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Ferguson Events Push St. Louis’ Efforts To Name Poet Laureate

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Boise has one. So do Houston and Los Angeles, and even East St. Louis. But St. Louis is one of the few major cities that doesn’t have a poet laureate, an official poet to document its culture in verse.

The idea to nominate a poet laureate has been in the works for months. But according to Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, the appointment gained urgency following the August shooting death of an unarmed teenager by a Ferguson police officer.

“You think about the Michael Brown situation and case, and the role a Poet Laureate would play in capturing the essence of what’s going on in our community,” Reed said.

‘No longer a victim of the storm’

A resolution regarding St. Louis’ first poet laureate will be introduced at next Friday’s board of alderman meeting.

Today, in anticipation of the poet laureate search, the board honored one of St. Louis’ biggest supporters of poetry — and young poets. Aaron Williams founded the 7th Grade Poetry Foundation, which offers every seventh-grader in the city, state, and now the nation, a chance to have original work published in an annual anthology.

At the meeting, board members saw the fruits of Williams' efforts when the student who won the contest in 2013 read her work. Janae Wilson now attends Nottingham High School, which specializes in educating students with development disabilities. As you can see and hear in this video from April’s Poetry Foundation event, Janae wrote about overcoming an accident that significantly altered her life.

“Every day my life changes,” she read. “My name is Janae, and I am no longer a victim of the storm. I take the storm by the hand, and let it know I have a plan.”

Just as Janae got the chance to express her innermost feelings in a public forum, Williams said, a Poet Laureate can give voice to St. Louisans who feel disenfranchised and discouraged, especially now.

“Can you ever think of a more important time to engage a community, to have their voice heard?” Williams asked.

The next Maya Angelou?

St. Louis’ new Poet Laureate will join a contingent of artistic efforts to address the events of Ferguson.

Janae Wilson and Aaron Williams at the Sept. 19 Board of Aldermen Friday
Credit Provided by Aaron Williams
Janae Wilson and Aaron Williams at the Board of Aldermen Friday

Local and national musicians were quick to respond. The founder of the local Alliance of Black Art Galleries is calling for visual art around the shooting. A coalition of artists has met twice at the Regional Arts Commission to discuss possible reactions. And the St. Louis dance community is formulating its response.

Art in all its forms can be healing, according to Reed, pointing to the historical power of words.

“Nations have formed and come to war because of words,” Reed said. “Bonds are made between people because of words.”

St. Louis’ first Poet Laureate will be chosen by a task force of literary and other arts professionals. The position should be filled in time for the new appointee to compose a poem honoring the city’s 250th anniversary.

The search for a Poet Laureate will benefit the city, Reed said. It could also bring an important poet out of obscurity, which could then benefit the nation and the world.

“Imagine, if you will, if Maya Angelou was never discovered, or some of the other major poets,” Reed said. “Their work is timeless.”

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

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