The Durham City Council would like to see a poet laureate in the Bull City.

It was a fitting end for National Poetry Month: the city council recently agreed to reach out to the city’s cultural advisory board to help flesh out plans for a local poet laureate.

“This is such a Durham thing,” council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said during the late APril council meeting where they discussed the proposal. “If anyone is gonna have a poet laureate, it’s Durham.” 

“It feels like a natural and organic extension of the spirit and DNA of Durham,” he later added.

Mayor Steve Schewel even brought along a poem by his wife, Lao Rupert, which he read aloud during the meeting.

“I’m reading a poem from the poet I live with,” the mayor explained before reading Rupert’s poem for Darryl Hunt, a North Carolina man and friend of Rupert’s who was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder in 1984 and spent 19 years in prison.

The proposal was presented during an April 22 council work session by a trio of Durham poets: Crystal Simone Smith, Chris Vitiello, and Dasan Ahanu.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson explained that Smith first contacted her about creating the position.

“I was really excited about it,” Johnson said. 

Smith, who is a visiting fellow at Duke University, kicked off the virtual presentation to the council with a series of slides that featured quotes from celebrated poets to explain why poetry should matter to the Bull City.

“Everyone is witness to the truths of our time, but it is the writers and poets who capture and record these moments,” Smith said. “They play essential roles in analyzing and critiquing government responses, documenting personal experiences, and inspiring us to imagine a better future.”

Smith pointed out that the Triangle already has two poet laureates: Fred Joiner in Carrboro and CJ Suitt in Chapel Hill.

“I think Durham certainly deserves that sort of recognition,” Smith said. “I’ve had the pleasure of going to events where Fred and CJ have spoken, and I think it truly enriches the events to have a poet present.”

The poet could be nominated by city residents or could self-nominate, and he or she should have lived in Durham for at least two years, said Vitiello, another poet invited to address the council.

The person should also be at least 18 years old: “So we don’t get any seven-year-old poet laureates,” he said, “which might be fun, but probably not the greatest idea in the world.”

The writer also should have a publication history—excluding self-published work—and have a demonstrated commitment to promoting poetry.

As far as the job, the poet laureate would read poems at ceremonial events and during public meetings as well as be a champion of the art form throughout the city both in person and on social media, Vitiello said. 

Ahanu, who is arguably the city’s most recognized and celebrated spoken word artist, read a poem written by Reuben Jackson for the deceased Florida teenager Trayvon Martin to show the power of the art form:

Instead of sleeping—I walk with him from the store. No Skittles, thank you. We do not talk much—Sneakers crossing the courtyard. Humid Southern night. We shake hands and hug—Ancient, stoic tenderness. I nod to the moon. I’m so old school—I hang till the latch clicks like. An unloaded gun.

Pierce Freelon echoed the sentiments of his fellow council members when he said he loved the presentation, but he took issue with a proposed two-year honorarium of $2,000 to $3,000 for the position.

“It just seems very low to me—two to three thousand dollars for a two-year gig,” Freelon said. “When you add up the amount of things we’ll require them to do, it would be like not even a living wage. I was thinking closer to $10,000. It’s important to tell artists that we value their time.”

Schewel asked Freelon to contact the city’s cultural advisory board about the position and return to the council at the end of the month with their response.

“This is super exciting,” the mayor said about the proposal.


Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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