Despite its gilded candelabras and sumptuous drapery, the White House’s state dining room felt like a crunchy coffee shop Wednesday afternoon, as high school students recited poetry to snaps of approval and singer-songwriter Aimee Mann performed “Save Me” underneath the portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
The performances were delivered after Michelle Obama gave a breezy pep talk on the importance of writing and reading poetry in school. Her audience included 77 high-school-aged poets from around the country as well as former poets laureate Rita Dove and Billy Collins and first lady of Mexico Margarita Zavala.
Obama told the students they were flown in “because we want you to be part of the conversation” about poetry, which has “the ability to connect.”
“You feel understood, you feel less alone” when you read a poem that articulates your emotions, the first lady said.
The workshop -- a continuation of the White House Music Series -- precedes an evening celebration of American poetry and prose with planned appearances by Collins, Dove, Mann, singer-songwriter Jill Scott, hip-hop artist and rapper Common, and actor-banjoist Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. The first lady has previously hosted celebrations of country music, classical music, Latin music and Motown.
After Obama’s speech, the invited artists answered questions from students and imparted short sermons on their creative process. Some of the advice was, on the surface, contradictory.
“You’re probably not that good, but you’ll get better,” Collins told the students, drawing chuckles from the adults in the room. “To find your voice, you need to read deeply.”
“You’re trying too hard,” said poet Kenneth Goldsmith to the students, after extolling the virtues of copycat art and experimental plagiarism.
At heart, both men’s advice was the same -- absorb others’ artistry to fuel your own -- and complemented Obama’s emphasis on robust funding of arts education.
“This is not an option,” Obama said. “This is a must.”
But across the country, many state and local governments have sharply reduced funding for the arts. The federal 2012 appropriations for the National Endowment for the Arts is currently being reviewed, but the proposed White House budget for fiscal 2012 was a 13 percent cut from the 2010 funding level of $167.5 million.
Staff writer Jacqueline Trescott contributed to this report.
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