Poets Laureate Across Massachusetts
A note from the interviewer, Alice Kociemba
I remember the surveys the Mass Poetry Festival team would send out to gauge the impact the festival had on Salem’s economy (Did you stay in a hotel? Did you eat in a restaurant? Did you purchase anything from a local merchant?). We may not always realize that a vibrant arts community provides revenue, as well as engagement in the civic sphere.
When I read Stephan Delbos’s array of initiatives for programming that celebrates Plymouth’s 400th anniversary of the town’s founding, and beyond, I was reminded of these facts. Each local poet laureate has a unique take on being an ambassador for poetry, all the while using the universal language of poetry to foster community. Here is Stephan Delbos’s take on the challenges and pleasures as he begins his term as Plymouth’s inaugural Poet Laureate.
Meet Stephan Delbos, Plymouth’s Poet Laureate
When did your city or town decide to establish a poet laureate position? Is there a length of time the poet laureate serves?
Plymouth established the laureateship to coincide with the celebrations during 2020 related to the 400th anniversary of the town’s founding. The two-year appointment was created so the town could let the world know about its commitment to the arts during 2020 and beyond.
To be named Plymouth’s first Poet Laureate is inspiring. It is also a responsibility to the town and to poetry. In a sense, everyone has their own Plymouth, and I am excited to share the Plymouth I know with the world, while finding, learning and telling the stories of Plymoutheans from the past and present.
What was the selection process like? (Who was involved, who made the decision?)
The Selection Committee consisted of community members representing the Plymouth Regional Economic Development Foundation, the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce, the Plymouth Public Library, a restaurant owner, and a multimedia journalist. The committee was open to hearing different ideas from the candidates and there has been flexibility in their expectations for programming.
Among the national poets laureate, which initiative have you most admired?
I admire what Joy Harjo, the current US Poet Laureate, has done in terms of raising awareness of Native American poetry for the general public. An anthology she edited has just been published: When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. It makes a truly important contribution to “American” literature. Also, Robert Pinsky’s the Favorite Poem Project, “a program dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry’s role in Americans’ lives” is very effective and inclusive of the general public.
I also appreciate how the Poet Laureate used to be called the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, which I think highlights that aspect of the position having to do with the literary-historical responsibilities of being a representative poet, that you are also called upon to help preserve aspects of the art and the public-poetic discourse of the moment.
Have you been in touch with other poet laureates around the Commonwealth? What lessons have you applied to your own tenure?
Yes, I have been in touch with several poets laureate in Massachusetts, including Ellie O’Leary, the Poet Laureate of Amesbury, who has organized an interesting set of local readings and has also generously helped spread the word about Plymouth events. I’ve communicated with Porsha Olayiwola, the Poet Laureate of Boston, who is doing great things there. Lloyd Schwartz, the Poet Laureate of Somerville, has also been doing some online readings that I’ve been keeping an eye on. They have all been positive examples and have set a high bar in terms of public advocacy and energy.
To what community organizations and facilities do you bring poetry (i.e., schools, senior centers, libraries, health, mental health, addiction and correctional facilities)?
The Covid crisis has postponed several of my efforts at outreach, but I have already rolled out some exciting projects with local businesses. I do believe poetry can play a positive role in boosting local business and tourism and helping establish Plymouth as a literary and cultural destination.
So far I’ve been working with the Plymouth Public Library, the Plymouth Area League of Women Voters, and Indivisible Plymouth, through online readings and contributions to events. I would love to visit local schools as soon as the current situation allows, and I have plans to engage with local students through a number of programs.
What do you think poetry can do in the civic sphere? Have you written occasional poems for your city or town?
In the spring I composed a poem for Plymouth’s graduating class of 2020 that acknowledged the class’s unique place in history and this strange present moment as exemplified by their masked, drive-up graduation. I have also composed poems for Indivisible Plymouth’s Black Lives Matter and Under the Rock events, and for the Plymouth Area League of Women Voters’ efforts to encourage citizens to take part in the 2020 Census and to vote in the November elections. I’ve written a few other poems on current events, including some unfortunate vandalism of Plymouth Rock and other town monuments, as well as the annual running of the herring and the recent installation of a rainbow crosswalk on the Plymouth waterfront.
This summer I was invited to speak to the Sunrise Rotary Club of Plymouth and I gave a talk about the Commonwealth of Poetry, an idea that I have been developing and that seems to strike a chord. Each and every poem ever written, in every language, contributes to what I call the Commonwealth of Poetry. This vast and welcoming space is like a museum without walls, or a book without covers. The Commonwealth of Poetry has been created for the common good. Poets themselves are its founders but everyone is encouraged to visit and to lend a hand in the Commonwealth’s ongoing creation and upkeep.
What events have you organized, physically or virtually? Do you find more engagement in your city/town with reading/appreciation events or writing/creative events?
My first major project was the Plymouth Poetry Contest, which I began during April’s National Poetry Month. I received and reviewed dozens of poems about Plymouth from local and regional poets of all ages and backgrounds. Four winning poems were selected, and these were hand-printed in a limited edition at Inky Hands Print Studio and Gallery on Court Street. The winning poets were invited to a socially distanced signing at the gallery, where they signed their prints and took photos for the newspaper. I was amazed at the quality and variety of poems I received, each attesting to a unique, individual experience of Plymouth while engaging the town’s rich history and vibrant present moment.
On the 4th of July, I organized an online reading of Massachusetts poets, nearly two dozen of whom recorded 10-minute poetry readings, which were published on The Plymouth Poetry Forum on Facebook over the course of the day. This idea was an effort to create a sense of community during this special day of celebration, since all of the public festivities were cancelled. For Thanksgiving Day, I am planning a similar event on the theme of giving thanks.
In addition, I am editing an anthology of more than 400 years of poetry written about Plymouth. The working title for the anthology is Cordage of Wordage: A Plymouth Poetry Anthology. It will include literary criticism and scholarship, as well as historical and contemporary writing. I plan to invite the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe to translate their historic texts and stories about Plymouth (or, more accurately, Patuxet), while also encouraging contemporary members of the tribe to contribute their own poetry to the book. In the introduction, I will place this collection in an overall historical context. I believe this book will not only be of interest to Plymoutheans and visitors to the town, but will be a significant contribution to studies of New England culture and literature. So far the table of contents includes names ranging from Longfellow and Frost to Plymouth poet and personality Mark Lord (1953-2017). Ideally we would publish the book at the end of my tenure as Poet Laureate in 2022.
In the future I’d like to organize a local poetry festival, which would attract visitors to the town and also be a great opportunity for cooperation with local businesses as both sponsors and vendors. I have a few other ideas in mind for collaborations with local businesses, which of course need more help now than ever.
What is your favorite question that people have asked you about poetry?
The question “what, exactly, is poetry?” is always interesting. To which I answer something like this: Poems, like pockets, are places to keep things. They are spaces which conceal and from which we can reveal simple and complex human truths. They are the hat the magician pulls a rabbit from. Poetry is the most concentrated and musical form of language. It says what cannot be said any other way. Poetry isn’t just poetry. It is song, it is chant, it is prayer, it is a basic human act and it is something that we understand innately.
It has been a joy and an honor to be in a position to advocate for poetry, so I appreciate each and every interaction that I have as Poet Laureate. For the town of Plymouth to have a Poet Laureate is, I think, a positive signal that says this place takes the arts seriously—and I believe the arts are crucially important. I do think there is something about the title Poet Laureate that makes the general public take more notice, which is of course enjoyable but is also a serious opportunity to be a representative for poetry and the arts.
Poet Laureate of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Stephan Delbos is the author of the poetry chapbook In Memory of Fire (Cape Cod Poetry Review, 2016) and the poetry collections Light Reading (BlazeVOX, 2019) and Small Talk (Dos Madres, 2021). Two of his plays have been staged: Chetty’s Lullaby, about trumpeter Chet Baker, in San Francisco in 2014, and Deaf Empire, about composer Bedřich Smetana, by Prague Shakespeare Company in 2017. His translations from Czech include The Absolute Gravedigger and Woman in the Plural by Vítězslav Nezval (Twisted Spoon, 2016, 2021), and Paris Notebook by poet by Tereza Riedlbauchová (Verse Chorus Press, 2020).
Alice Kociemba is the Founding Director of Calliope Poetry for Community. She is co-editor of From the Farther Shore: Discovering Cape Cod and the Islands Through Poetry, which will be published by Bass River Press (an imprint of the Cultural Center of Cape Cod) in 2021. In 2015 and 2016, Alice guest edited Common Threads, the poetry discussion project of Mass Poetry. She is the author of the poetry collection, Bourne Bridge (Turning Point, 2016).