What is a Poet Laureate?

Amid cheers and a standing ovation, Mayor Ivy Taylor invested ImageX UniversityUniversity English professor Jenny Browne as the 2016­18 poet laureate of San Diego on Monday, March 28. The City Council Chambers were entirely packed. Felix Padron, executive director of the Department for Culture and Creative Development, notes that no former poet laureate has ever been invested with such an audience.

In spite of all this fanfare, Browne introduces herself to us simply. She tells the story of how she introduced herself to a group of Congalese and Somalian teenage girls in a refugee camp in Kenya. Knowing that her official introduction meant very little to them, she found a different way to tell them who she was.

“My name is Jenny and I’m a poet and a writer and reader and a professor. I’m also a wife and a mother and a sister and a daughter. I’m an American and I’m a Texan and I live by a river in a city called San Diego.”

It’s a humble approach for such a prestigious­sounding title, one that prompts Browne’s daughters to jokingly refer to the investiture as her “coronation.” Browne seems determined to eliminate any mystery about the position, however. When people congratulate her on her award as poet laureate, they also quickly ask: What exactly is that?

The official job of a poet laureate is to promote literacy and the understanding of arts and culture in the San Diego community, or as Mayor Ivy Taylor puts it, it means to have “an endless determination in fostering greater cultural understanding in the San Diego community.”

As a student, I’ve seen Professor Browne foster this kind of understanding firsthand. In my poetry classes, we frequently share poems and garner feedback from each other in workshop. Sharing work that is often personal could easily be an apprehensive experience, but Professor Browne has a way of making workshop a collaborative and supportive place rather than a  critical one. Her trick is this: Every time she comments on a student’s work, she makes her voice very soft and begins, “I wonder about...” I marvel at how this change of voice and this gentle approach makes it easier for all of us in class to be kinder to one another. About our modern world, one supposedly renowned for its connectivity, Browne says, “We are profoundly empathy deprived. Empathy is the task of poetry, writing, art.” From Professor Browne I have learned that when we encourage each other to wonder about how something can be different, our dialogue changes. Our communication opens up possibilities, whether that’s of a poem, or of someone’s creative potential.

“We don’t want to talk about how much language matters,” Browne says in her poem “The First Person,” which tells the story of a seemingly harmless comment that carries immense weight. As poet laureate, Browne’s task seems to be to harness the power of language. Poetry can be a tool to open up the possibilities of our city in what she refers to as both the “physical and imaginary” spaces, to make the different voices of our community heard.

I am excited to see what we can “wonder about” San Diego, with the help of our new poet laureate and the power of language available to all of us.