Being San Diego’s Inaugural Poet Laureate 2020-2021
There is no instruction book for being a poet laureate. I think of the experience as being similar to the way Frank O’Hara, the famous poet from the New Your School of poets, described “Free Verse.” He said “You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.’"
This applies doubly so when your term as poet laureate coincides with the COVID 19 shut down in San Diego. As well as being the poetry ambassador for San Diego, you are expected to appear at many public events to promote both poetry and represent San Diego. During the second year of your appointment, you have to design, develop a “Public Project” for the city. Obviously, this project features poetry. The challenge was how to achieve these goals while being sequestered in your home for the two years of your appointment.
While you represent all the poets of San Diego, you may, and poet laureates often do, focus attention on a segment of the population that maybe has not been given equal voice in the past. Since I am a senior citizen myself, I recognize that this segment often is not given center stage in our complex and dynamic society; many feel they are a hidden population. But how to give a poetry voice to, reach out to, when trapped in your own home? And considering that many seniors are not as technologically adept as most of the younger population, the challenge broadens. In my own case, which I’m sure represents many, ZOOM in the beginning of 2020 was the sound that a cartoon car makes. The learning curve was steep. And while it did not take an entire village, it sure took a considerable group of my friends and folks from the city to facilitate my eventual “Public Project.”
In the late spring of 2020, after the COVID shut-down, with the City’s help and idea, I created “Poetry Together Challenge.” This was a city sponsored website where San Diego poets could submit their poems to be viewed by the public. I provided a writing prompt each month for the two months this ran. Poets were encouraged to write about their experiences during the initial stage of our shut down.
In April of 2021, while still locked down, I created my “Public Project” which was six monthly demonstrations of “tools” for writing poems. For the last five months, I also interviewed five different San Diego Poets about their writing experiences during the pandemic. With guidance from the San Diego Arts and Culture Commission and the San Diego Department of Technology, Geographic Information, these interview and craft demonstrations, each over an hour long, were posted on a city web site. They are still available here. The project also included a zip code oriented “map” of the locations of the poets who submitted poems in response to each craft presentation. The poet’s names and their poems could also be viewed on the website. I was able to select a representative sample of the poems submitted and have then published in the 2021-2022 San Diego Poetry Annual.
As well as creating poems, my love for this art also includes a love to teach the craft of poetry, the tools that have been used by poets to craft their poems. I have led poetry workshops and taught craft classes for more than forty years.
To be selected as San Diego’s first Poet Laureate was such a tremendous and humbling event. The chance to represent poetry and the poets of San Diego is a once in a life-time opportunity. The fact of being isolated from COVID 19 and not able to bring my poetry to the public arena does not lessen the honor. San Diego is my adopted city, the same with over 50% of those who live here, and I am also honored to have represented my city to the poets of San Diego, California and elsewhere.
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Ron Salisbury is available for
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