalized for mental health disorders. I’ll never forget the pride on their faces at the end of our two months together when they read their poetry on a National Public Radio station in Columbus. (NPR: another of Trump’s targets.)
  • A five-year project in which I was privileged to work with inpatients and outpatients at Salina’s large regional hospital, using creative writing exercises I had designed to fit their particular issues: stroke patients who were experiencing memory problems and expressive difficulties as well as depression; people in recovery from substance addiction; clinically depressed mental health inpatients who were in many cases emotionally isolated and suicidal but found hope and strength in expressing their most difficult and private feelings in writing; terminally ill patients who felt alone and frightened but found a measure of peace in writing or recording their thoughts, feelings, and memories for their families during our sessions. Patients’ families often read those last words from their loved ones later at their memorial services. (Funding from local and state arts commissions and the NEA, with matching funds from the hospital.)
  • Classes at an extension school called Opportunity Now for at-risk teens who have dropped out of public schools (or have been expelled), the goal of which has been to show these struggling kids that in writing they can find a trusted companion, an outlet for their fears and angers, and an expression of their own very real personal power. (Sponsored by the local art center, with funding from local and NEA sources. By the time this project began, there was no longer a state arts commission.)
  • Poetry-writing sessions for boys at a local military school, many of whom had been transferred there from across the US against their wills, sometimes because of their own behavioral issues, but just as often because of the break-up of their families by divorce, a family tradition in the military, or the world travel of wealthy parents. Many if not most of these boys were suffering feelings of abandonment and loss, and they approached the unfamiliar process of poetry-writing as if it were a weapon of self-defense, coming to see their finished work as a source of deep pride. (Sponsored by the local art center, with funding from local and NEA sources.)
  • Salina’s Spring Poetry Series, which I founded in 1983, and which has brought national and international literary figures into this small community each April for thirty-four years. More than one US Poet Laureate has read in the series, as have state poets laureate from around the US and an impressive number of Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winning poets. John Villani’s The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America listed this annual poetry series as one of the five reasons for Salina’s inclusion in the book. (Series sponsored by Salina Arts & Humanities and the Salina Public Library, with funding from the NEA and the NEH.)

Some of the many other community projects I’ve had the opportunity to do with arts funding have included grief-journal workshops for children who have lost a parent or adults who have lost a spouse; a breast-cancer survivors’ writing workshop that left me moved and inspired anew after each session; a journaling workshop for recent amputees who were struggling to feel fully themselves again after the surgery that had profoundly changed their physical sense of themselves; a reminiscence-visitation program to assist seniors in nursing homes with memory issues and their social isolation.

These are just some of the community projects that one poet has been allowed to do, thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both of which have been suggested for elimination by the Trump administration.

I feel such an urgent need to say this: Art isn’t just dessert, the cookie at the end of life’s daily meal—it’s an essential nutrient for the human spirit, and for the spirit of community that is really what makes America great. Not great again, mind you, but always and ever great, just as communities all around the globe are great in their own individual ways. We never needed anyone to come along and presume to make us great again—our communities have never stopped being great, and the collective sum of those distinct and cohesive communities is America itself. We just need the new administration to leave in place the agencies whose function it is to feed and enrich the human spirit that thrives all across our land. Leave us our NEA, NEH, and other vital programs. We can take it from there.

Patricia Traxler is the author of four poetry collections and a novel, Blood (St. Martin’s/Macmillan). She is completing work on a collection of essays, The Eternity Bird. Her poetry has appeared widely, including in The NationBoston ReviewKenyon ReviewMs.SlatePloughsharesThe LA Times Literary Supplement, and in many anthologies, including The Best American Poetry. She was twice named Bunting Poetry Fellow at Radcliffe and has also served as the University of Montana’s Hugo Poet and Ohio State University’s Thurber Poet. (updated 7/2018)

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