American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities


Jo Dahl

Jo Dahl

Johnson Youth Center

Tell us a bit about yourself, the organization you represent, and the work you do.

I have been a high school and university teacher since 1974 and at the Johnson Youth Center for the last 18 years. JYC is a state operated secured facility for youth in Juneau, serving students from all over the state in our one room school. Our campus has a large garden and library. While detained at JYC, students earn high school credits/diplomas. I was raised in Texas and moved to Alaska in 1974, and have been an educator since 1976.

Tell us about your community/the communities you serve, and your part of the country.

Juneau is located in the panhandle of Alaska, with a population 35,000, and is the state capital. We are landlocked, and to travel here requires a boat or plane. Nationally, Juneau is ranked 6th in "creative vitality” per the Western States Arts Federation. It rains 55-90 average inches per year, or snows 78-100+ average inches per year. The area is home to lush forests, active wildlife, and great fishing.

What did it mean to you and your community to host the U.S. Poet Laureate?

We were so very honored to be chosen to host the U.S. Poet Laureate. As a locked facility the students here are not able to go outside the facility for enrichment. Ms. Smith was warm and patient with our students; she was able to get them to interact with her as she presented poetry from the anthology she gifted the students with during her visit.

Can you share any feedback you received from event attendees/participants?

The day following her visit, the students were still excited and many of them said they had “read the whole book” (the anthology) the night after her visit.

What, if any, type of literary programming do you present in your community? How did this program fit in?

Our local librarians bring a monthly Book Club to our campus. Part of the year the books are from the Great Stories Club grant and part of the year the library provides 4 copies of a book to share. During Book Club the students discuss the book with the librarian leading the discussion. Also our students participate in the Alaska Battle of the Books. This is a uniquely Alaskan event where students read 10 specific books and then 'battle' with each question starting with "In which book. . . " The answers are always title and author. Since all competitions can happen on speaker phone, our students are able to participate.