Could you be Richmond’s next poet laureate?
on June 9, 2023
Drumming a steady beat, David Flores lets the hip hop rhythm inspire him. He’s been writing rap lyrics for a long time but only really started writing poetry after working as an after school poetry teacher. While he and his students considered him a poet, he wasn’t sure Richmond, his hometown, would.
Flores almost didn’t apply for Richmond poet laureate, paralyzed by self-doubt and the thought that his work wasn’t good enough.
“You know what? I’m just going to go for it. Let me see what happens,” Flores said to himself. “And next thing you know, I was selected, and it was a real honor.”
Flores’ two-year tenure as the city’s eighth poet laureate has ended and the Arts & Culture Commission is preparing to crown a new laureate. Applications are being accepted until 11:59 p.m. Monday. To encourage the appreciation of poetry, especially among young people, the city is offering a $1,000 annual stipend to a Richmond resident with a published or unpublished body of poetry, a history of advocacy for poetry or public recognition of their poetry, and strong public speaking skills.
During the two-year term, which starts in July, the chosen laureate will be asked to share their love of the art form at school and city events, as well as through poetry contests and at poetry appreciation events. The poet’s pieces will be archived in Richmond libraries and on the Arts & Culture division website. Applications will be reviewed by the Richmond Public Art Advisory Committee.
“I’m really into hip hop too, which is another lyrical form, right,” said Flores. For him, poetry is more than just stuffy iambic pentameter — it can be modern and full of life. He encourages people who might not think of themselves as poets or who shy away from opportunities to apply.
“It’s going to allow for things that you wouldn’t even have thought of. There’s going to be surprises. It has the potential for a lot of exciting growth,” said Flores, 46. But even after living in Richmond his whole life, Flores’ first surprise was that Richmond even had a poet laureate.
“Most major cities, if they have a cultural affairs division, chances are they may have a poet laureate as well,” said Winifred Day, Richmond’s arts and culture manager. Oakland, San Francisco, El Cerrito, and Vallejo all have poet laureates. San Francisco even has America’s first drag laureate, D’Arcy Drollinger.
Having the distinction of being Richmond’s first pandemic poet laureate, Flores found the work so fulfilling that he had a personal poetry renaissance.
“My own skills kind of exploded. It was exponential. Some of the best pieces that I wrote were because I felt so much inspiration from getting this position,” he said.
But for Flores, fitting a full schedule of poet laureate duties in between working full time as the lead trainer at the Mindfulness Life Project and having a family was challenging.
Many of the poet laureate’s duties — visiting schools to do youth outreach, reciting poetry at special events, hosting in-person poetry readings — stopped during the pandemic. While he continued his other duties by writing poems about Richmond and Women’s History Month, giving readings at city events over Zoom and doing open-mic nights online, the pandemic was a major barrier to Flores’s ability to connect with Richmond communities.
But despite the difficulties, what drove Flores was his mission to help people express themselves and their experiences through poetry.
“I feel like there’s a lot of people, adults and especially young people, who feel like they don’t have a voice,” he said. Poetry provides an outlet for that expression, in written and performative ways, he added.
Flores encourages everyone to process their emotions by writing down their experiences and sharing their writing. Performing in front of an audience can be terrifying for some people, but taking that risk builds confidence, he said.
“That can be life changing. I mean, it changed my life. That’s what I strive to do for others, young people especially that I’ve worked with. It’s just like, ‘No, no, no. Speak your truth,’” he said.
Maja Trochimczyk, president of the California State Poetry Society and the 2010-2012 poet laureate of Sunland-Tujunga, believes that a poet laureate has an important civic function: to give residents a voice.
Richmond’s poet laureate application states, “Reading and writing poetry helps us process intense emotions, share our stories, and experiment with language in ways that no other art form does.” It goes on to say that the poet laureate frequently goes to schools to talk to kids about poetry and encourage them to write their own pieces, which increases children’s vocabulary, critical analytical skills, and reading fluency and comprehension.
“It’s not just holding one person up. It’s having that person take what they’ve learned and pass that on and have that spread again and again. It’s very powerful,” said Michele Seville, who recently retired after serving as Richmond’s arts and culture manager for over a decade.
When Seville first came to Richmond, a poet would read before every City Council meeting. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s so fantastic,’ because it just takes you very immediately into another realm of the arts,” she said. “I think poetry opens people’s minds in a very immediate way when it’s read.”
Trochimczyk said poetry offers “a moment of meditation, serenity, pause from the rush of daily life.” Laureates, she added, celebrate a community’s unity, achievements and beauty.
That sense of unity was sorely needed in Richmond during the pandemic, when people were physically isolated and politically disconnected, Flores said.
“There’s so much in this community we have to be proud of, to share,” he said.
“This gives us the potential to come together and celebrate each other and build and create. That’s the driving force for me in every part of my life, so this just gave me the opportunity to do it in an official position,” Flores said.
“It requires some work, but if poetry is something you really love, it’s fulfilling.”
More information about the poet laureate position is on the city website.
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