Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Jan-Feb 2017 issue

Two-Way Street: Does Your City Have a Poet Laureate?

Chad UblCHAD UBL
Community Services Director
Winona (population 27,581)
The people of Winona have always valued the arts, and the city has had a well-established Fine Arts Commission for many years. In 2007, the commission had the idea to create a Poet Laureate program to promote the art of poetry, encourage public presentation of poetry, and recognize poets.

Enthusiasm for the idea
Fine Arts Commission members Carol Borzyskowski and Nancy Peterson developed the purpose, expectations, eligibility, administration, and stipend for the Poet Laureate program. The commission unanimously approved the criteria, and in April 2007, the City Council gave its full approval of the program, including a stipend of $1,200 per two-year term for the poet laureate.

James Armstrong was appointed as the first poet laureate on Oct. 1, 2007, and he was very happy to discover how much his community loved poetry. In fact, he received so many requests to speak that it was overwhelming.

We learned a great lesson right away: while the community saw the poet laureate as a valuable asset, there was a limit on how many requests the position could handle. So, Armstrong took the first important step of the program by establishing solid expectations.

Growth of the program
As the program grew, the commission selected our second and third poet laureates: Ken McCullough and Emilio DeGrazia. All three poets have worked together to expand the program while managing expectations.

One of their most successful projects has been the Poet Laureate Series, which introduces monthly guest poets and other speakers to the community. The series is very popular, and events are well-attended.

The three poets also direct the Great River Shakespeare Sonnet Contest, which runs parallel to the annual Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona. They judge hundreds of entries each season.

In addition, the three poets have been successful in engaging the community at large. They conduct school visits, mentor young poets, advocate for artistic language awareness, and present their works at public events.

A great asset
Since its inception nearly 10 years ago, the program has met and even exceeded expectations. The arts are alive and well in Winona, and this is just one of many examples.

Ardell BredeARDELL F. BREDE
Mayor
Rochester (population 111,007)
With sparkling enthusiasm, remarkable talent, and unparalleled dedication, Jane Belau has served as Rochester’s first poet laureate since her appointment to the role in April 2012. As poet laureate, Belau is an unpaid volunteer who writes and reads poems for ceremonies and events. She also organizes and participates in initiatives to encourage community interest in and appreciation of poetry.

Prioritizing poetry
“Without art, there is no heart” is a saying that inspires us in Rochester. We are aware of the positive and many times healing impact of poetry, arts, and music on individuals and the community. We’re always striving to create an environment that encourages artistic expression and appreciation.

With this strong support for the arts as a foundation, we became interested in the idea of appointing a poet laureate. A handful of Minnesota cities were following in the footsteps of the United States and the state of Minnesota in appointing poet laureates at the local level, and we became an early adopter of the program as well. In 2012, the City of Rochester issued a proclamation recognizing April as National Poetry Month, and the City Council unanimously voted to name my choice of Jane Belau as our city’s first poet laureate.

A poetic choice
During Belau’s tenure, she has also worked with Mayo Clinic’s Humanities in Medicine program to coordinate a conference in Rochester of Minnesota poet laureates. In addition, we included educators, students, the League of Minnesota Poets, the Rochester Civic Theatre Company, and many other organizations to coordinate poetry readings and poetry slams and to generally encourage residents to read, write, and appreciate poetry.

Belau is committed to her role and says it is “exciting and gratifying for the appreciation expressed by the people who read or hear poetry … I am grateful for our mayor’s leadership and the City of Rochester’s vision and emphasis on the arts.”

The power of poetry
Appointing a poet laureate is a worthwhile endeavor, with many positive community impacts. Consider these words from Presi¬dent Kennedy, which are included in the proclamation naming Jane Belau as our poet laureate: “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battles or in politics, but in our contribution to the human spirit.”

Read the Jan-Feb issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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