Poetry on TV? On Roku? Anywhere?

Back in May 2011, I wrote about the fact that there was (and is) no poetry on TV. Browsing the listings for dozens of channels on cable TV, I saw that the literary arts had no significant representation among them, with the exception of CSPAN’s Book TV, which might be the most boring programming anyone in the world has ever seen. This exploration was prompted by my realization that the major awards shows in music, TV, and film are broadcast live during prime-time on major networks, but the same was (and is) not true of the ceremonies for literary prizes, like the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prizes, and the Pushcart Prizes. It’s no wonder that people think books and reading are dead— if you’re an average American whose main source of information and entertainment is the boob tube, you’d probably think they were!

Earlier this year, I made the switch that many Americans are making these days: I cut off my traditional cable TV service and am watching through an on-demand streaming device: Roku. My family has enjoyed Netflix and Amazon Prime, instead of listlessly settling for either bug-eating Bear Grylls or “Alaska: The Last Frontier” or five-year-old re-runs of “Antiques Roadshow.” (The simple fact is: family programming has all but disappeared amid violent action shows, comedies driven by sexual humor, dour generational dramas, and brazenly sensational reality TV.) And since so many Roku streaming channels are specific in their focus, I was thinking that there would be a channel devoted to poetry, or at least to the literary arts more generally . . . Wrong.

Using the channel search function, I started digging. First, I tried to the most obvious thing; I typed in “Poetry.” Nothing. Then “Literary.” Nothing. Then “Literature.” Nothing. Then “Writing.” Nothing. Okay . . .  Among the channels for truckers and specific musical genres and sewing, among the small-time homemade channels and local-access channels, where are the literary channels? Can’t there be even one channel devoted to poetry, an art form that its defenders swear is not dead or dying!

Trying to be positive, I thought: Maybe the hundreds of thousands, or even millions of poetry enthusiasts are engaging it on the internet now . . . Not hardly.

If you type the term “Poetry” in the search bar on YouTube, the prompt says that there are 5.7 million results. The all-powerful Poetry Foundation’s channel has a whopping 1,260 subscribers.  Poetry Out Loud’s channel has 1,700 subscribers. Poets.org has a channel, too, but there’s no indication of how many subscribers they have. A search for “Natasha Trethewey,” an astoundingly good poet and recent US Poet Laureate, yields about 3,000 results, some of which were posted by PBS NewsHour, Emory University, and various literary festivals. In short, there’s a whole bunch of people posting a whole lot of videos and a whole bunch more people not watching them.

If Janie Homemaker in Topeka can create a Roku channel, why can’t some of these nonprofits that claim to be promoting the literary arts create one? Back in 2003, Poetry magazine received gift of hundreds of millions of dollars from the late Ruth Lilly— could some of that money fund a dedicated poetry channel?

I love poetry. I read it regularly. Though I mostly write nonfiction now, it was the poetry of the Beats and of Walt Whitman that made me want to devote my life to writing. And if there was a poetry channel, I’d watch it. If its shows were more than just a static camera pointed at a podium in a bookstore, a lot of other people (who don’t want to sift through YouTube to watch short clips) would, too. If there were shows about poetry’s complex history, poets’ lives, and the stories behind famous works of poetry, if there were interview shows and live-streams of festivals, if there were shows on avant garde poetry collectives, street poets, and undiscovered poets, if there were contests where viewers could win free trips to AWP or Geraldine R. Dodge . . . people would watch.

So here’s what I want to know: is there a poetry or literary channel anywhere, on cable or on a streaming service?

And, if not, here’s my challenge to anyone who can do something about it: if poetry isn’t dead, if poets aren’t irrelevant, then get them on the TV so people know it.

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