Small-But-Mighty Poetry Library
The Small-but-Mighty Poetry Library is a mobile mini-library of nearly 100 books of diverse contemporary poetry. Currently housed at the Central Counties Youth Center (CCYC), our region’s youth detention center where Ridgelines has offered programs since 2019, the library includes titles that deal with a wide range of topics, from being incarcerated as a young person to life in rural northern Appalachia; from grief and addiction to questions of identity, joy, and wonder. These books are available to youth at CCYC for informal enjoyment, for classroom use, and for Ridgelines programming.
Youth are also invited to take a book of their choosing from the library when they leave CCYC, and so the library changes over time. As we continue to stock the library, we're glad to support small presses nationally and Webster's Bookstore locally by ordering titles through BookShop.org.
Stay tuned for our BookShop.org wish list and let us know if there are books you think should be on it!
Ridgelines was lucky to work with poet Julie Swarstad Johnson to curate the library’s first core collection. In addition to being the author of Pennsylvania Furnace (2019), editor's choice selection for the Unicorn Press first book series, and co-editor of Beyond Earth's Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight (University of Arizona Press), Julie is a skilled poetry librarian, poet-historian, and a graduate of Penn State’s MFA Program in Creative Writing. She lives in Tucson and works at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, but occasionally comes back to these ridges and valleys, as when she served as Artist in Residence at Gettysburg National Military Park in 2018. Below, Julie talks with us about her relationship to poetry and putting together the Small-but-Mighty Poetry Library.
How did poetry come into your life? How does poetry show up in your life these days?
A poetry unit in sixth grade sparked my love of this art form (thank you, Ms. Fout!). I’ve always loved words and puzzles, and writing poetry appealed to those interests in me then and still does today. I kept writing poetry from then on; I had many other interests and ideas about what I would do with my life, but I kept finding my way back into poetry. Caring, inventive teachers, including Robin Becker and Julia Spicher Kasdorf at Penn State, showed me the wideness of what poetry can be and do in the world, and I can say I’m a poet today thanks to those teachers and mentors.
I like to describe myself as a poet who works as a librarian. I work for the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a library of just over 53,000 volumes of contemporary poetry. That work keeps me immersed in poetry and gives me the joy of helping readers find poetry that they love. In my own writing life, I’m currently working on a series of epistolary poems that think about light pollution and the value of night and darkness.
How did you approach choosing titles for the Small-but Mighty Poetry Library? What kinds of considerations guided your choices?
One of the biggest hopes is that this library can give its readers—the kids at CCYC—a chance to encounter poetry that deals with the kinds of experiences they potentially have had and the challenges they might be facing. The list includes books that deal with being incarcerated as a young person, including Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Shahid Reads His Own Palm, or about having a family member incarcerated, such as Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. There are books that approach addiction, grief, mental illness, and loss of all kinds.
Pennsylvania has a rich community of writers, and the list includes many books by poets whose lives may feel pretty familiar to young readers in central PA, such as Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s What Runs Over. There’s also a good handful of novels-in-verse aimed at young adult readers, including Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X and Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam.
Finally, it felt important to include books of poetry that are full of joy and wonder, like Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s energetic, buoyant collection Oceanic and Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which unites reflections on both grief and joy. Ridgelines teaching artists and board members were also asked to contribute titles they personally love or that they like to teach from, which added many wonderful books to the list. Overall, the Small-but-Mighty Poetry Library aims to offer a wide range of contemporary voices on a broad array of topics, giving readers new insight into their own experiences as well as opportunities to imagine lives and places entirely different than their own.
What are your own favorite titles in the library?
Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah and Claudia Emerson’s Pinion: An Elegy are two of my all-time favorites, both books that convey a narrative while also attending lovingly to sound, place, and the interior landscapes of individual lives. Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things has some of my favorite individual poems, including “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” with its muscular, musical language alive with swagger and strength.
How do you hope people will interact with this library?
Browsing is the dream—in the library world, we like to say that browsing facilitates “serendipitous discovery,” meaning you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it. I hope readers will pick up books that look interesting, read a poem or two here and there, and stumble upon a book that speaks to them, whether they find an echo of their own voice or can be enchanted by something new. I hope these books of poetry can bring solace, joy, and a sense of being seen, while offering an invitation for the readers to celebrate their own voices. Best of all would be for a fragment of a poem—a line, an image, a sense of what a poem can do—to go on with readers after they close a book, giving them a fresh way of seeing.
You have a deep relationship to central PA and write about it often. If you could send one line of poetry to this region—from you to these ridges and valleys—what would you choose?
A tender question towards the end of Maggie Anderson’s poem “A Place with Promise,” about western PA, comes to mind: “Why can’t we hold this landscape in our arms?”