INTERVIEW BY KARINA WILSON
Poets were once central to public life. The Ancient Greeks and Romans regarded poetry as the best way to record epoch-making events, laud emperors or deities, and map the quests completed by heroes. Wherever a city fell or a conqueror rose, a poet observed from the sidelines and would, later, carve their account into cool clean lines of dactylic hexameter. Civilization, politics, and moral principles compressed into feet and couplets; history registered as art.
Somewhere along the line since, however, poetry’s civic status faded – perhaps in the palaces of Renaissance princes, who liked to control the flow of words through bestowing, and removing, private patronage? Poetry became a luxury, a privilege reserved for residents of ivory towers, far removed from everyday discourse, reserved for the most personal expression. But, thanks to initiatives like Poetry In Motion on transport systems it didn’t disappear from public spaces entirely.
And now, amid the cacophony of twenty-first century living, the officially sanctioned City Poet is making a comeback. From Sydney to Seattle, governments and local authorities are appointing poets they feel represent their unique civic style. Part local ambassador, part educator, part grass-roots organizer, part badge of honor, the City Poet puts words back on the streets.
Typically, a City Poet is selected from a field of established writers with strong local connections for a term of two years. The remit varies, but usually involves the chosen poet leading workshops and readings, and writing poems to mark official occasions and celebrate the idiosyncratic qualities of their city, be it Fresno or Reykjavik. This suggests municipal leaders have come to recognize the value of poetry as a public and long-lasting record of what their city represents at a given moment. Far cheaper and more portable than a marble monument, a specially commissioned poem can similarly enshrine a city’s achievements and aspirations in a form that can be communicated across oceans and to future generations.
City Poet sounds like a great gig if you can get it. Although the yearly stipend is unlikely to pay your rent (every penny of those government funds has to be clawed out of a budget), the two-year tenure opens up all kinds of opportunities for sharing your work with some of the people who matter most in your community. It also legitimizes the role of poet and poetry in our society. It’s heartening to think that our culture is finding different ways to express itself and be remembered, and that poetry is still a crucial channel for sharing experience and ideas.
Steven Reigns was selected as West Hollywood’s City Poet in October 2014. Reigns grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, but has been resident in the historic Norma Triangle neighborhood of West Hollywood for more than a decade. His first poetry collection was published back in 2001, and he has since published six chapbooks, received six artist-in-residence grants from the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles, and taught a renowned annual autobiographical poetry workshop for LGBT seniors (and edited an anthology of their writings) “My Life is Poetry.” He has also taught writing workshops around the country to LGBTQ youth and people living with HIV.
Reigns’ job description includes highlighting the City of West Hollywood through the literary arts and creating a new body of literary work that celebrates the “diversity and vibrancy” unique to the area. He is also tasked with “stimulating poetry in the local community” and creating “excitement about the written word”.
What did you do to be selected?
The City of West Hollywood created a Poet Laureate committee to select an applicant. It was during this process they renamed the Poet Laureate position to City Poet. I was their first appointed. It would have been an honor regardless but I was especially touched to be the inaugural poet for the position. I keep joking to friends, “You always remember your first.”