Feature Poet:
Danielle Legros Georges

Danielle Legros Georges, the current Poet Laureate of the City of Boston, is a professor in the Creative Arts in Learning Division of Lesley University.  She also teaches in the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences summer Writer’s Workshop, University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her poems have been widely anthologized, and recent essays of hers have appeared in Others Will Enter the Gates:  Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences and Writing in America (ed. Abayomi Animashaun) and Anywhere But Here:  Black Intellectuals in the Atlantic World and Beyond (eds. Kendahl Radcliffe and Jennifer Scott).  She is the author of the book of poems Maroon.  A second volume of poems, The Dear Remote Nearness of You, is forthcoming from Barrow Street in 2016. 

Soul-Lit co-founder, Deborah Leipziger, caught up with Boston’s new Poet Laureate, Danielle Georges at the Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boston.

Soul-Lit:Thank you, Danielle, for agreeing to be our featured poet and to giving us an interview.  Congratulations on your appointment as Boston Poet Laureate. Tell us about this role. What does it entail? What are your objectives?

DLG: Thanks Deborah.  The Poet Laureate Program is charged with generating new opportunities for education, awareness, and the promotion of literacy through the beauty and excellence of poetry, which I think is a wonderful thing.  My duties as Poet Laureate include raising the status of poetry in the everyday consciousness of Bostonians, acting as an advocate for poetry, language and the arts, and creating a unique artistic legacy through public readings and civic events. 

Boston is a great place for literature and the arts.  It has an extraordinary literary legacy, and an extremely active literary community.  Poetry thrives here.  I feel that part of my work is to know and amplify what is already taking place—and to bring poetry to listeners and readers who may be less familiar with poetry’s possibilities.

This year, as Poet Laureate, I’ve been welcomed by a number of assemblies and organizations that have made poetry a part of their programs, including Mayor Walsh’s State of the City 2015, the City’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and Celebration in partnership with the Museum of African American History; the first annual Hubbub: Creative Commotion for Kids Festival; and the Boston Public Library as it unveiled its newly-renovated Children’s Room at the Central Branch.

I began holding monthly visiting hours in the various branches in neighborhoods across the city. From East Boston to Roxbury, beginning and seasoned poets have participated in what is quickly becoming a workshop and a way to share the joys and questions of poetry writing and appreciation.  I also created a reading series, The Boston Poet Spotlight Series, with periodic readings taking place at the Trident Booksellers and Café on Newbury Street.

Most recently, I was invited by the Institute of Contemporary Art/ Boston (ICA) to participate in Leap Before You Look, the first comprehensive museum exhibition on the subject of Black Mountain College to take place in the United States.  The exhibition, runs through January 2016 and features individual works by more than ninety artists, student work, archival materials, a soundscape, as well as a piano and a dance floor for performances.  Accompanying the exhibition are performances and educational programs. I asked eight poets to bring some of the exhibition’s visual artwork to life through ekphrasis.  All this to say—be sure to check out the Poets in Ekphrasis “actions” at the ICA.  The contributing poets are Julie Ann Otis, Tanya Larkin, Aaron Smith, Clara Ronderos, Fanny Howe, Ruth Lepson, Martha Collins, and Nicole Terez Dutton.

In the works is an initiative that has a small team of poets working in Boston adult day health centers and nursing homes, and a partnership with Troubadour Inc., an organization that improves student literacy and academic achievement in area schools through arts-integrated instruction.  Troubadour will take poetry workshops to the Lila Frederick Middle School.  Both programs underscore poetry’s role in community engagement and life-long learning. 

Soul-Lit: Which poets do you most admire?

DLG: The poets I most admire are those from whom I learn something about the world, or about the craft of poetry.  The poets I admire most teach me both.  For me, great poets elucidate things we know intrinsically but haven’t articulated, or even known we wanted to or needed to articulate.  Poets who have a pulse on what is going on in the here and now, and who also take on history in salient ways, speak to me.  The poetry of witness and engagement has always been significant for me.  My list of admired poets would be lengthy and include poets found across time and continents.  There are many writers whose work and whose presence in the world—whether as artists, advocates, humane and plentiful human beings, global citizens—provoke and inspire me.  Finally, I admire poets who pay attention to sound; and who take great chances with language, who push it, and thereby the way we conceive things. 

Soul-Lit: What advice do you have for poets?

DLG: I’ll answer this question with advice I’d give to beginner or emerging poets.  I’m not sure my peers and elder statespersons of poetry need much advice.  In fact, I’m happy to have their ideas about poetry and poetics.  For a beginning poet, my advice is to read widely; to read in all genres; to familiarize yourself with some of the important texts, literary movements and sensibilities of this country; to read texts and listen to recordings from around the world and across time periods; to reads works in translation; to practice translating poetry if possible, which raises all sorts of compelling inquiries into language; to travel when possible; to be alive; to treat others with sensitivity; to experiment; and to take in or engage in other art forms for enjoyment, and to see how exposure to these can inform your own thinking and writing.

Soul-Lit: There seems to be a trend toward fusion of poetry events with other art forms including music and art.  Do you see this trend taking root?   Do you welcome this trend?

DLG: I feel that poetry has always been connected to other art forms.  In fact, the idea of the metrical foot, the basic unit of measure in Western prosody, is grounded in the actual body part—the foot, and the keeping of time in dance or movement, with our feet. 

In exploring the etymology of the word music, we find mousike, which the ancient Greeks used to describe dance, music, poetry and interestingly enough elementary education.  Mousike is, in essence, a mnemonic device, a tool that helps us remember.  The musical and poetic elements of rhythm, rhyme, and repetition helped us remember in the time before alphabetic writing (an advance in mnemonic technology back in the day) emerged.  Here both songs and poems existed orally, and were very much linked. 

Another example of connection is the long tradition of ekphrasis in Western poetry.  Vivid descriptions of works of visual art include some of the chestnuts we read in high school, John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Art,” as well as newer works like the poems of Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall

All this to say that I think art begets art, and that interdisciplinarity can be a great thing.

Soul-Lit: Tell us about your connection to Haiti and how it has impacted your poetry.

DLG: I am a Haitian-born poet and writer whose early creative work involved looking at Haitian culture, immigrant culture, larger American culture, and African diasporic history as it related to African-Americans in the “new world,” in addition to other themes.  A product of these explorations was a book of poems, Maroon, published in 2001 by Curbstone Press.

Art and art production, for me, carry with them many of the positive principles of the lessons learned from family and members of the Haitian-American community in which I developed as a person and an artist.  As a Haitian immigrant, my life was early on deeply marked by political factors, including a U.S.-backed Haitian dictatorship which forced my family along with so many others to repatriate.  I’ve written many poems about Haitian identity and the sometimes troublesome representations of Haiti in the U.S. from my position as an artist of the Haitian diaspora.  I’ve also written a number of poems while in Haiti on recent trips, and have had what is around me, the people I know, the environment, inform the work.

I think the 2010 earthquake shook so many of us, and it made its way into poems—as did the more recent and disturbing 2013 ruling in the Dominican Republic which stripped the citizenship of many Dominicans on Haitian descent. A Dominican Poem, presented here, was a way to respond and to bear witness.  

Thanks, Deborah, for this interview.


(Photo credit: Priscilla Harmel)