Sandra Beasley is the author of a memoir and four poetry collections, including “Made to Explode.”

A highlight of Inauguration Day was Amanda Gorman’s delivery of her poem “The Hill We Climb,” which ignited interest in news anchors and home viewers alike. Gorman’s biographical note of having been selected as the first national youth poet laureate in 2017 (a title currently held by Meera Dasgupta) may have surprised many who didn’t realize the position, administered through Urban Word NYC, even existed.

In addition to this nonprofit youth initiative, adults across the country hold government-appointed “poet laureate” positions at various municipal levels. Forty-six states have an office of poet laureate. The Library of Congress recently renewed Joy Harjo to a third term as U.S. poet laureate. A poet laureate can help commemorate events, invigorate local programming and advocate for the arts. As Harjo said, “We will survive with poetry.”

But D.C. has not had a poet laureate since the 2017 death of Dolores Kendrick. The position originated with then-Mayor Marion Barry’s appointment of our first laureate, Sterling A. Brown, who served from 1984 until his death in 1989. The role languished for a decade, empty, until advocacy by local poets sparked then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams’s selection of Kendrick in 1999.

Now we have another lull. In March 2018, a cohort of local poets appealed to the commissioners of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) — which had provided administrative support to Kendrick and would presumably continue to manage the poet laureate’s office — seeking an update. The commission confirmed it had formed a task force on the topic. It was responsive to proffered ideas, including a term limit that would foster the position’s vitality.

At the next DCCAH commissioners’ meeting in April 2018, Steve Walker rose on behalf of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to announce that, instead of allowing DCCAH to proceed, the position had been moved to the purview of the new Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments (MOTA). MOTA, headed by Walker, advertised a call for applications in July 2018 and appointed a selection committee. The committee conducted interviews in early 2019, narrowing the field to three finalists and submitted its recommendations.

Then: Nothing. The MOTA website no longer returns any result when one searches for “poet laureate.” Finalists were never notified of an outcome, and this silence disrespects the labor of those who lent their time and credibility to the search.

By failing to fill the poet laureate position, the administration is wasting a significant funding opportunity. Since 2019, the Academy of American Poets has sponsored “Poets Laureate Fellowships,” open to poets appointed to civic positions at the state, city, county, territory or tribal level. These $50,000 awards would be a boon to area arts funding, and there is no reason our city wouldn’t be competitive — unless, of course, there is no one to submit the application. The next deadline is Feb. 23.

A poet laureate can stoke the fires of loving literature among students. Kendrick instituted youth poet awards and a summer festival for high school students, which correlated with a robust era for spoken word that enriched our local arts landscape. In 2007, Duke Ellington School of the Arts senior Amanda Fernandez won a $20,000 scholarship from Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation contest. Her victory came, in part, by performing Brown’s “Ma Rainey.”

Our poet laureate could elegantly and effectively help the city toggle between its simultaneous identities as independent district and the nation’s capital. The Library of Congress is home to Harjo’s office; let’s give her a poet with whom to be in dialogue in the hosting city. President Biden is bringing Seamus Heaney’s poetry into the White House; let’s offer a neighborly, contemporary counterpart. Couldn’t a well-versed laureate be a spokesperson in our campaign for statehood?

Poets remind us what is at stake with transcendent, transformational language. In her 2009 inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” Elizabeth Alexander (who grew up in D.C.) declared, “I know there’s something better down the road. / We need to find a place where we are safe. / We walk into that which we cannot yet see.”

The District of Columbia is emerging from a year of intense loss with many challenges still looming ahead. Please, Mayor Bowser, give this city back its laurel leaves. We need a poet laureate.

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