Dead Poets Society founder to visit 500th grave

Dead Poets Society of America founder Walter Skold
An Edgar Allan Poe bobble-head rested on the dashboard of a utility van dubbed "Dedgar the Poemobile," driven by its owner, Dead Poets Society of America founder Walter Skold, in Freeport, Maine on May 28, 2015.
David Sharp | AP

A former teacher who travels the country to document the final resting places of poets is looking forward to calling attention to African-American poets on a tour of the South and elsewhere.

Black poets have been writing about injustice and hardship since the days of slavery, and the theme rings true today, given the recent unrest surrounding police killings of black men, Walter Skold said.

"African-American poets have been going through the same turmoil. They've been right there. They've chronicled the great sorrows and successes that African-Americans have had," he said.

Skold, who is the founder of the Dead Poets Society of America, intends to reach a milestone of the 500th grave during the 16-state, 10-week pilgrimage, which kicks off Saturday in Baltimore at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe before moving into the South. For the trip, he's visiting 90 graves, including those of 47 state poets laureate across the region.

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Fifteen African-American poets include Albery Whitman, who was born a slave, spoke out against the treatment of the Seminoles in Florida and was dubbed the "poet laureate of the Negro race." He's buried in Atlanta.

Others include Arna Bontemps, a Louisiana-born poet who was part of the Harlem Renaissance and is buried in Nashville, Tenn.; Robert Charles Benjamin, who's buried in Lexington, Ky., where he was shot in 1900 while trying to get blacks to register to vote; and Melvin Tolson, Liberia's poet laureate, buried in Guthrie, Okla.

One of the more offbeat poets is Sun Ra, who's better known as a musical composer and performer who espoused a "cosmic philosophy" and claimed to be from Saturn. He's buried in his home state in Birmingham, Ala.

Jericho Brown, who leads poetry workshops at Emory University in Atlanta, said there's a diversity of viewpoints and experiences among black poets that defies any single narrative. But there are cultural influences, like Missouri-born Langston Hughes' use of the rhythms of jazz and blues in his poetry, he said.

"Being black affords you the opportunity to see things that others might not be able to see, to give you experiences that others may not have," Brown said.

"Dedgar the Poemobile" plate
Skold will take the "Dedgar the Poemobile" van on a 16-state, 10-week tour to document the final resting places of 90 poets in the Deep South.
David Sharp | AP

Skold, 54, of Freeport, is a poet himself. He travels in a souped-up box van dubbed "Dedgar the Poemobile," with a whimsical portrait of Poe on the side, solar panels on the roof and a single bed inside. When he's done with this trip, he plans to finish a documentary, "Finding Frost: Poets and The Graves."

He sometimes sleeps in graveyards to get the best light for photographs and video that he uses to document the graves. But he says he has never communed with the ghosts or spirits of bards.

"I feel a connection to the poets, but it's a historical one," he said. "The whole nature of my project has become celebratory. It's not something that I see as morbid at all."

His adventures were nearly cut short in 2010, when he suffered a heart attack in New Jersey after visiting Walt Whitman's grave.

After a hospital stay in Princeton, he traveled to the nearby grave of Henry van Dyke, author of the poem that begins, "Joyful, joyful, we adore thee," to play his harmonica and offer a prayer of thanks that he's not yet a dead poet.