Becoming Poet Laureate: James Morehead’s Experience Bringing Poetry into the City of Dublin

DUBLIN, CA–As the current poet laureate of the City of Dublin, California, in my second two-year term, I feel privileged to share my insights about making the most of this role. Being poet laureate isn’t just about writing and reciting poetry at civic events when requested, but about understanding the soul of your city and finding ways to connect the community through the literary arts.

I view poetry is a vehicle for capturing Dublin’s narrative, embodying its heritage, its struggles, its triumphs, and its hopes. Just as Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd United States Poet Laureate used her position to connect rural communities through poetry, I am seeking to capture the rich diversity of Dublin, a city with a large immigrant population from around the world.

James Morehead (Poet Laureate – Dublin, California) reciting at a veterans event

To be an impactful poet laureate, start by connecting with your city. Explore local landmarks and community events. Meet with civic, school, and community leaders. Immerse yourself in their experiences, and use their stories as inspiration for how poetry, and poetry events, can play a role.

As a Poet Laureate, you hold a civic office, which speaks to the idea that poetry has a civic role in society. The poet’s ability to create clear, memorable, and evocative speech serves a vital function in public life.

Dana Gioia, former Poet Laureate – State of California

It’s vital to remember that as poet laureate you are serving the city and acting as a voice for all its residents. When crafting original poems for civic events, your poetry should resonate with a broad spectrum of people, transcending barriers of age, race, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, and social standing. A poignant example is Amanda Gorman, the inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate, who touched millions with her powerful poetry during the 2021 Presidential Inauguration. Her words encapsulated a moment of hope and unity, painting a vivid picture of America’s strength in diversity. Use her message as inspiration for how you can paint a vivid picture of your community.

Furthermore, engagement is paramount. As poet laureate, you should promote the appreciation of poetry and literature within the city. Organize poetry readings, workshops, and competitions. Collaborate with schools, libraries, and local organizations. Billy Collins, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, created “Poetry 180,” a project designed to make poetry an everyday part of high school students’ lives. Such initiatives not only nurture a love for poetry but also help in identifying and encouraging emerging talents. Writing and reciting original poetry will be part of your role as your city’s poet laureate, but in terms of hours spent, a small part.

As the City of Dublin’s first poet laureate in a decade I had a clean slate for organizing events; here are some of the ways I’ve brought poetry into the community in addition to writing and performing original poems at civic events:

Being a poet laureate isn’t a solitary journey. Seek out support from national organizations such as the Academy of American Poets, which provides resources and funding for Poet Laureate projects through its Poet Laureate Fellowship program. Engage with your peers through networks like the Poetry Society, which has a network of poetry groups across the U.S. and the world. They provide an enriching platform for sharing ideas, learning, and getting inspired. Most importantly, reach out to the poets laureate in your neighboring cities. I’ve benefited greatly from what I’ve learned through a network of San Francisco Bay Area poets laureate, current and former.

Also, don’t shy away from leveraging the digital world. Use social media, blogs, and online platforms to share your work and invite contributions. Technology can provide a great way to reach a broader audience and interact with fellow poets and readers.

Ultimately, a poet laureate’s impact is not quantified by the number of poems written, but by the lives touched and the community brought together through the power of words. Poetry, as a form of self-expression, can often become a catalyst for dialogue, understanding, and healing. As the city’s poet laureate, you hold a unique power to create and curate these poetic dialogues.

Here are five takeaways as you embark on being your city’s poet laureate:

  1. Immerse Yourself in Your Community: The first step in becoming an impactful poet laureate is understanding your city and its people. Get to know their stories, their hopes, and their concerns. Attend local events, visit landmarks, and engage with people from various walks of life. Your poetry should be a reflection of the community you represent.
  2. Engage and Inspire: Organize poetry readings, workshops, and competitions. Engage with schools, libraries, and local organizations to promote the appreciation of poetry. Use your position to inspire, nurture new talents, and make poetry an integral part of the community’s life.
  3. Be Inclusive: Ensure your poetry resonates with everyone in your community, transcending barriers. As a poet laureate, you’re a voice for all residents, so make sure your work speaks to and for them.
  4. Seek Support and Collaboration: Look for support from national organizations like the Academy of American Poets and networks such as the Poetry Society. They offer resources and a platform for sharing ideas, learning, and getting inspired. Collaborate with other poets and literary figures, both within your city and beyond.
  5. Leverage Digital Platforms: In the digital age, use social media, blogs, and online platforms to share your work and engage with a wider audience. Digital platforms offer a great way to promote poetry, spark conversations around your work, and engage with readers and fellow poets from around the world.

Finally, an example of poet laureate as a civic duty. I was asked to write and recite a poem at a city council meeting for the 40th anniversary of Dublin’s founding. I took great care in researching the history of Dublin, going back hundreds of years prior to its founding, and weaving in my two decades of experience in the community. I wanted to find a way for the poem to resonate with residents without being a laundry list of references, and to weave in my own experience to make the poem more personal. I took care knowing I was representing the City and its residents. Below is that poem, “At the crossroads”, and my recitation during the City of Dublin Council Meeting held 40 years to the day of the city’s founding.

At the crossroads
Copyright 2022 James Morehead, Poet Laureate - Dublin, California

Two decades ago
we drove over the Sunol Grade,
our move out west a blur.

A colleague suggested Dublin,
no more familiar than the collage of cities
between Oakland and San Jose.

We made our new home here
on a parcel carved from rich clay soil,
surrounded by immigrants

like us, a diverse chorus of voices,
languages and cultures.
In time neighbors became friends.

We learned about the Muwekma Ohlone
surveying hills and valleys
for ten thousand years,

and of Missions and prospectors,
their names embossed on school signs
from Murray to Fallon to Kolb.

We've felt Dublin winds soar
over Schaefer Ranch, Pacific fog in tow,
basked in midsummer's endless blue

and awoken to mountains
draped in white
by a fierce winter storm.

We’ve argued at Board meetings
as families do,
passionate and proud

then reconciled
in churches and playgrounds
in backyards and bleachers

and shoulder to shoulder
cheering Irish dancers and marching Gaels
in an emerald parade.

We've held hands in prayer
as loved ones passed
or drifted away

Yet—we'll always be here
gathering at the crossroads,
for the promise of tomorrow.

(for the 40th Anniversary of the City of Dublin)

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  1. James, this is a wonderful, thoughtful, and useful message, not only for poets laureate but for all of us who write poetry. Thank you so much for sharing the wisdom you’ve gleaned over your time so far as Dublin Poet Laureate.

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