When members of the Board of Aldermen created St. Louis' poet laureate position, they intended to promote unity. Indeed, inaugural official poet Michael Castro was lauded for building bridges with his words.
But now the post has become a lightning rod for disagreement.
At issue is whether the task force that recommended Castro's replacement complied with the ordinance that established the position. If not, city aldermen want to know if that invalidates the task force's choice of Jane Ellen Ibur as the city’s next poet laureate.
Alderman Terry Kennedy said it could take a committee until January to sort out.
“It’s possible,” Kennedy said.
Was the selection valid?
In 2014, the Board of Aldermen passed the ordinance that gave St. Louis its first poet laureate and documented the details of the two-year post.
Late last year, the task force named Ibur to succeed Castro on Jan. 1.
But six months later, the post is vacant. The delay stems from former task force member MK Stallings’s assertion he should have been part of that decision.
Stallings said he was improperly kicked off the six-member group by chairman Aaron Williams after the two had a disagreement over who should fill the post. Stallings favors longtime poet Shirley LeFlore.
Williams said the ordinance allowed him to ask Stallings to leave when he did. Williams said he did so before any decision was made.
At the Board of Alderman's June 30 meeting, Kennedy introduced an ordinance directing the board's legislative committee to look into the matter.
“One question is whether the task force was comprised properly,” Kennedy said. “Then the question is, ‘Was that selection [of the poet laureate candidate] valid?”
But the board goes on break after this week’s meeting. It may be weeks before the legislative committee begins its work.
“It may not even be until September,” Kennedy said.
No one is 'pointing the finger'
Kennedy said the committee will want to question both Stallings and Williams.
“It is very important to hear from these people,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy explained that the wording of the original ordinance — and not the actions of any individual — could be the root of the problem.
“No one is necessarily pointing the finger at any member of the task force,” he said. “It is possible the board did not do as good of a job as it could have.”
Depending on the outcome of the investigation, the task force's recommendation of Ibur as poet laureate may not stand. The city has been without a poet laureate since Castro, who stayed on for four months beyond the end of his term, stepped down in May.
Kennedy said it’s important for St. Louis to have an official poet. He cited the recent commemoration of the 1917 race riots on the Eads Bridge.
“We had both mayors from St. Louis and East St. Louis and the poet laureate from East St. Louis,” Kennedy said. “It would have been even more meaningful if we’d had the poet laureate from St. Louis there too.”
But Kennedy said he’s not surprised that a St. Louis post created with good intentions eventually ignited a controversy.
“I’ve seen other things I thought would be nothing, generate a major discussion,” Kennedy said.
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