“Struck by poetry”

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Rhea Carmon, Knoxville’s current Poet Laureate. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.

On the last weekend of National Poetry Month, Knoxville’s leading poet stood in Market Square and encouraged one of Knoxville’s youngest poets to bare her heart to the small crowd that gathered round. 

Leah Thelen, 12, blinked a few times, glanced round and began reciting from the sheaf of verses that had brought her and her family downtown. 

“You don’t have to be a superhero, chest puffed out and in a battle stance, to be a hero,” Leah began, and when she finished two minutes later it was to a round of enthusiastic applause led by a smiling Rhea Carmon, Knoxville’s current Poet Laureate.

“I think that most often I write to inspire,” Carmon said. “Mostly I want to inspire people to love themselves, to embrace their own personal stories and embrace the stories of other people. By sharing our stories we find a commonality across social barriers.” 

They don’t call her “Rhea Sunshine” for nothing.

Leah Thelen (left) reads one her poems to a small crowd while Rhea Carmon streams the event on her phone. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.

Most people probably don’t even know that Knoxville has a Poet Laureate, much less who they are or what they do.

Chosen for two-year terms, they are basically the city’s official wordsmiths, men and women who serve “as a public voice of Knoxville, creating city-specific works and participating in literary outreach and education,” according to the City’s website on the program.

To that end, Carmon wanted National Poetry Month 2021 to be all about inspiring Knoxvillians to look at poetry as something they can not only appreciate but also create.

“I want everybody in Knoxville to be struck by poetry,” Carmon said while explaining how the campaign worked. “I don’t dream small. That’s why I wanted to do this. I want as many people as possible to see there are poets who are writing and telling their stories.”

Throughout the month of April, Carmon helped lead the Poetry in Motion campaign in cooperation with the City and Knoxville Area Transit (KAT). Through their efforts, KAT riders were surprised with “Pop-Up Poetry” on buses and at bus stops where volunteer poets surprised them with free recitals from Knoxville’s most gifted givers of verse. 

“This past month has gone great,” she explained Saturday. “We’ve had at least one poet on a bus or at a bus stop every Monday and Friday. They’ve been getting feedback from the people who are riding, which is what we wanted. We wanted to inspire people to find their voice in poetry.”

Carmon, a 20-year veteran of poetry slams and performance stages is also a Math teacher and mother to two young boys with her husband, Marcus. She is also the founder and Executive Director of The 5th Woman Cohort, a poetry and performance group.

She is Knoxville’s third Poet Laureate. The first, R.B. Morris, was appointed in 2016 and the second, Marilyn Kallet, followed in 2018.

Visit KnoxvilleTN.gov/poet for more information about Rhea Carmon and the City’s Poet Laureate program.

Rhea Carmon’s website can be found at https://www.rheacarmon.com/

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on April 30, 2021