From Worcester to Anaheim, Cities Embrace the Role of Poet Laureate

The growth in local poets laureate matches the increase in poetry reading overall, which roughly doubled from 2012 to 2017.

The growth in local poets laureate matches the increase in poetry reading overall, which roughly doubled from 2012 to 2017. Shutterstock

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Cities of all sizes are appointing poets laureate, a typically volunteer position tasked with promoting culture, art and the written word within a community.

This month, the city of Madison, Wisconsin appointed Angela Trudell Vasquez as its first Latina poet laureate. A thousand miles away in Worcester, Massachusetts, Juan Matos became the city’s second-ever poet laureate alongside Amina Mohammed, the first youth poet laureate in the state. Across the country in Anaheim, California, a search is underway for a new poet laureate. A similar search is in the works in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. And also in San Antonio, Texas.

Across the country, cities of all sizes are naming poets laureate, a typically volunteer position tasked with enhancing and promoting arts, culture and the written word within a community. It’s unclear how many of these positions exist—there’s no comprehensive database or list—but it’s obvious the trend is increasing, said Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, which tracks poets laureate positions only in cities with populations of 200,000 or more.

“This is a role that has become more and more popular over the past 10 to 15 years at the city and county level,” she said. “I don’t see it slowing down.”

City-level poets laureate became more common after 2001, which Benka said may have been related to communities’ need to heal after the tragedy of Sept. 11.

“It may be the wake of that that communities recognized the healing nature of there being a civic poet—someone in their community who was at the ready to be able to do what poets do, in part, which is to use language to express, in a memorable way, what we’re experiencing,” she said. “That’s sort of when we see the city laureate post really begin to pick up steam, and it’s just continued.”

The proliferation of the municipal poet parallels the increase in poetry readership in general. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, 12% of adults reported reading poetry in 2017, nearly twice as many as five years before. That interest makes poetry an attractive option for cities looking for new ways to connect with residents of different backgrounds and viewpoints, said Karin Wolf, arts program administrator for the city of Madison.

“I have a personal bias, but I feel like the role of the poet laureate is very special,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to put language to very difficult ideas that are difficult for communities to address. Poets can talk about difficult things in ways that are sort of civil and truthful and honest and raw, but yet hearable.”

That discourse is particularly powerful in the current political climate, Benka said, when neighbors might be especially wary of considering differing viewpoints.

“Communities get an artist who is a storyteller who has the skill set to be able to encourage other people to tell their stories,” she said. “It’s kind of a divisive moment in our nation, having an artist whose trade is language helps.”

Madison’s poet laureate program, one of the first in the nation, began in 1977, when then-Mayor Paul Soglin gave the title to poet John Tuschen. He stayed in the role for 23 years and then hand-picked his successor, Andrea Musher, Wolf said.

“He sort of took her into the mayor’s office and said, ‘I’m ready to give up the poet laureateship and I think Andrea should be the next one,’ and Mayor Sue Bauman said, ‘Great, that sounds good to me,’” Wolf said.

Musher hoped to continue the appointment process in the same way, having the current poet laureate anoint the next. But the Madison Arts Commission in 2008 wanted something more structured, Wolf said.

“They thought it ran the risk of staying within one circle of poets, and they wanted it to be as open as possible,” she said. “They still invite the poet laureate to the meeting where they decide on the next one—but they ultimately decide. Now, it’s a nomination process. People can nominate someone else, or you can self-nominate. It’s still evolving. I’m not sure we feel like it’s perfect yet.”

Trudell Vasquez, the city’s newest poet laureate, nominated herself after decades in the state’s poetry scene, including a longtime stint on the board that selects Wisconsin’s poet laureate. In her two-year appointment, Trudell Vasquez will continue the work of her predecessors, including regular readings and a city transit poetry contest. She also hopes to establish a youth poet laureate position.

“There’s been really great poet laureates in Madison, so I’m continuing all of the great things they established while also creating another layer,” Trudell Vasquez said. “I see the position as an ambassador for poetry in the community. I want to do something new and exciting with that and I think the youth of today, their voice needs to be up there.”

Youth positions are becoming more popular in cities, Benka said. The idea first became popular several years ago, with the launch of two national programs that seek to celebrate and elevate teenage poets on a national scale. 

“Both of those programs have been wildly successful,” she said. “And now every time I log on, there’s a new community that has named a young poet laureate.”

In Worcester, city officials in January revived a dormant poet laureate position and included the appointment of a youth poet laureate. Both poets, inaugurated with the mayor in January, were included in the city’s sprawling cultural plan. The addition of the youth position fit perfectly with the larger goal of enriching residents’ lives with different forms of art, said Erin Williams, the city’s cultural development officer.

“Our cultural plan is about embedding creativity in the everyday lives and everyday experiences of the city residents, but also to people who are coming in,” she said. “It just made perfect sense to give voice to young people. I think tying local faces to that role and giving them an opportunity to express themselves in a unique way opens up that opportunity for others to tell their own stories.”

It’s unclear how aware residents are of their city’s poet laureate. In Madison, Wolf said, residents are “probably about as aware as they are of other services the city provides,” while in Worcester, both the poet laureate and the youth poet laureate have been so in demand that the city appointed a scheduler to manage their time. Either way, Benka feels, their contributions are important.

“I think we have started to understand that poets are important leaders and guides,” she said. “We turn to poetry for help understanding the human condition and in asking fundamental human questions, from ‘What does it mean to be alive?’ to ‘What does it mean that our town is recovering from a wildfire?’ It helps guide us, and poets are the makers of that work.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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