“I don’t think I ever wanted to be a writer,” said June Jordan, by many accounts the most published African American writer in history. “I thought I was a poet, very early on. And I thought I probably stayed a poet. In other words, the writing I’ve done other than poetry came much later, and I’ve never thought about myself other than a poet really. No matter whether I was writing libretto or a political essay or even the one novel that I put out here…I was a poet doing these things. Rather than now I am a journalist or now I’ve become a librettist. No, I was just a poet doing these things.”
In a history of marginalizing achievement by people of color, years of saying Langston Hughes or June Jordan are Great American “Black” Writers…rather than just Great AMERICAN writers…I commend Albuquerque and just want to acknowledge the moment in that context. Deeply honored to be able to tell my grandchildren that I wasn’t just the 1st BLACK poet laureate of Albuquerque…I was the first poet laureate of Albuquerque.
And I’m fortunate, not because I am 33 years young and have been given this recognition of Laureate that some people write their entire lives for. Phillis Wheatley became the first African American poet published in 1767 at age 13 for her poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin.” That, is young. THAT’s an accomplishment.
I am humbled, by Albuquerque’s ability to see me as a musician, an actor, a scholar, a journalist, a playwright and an organizer, but at the and of the day, like June…I’m just a poet doing all these things. And that is what makes this particular appointment so special to me. The root of everything I do in this community grew from planting my shifty, shaking legs on stages at poetry slams. Sitting my butt in seats at readings by some of the best poets in the world, two whose company I share today (Mary Oishi and Damien Flores). I’ve been allowed to share the stage with some of the biggest New Mexico legacies, poets recognized by the literary canon and the ivory tower, and that opportunity, privilege, and mentorship has put me in the position to fill these shoes of unfathomable size.
I am blessed to be here with you this morning, while my youngest brother, Tyler, kicks off his third season as a professional soccer player in Los Angeles and my only son, Kaylem, kicks a soccer ball at his 3rd soccer game ever in the Northeast Heights. My middle brother, Rasheed, who shares my love of poetry and Kaylem. My surrogate blood brothers of dream and ink, Carlos Contreras and Colin Hazelbaker. And of course God and My parents Rick and Carlease, who are wholly responsible for what Albuquerque has had to put up with for the past seven years. To my other son, Tobey, who I’ve forced to sit through way too many a long poetry reading. And to the mother of my boys, Tracey, who literally gave me to Albuquerque.
This is not an acceptance speech, as much as it is a thank you. When my Fairy Slam Father, Don McIver presented me with the news. I wasn’t my usual, annoyingly animated self. I was relieved. Joyed, like I had left my all on the track, given everything to the steeple chase and I was finally crossing the finish line. And though this appointment is just the beginning, the launch of an opportunity to serve. I had the ecstatic relief, like that of my Mother calling me and telling me that her plane has landed safely. The opportunity to deflate a bit. To bask in THIS moment of thanks that my City has extended me. All the time away from my son, my partner, my studies and myself, have not gone unnoticed. So I’m extremely humbled and thankful, for the “thank you.”
But by accepting this position, I have a job to do. Sure, there’s the ambassadorship of this position that tasks me with representing all you. From form poets to freestylists, first poem to fifth book, real loud to real quiet, real long to real short. White, Black, Brown, Red, Yellow, Other, LGBTQ, “I & U.” And I do. That’s the vow I exchange with you. However, my larger duty is less about OUR poetry, more about theirs…more about how we make poetry matter in the lives of people it doesn’t already matter to. Because we already know that poetry doesn’t just help us value each other and the world around us, it helps us value ourselves. And every person, every voice, in our city, is valuable. I think the Laureate’s job is to remind us of that, and I can’t do it alone…never could…so I’m going to need your help.
“Pour dire tout, il faudrait savoir toutes les langues,” says Ranier Maria Rilke. To say everything, one would need to know every language. And I confess, I do not. My Spanish is horrible, and my English ain’t too good neither. However, I will do my best to solicit poetry from every willing tongue. I’m less concerned with how the poetry sounds or looks or what it wins or loses, I’m more concerned with how it makes us feel. To me, good poetry makes us feel. Some think it foolish to think we can better our world with poetry, however when you consider poetry simply as a way of sharing each other. It doesn’t seem too farfetched to believe that we can at least make our community better by knowing each other better. So Mr. Mayor, Centennial Poet, current and former Santa Fe laureate, esteemed selection committee, founding sponsors, family and friends. Thank you for recognizing that I’ve given up a lot to get here…and I accept, with no reservations, the challenge of giving up more. I love you Kaylem Mikah Bellamy and I love you Albuquerque.