Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How About A Poet Laureate in Somerville?

( Sam Cornish- Boston Poet Laureate)

How About A Poet Laureate in Somerville?

Recently I was invited to a reception for the Boston Poet Laureate Sam Cornish at the Parkman House in Boston. It was a nice affair with many of the poets and players from the Boston area poetry scene in attendance. I got to eat a lot of fancy hors d’oeurves, drink a slightly diluted pomegranate punch, and admired the genteel trappings of this celebrated house. If I remember correctly Mayor Curley’s desk was stolen from the premises some years back. During the reception I spoke with Dan Tobin, the head of Creative Writing at Emerson College in Boston, Tino Villanueva, a professor of Romance Languages at Boston University, Elizabeth McKim, a poet and lecturer at Lesley University, Louisa Solano, former owner of the Grolier Poetry Bookshop, and many of my pals from the literary group the “Bagel Bards.’ Mayor Menino was there, and in his unaffected speech he mumbled;” I am not used to being around these literary types,” but he recognized the importance of the Poet Laureate. As my friend poet Jared Smith wrote in his poem: “Poets”: “The leaders cannot lead without the words, a culture creates within itself, within its needs, poets.”

Sam Cornish seemed to be a perfect fit for the position. A respected African-American poet, a longtime professor at Emerson College, he is not only an accomplished bard but he seems like a man who is genuinely comfortable walking the streets of the city, (I remember seeing him pounding the pavement of Commonwealth Ave when I lived in Brighton in the 80’s), and chewing the fat with the eclectic swath of people Boston is known for. He is a poet who knows how to navigate the back alleys of the Back Bay as well as the dusty corners of a classroom. As Cornish said in a Boston Globe article he was surprised to be selected because he wasn’t “connected.” And Cornish wants to be available to everyone: to denizens of nursing homes, homeless shelters, corporate board rooms, to the university classroom. He is a man who can bring the gift of poetry to the city, and articulate the city’s unique voice in a way that only poetry can do it.

Now it seems that Cambridge has a Poet/Populist. And I am thinking to myself “Damn! Why doesn’t Somerville have something like this?” In Somerville, according to a study in Granta Magazine, we have more writers per capita that the isle of Manhattan. Just think of the world class writers we have just a stone’s throw from Davis Square: Claire Messud, James Woods, Pagan Kennedy, Lloyd Schwartz, Afaa Michael Weaver, to name just a few. And so many have lived and passed through here like Denise Levertov, Lan Samantha Chang, Steve Almond, just a few names I can remember from the top of my barren, bald head. Somerville, referred to as the “Paris of New England,” is a city of many things, but is also a city of the arts. And anyone will tell you the arts are good for business. So why not create a committee to select a poet laureate? Someone like Cornish who is as good at outreach as he is at writing poetry? Money is an issue you say? I think the laureate in Boston has a budget of $3,000 and in Cambridge even less.

I have approached Alderman Trane about this and he said he would bring it up if I emailed him with some details. I did. He is a busy man but perhaps if more citizens expressed an interest it might speed the process. Send me an email if you think it is a good idea and I will forward it. You will never know unless you try.

---Doug Holder

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