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The Philadelphia Citizen Charts Poet Laureate Frank Sherlock’s Write Your Block Project and Its Effects
It’s been two years now since I got the call letting me know I was to be Philadelphia’s new Poet Laureate. I was in bed. Lindsay So from the Office of Arts, Culture & the Creative Economy called to inform me that I’d been selected to be the city’s poetry representative for 2014-15. There was Sonia Sanchez first—and now me. Whaaa? It was so overwhelming that I immediately took a nap. A really satisfying nap. When I woke up, I thought I might have dreamed the whole thing, so I called Lindsay back, just to confirm that we had actually talked and that I was really going to be laureate. Yep. It was happening.
The press conference was wonderful. I got to hang out in the Mayor’s office. There’s a whole wall there that’s lined with shiny shovels for groundbreaking ceremonies. I don’t know why, but I got really excited about that. I met our inaugural Youth Poet Laureate, Siduri Beckman, for the first time. She was elegant and sophisticated beyond her years. She was elegant and sophisticated beyond my years, and I’m three times her age. I asked her if she had any advice for me. She told me, “Smile a lot.” That was the first time I thought, “Oh no. I might be in trouble.”
I’ve always been drawn to the notion of the poet as cartographer (a maker of maps), and WYB became a vehicle for people in every corner of the city to chart their street with a poem. Philadelphia is its own anthology, and the poets included are on the subway, in bars, in churches, our schools and our jails.
But I did smile a lot in the months that followed, and it wasn’t even fake. I got shout-outs in the street from librarians, one percenters (the bikers not the bankers), block captains and school teachers. I didn’t smile all the time, though. Drunks recited poems at me that they had memorized in school. Academics asked with suspicion how I got the position. And, of course, there was hate(r) mail. Believe it or not, poets can be terrible people too. Aside from the highs and lows, there was a question that was asked over and over:
“What does a Poet Laureate do?”
My answer: Be a face for poetry. Raise the art form’s profile in the city. Chip away at the notion of poetry as a hermetic, alienated practice. Bring it into our everyday city living. Make it interactive. Participatory. Inviting. I liked that response. Next question… how?
Continue at The Philadelphia Citizen.