New Poet Laureate
August 25, 2017
I witnessed 10 poets from St. Louis perform in national poetry competitions this summer. I saw their workshops and rehearsals. I watched their debates about meaning and diction. After writing and revising, they performed in a community of poets that span the country, even the globe.
There were a range of poets at these competitions, from those who frequented open mics to those recognized as the poet laureate or youth poet laureate of their cities. As I heard each St. Louis-based poet, I wondered if they could be St. Louis' poet laureate one day.
As of today, St. Louis does not have a poet laureate. We had one, but his term expired before the St. Louis Board of Alderman could name his successor. The delay came when I questioned the process for recommending a poet for the laureateship. In short, the process of naming a poet laureate for St. Louis has been insular and lacked transparency, which is normal for our region.
St. Louis is a city of neighborhoods. Within these neighborhoods, a person experiences belonging and solidarity. A resident could feel like a friend, but outsiders are treated like strangers and excluded. Like gated streets, outsiders sense that certain areas are private, signified by police officers guarding the entrance.
St. Louisans understand private social circles. We've learned it from living here. Newcomers to our city experience the cold, unwelcoming posture we assume as they approach. We police the space around us and remain guarded to prevent access to what we want for ourselves. This way of behaving is not limited to our neighborhoods or high schools; it is the culture of this city and how we relate to one another.
It is my experience as a member of the St. Louis Poet Laureate Taskforce.
Aaron Williams made the push for a Poet Laureate in 2014. At our initial meeting, he asked if I would be interested in serving on the taskforce. I said yes. He then asked me who I thought should be the first poet laureate. I paused and thought about who would be deserving. I know a lot of poets: some old, some young. I eventually responded with Shirley Bradley LeFlore.
While an elder poet, she has been active in the St. Louis poetry community since the late 1960s and she recently had her poems adapted for the stage with a sold out performance.
He countered with Dr. Michael Castro. I was not convinced initially because I knew LeFlore and did not know as much about Castro. When I learned more, I was prepared to support him. This early conversation happened before St. Louisans could nominate their favorite local poet, before the board of alderman could pass the Poet Laureate ordinance, and before the taskforce would be formed.
Our private meeting would launch the poet laureateship and exclude meaningful feedback from the community. The board of alderman rubber-stamped our recommendation with little question.
As I think about the young poets I witnessed, I wonder who sees them. These young poets ranging from 15 to 26 in age are immersed in poetry's oral tradition. Their long narrative poems were designed to do the work intended by griots and bards. If no one witnesses their work, hears their words, respects their tradition, who will consider them seriously for the laureateship?
Shirley LeFlore should be the poet laureate and all other poets in the region should seriously be considered by a panel representative of St. Louis' poetry communities and literary organizations. Avenues to prestige and distinction should not be so policed by our prejudices and made private by our customs. All should be welcomed.