The Mercantile Library is currently accepting submissions for the next Poet Laureate of Cincinnati, to be named in January. The Poet Laureate is expected to serve a two-year term and to promote poetry appreciation throughout the city, compose and read original work at special events, and engage with the community through related programming. According to the Mercantile Library, candidates’ work must exemplify “the characteristics or Spirit of Cincinnati.”
The Poet Laureate Program was created in 2015 by the City of Cincinnati. The Mercantile Library had been an unofficial partner, offering support and guidance as needed, and now serves as the new “home” of the Poet Laureate. The library will review applications and candidates, manage the selection through a 10-member advisory committee, and provide various resources to support the Laureate’s work during his or her term.
“I love the expression that poetry is language under pressure. I am also aware that poetry has always been an inclusive art,” John Faherty, executive director of the Mercantile Library, says in a press release announcing the new partnership. “It is an honor for the Mercantile Library, which has always celebrated language in all its forms, to be a part of this program.”
Poet, memoirist, arts administrator, and teacher Pauletta Hansel served as the city’s first Poet Laureate from 2016 to 2018. She has published eight poetry collections and had poetry and prose featured in journals such as Oxford American, New Verse News, The Cincinnati Review, Rattle, and many others. She has served as Writer in Residence at Thomas More College’s Creative Writing Vision Program and at WordPlay in Northside.
During her tenure as Poet Laureate, Hansel offered 22 free writing experiences for adults and youth at community centers, schools, and organizations. Additionally, she composed original poetry and promoted the medium as a commentary on public events. “To poets, it is a real honor to be able to reach so many people through poetry, by virtue of the Poet Laureate Program,” she says. “It took energy to make all of these connections and to offer all these opportunities, but it also gave me a lot of energy for my own poetry and my own work and to be able to engage with people in this way.”
Hansel says her mission as Poet Laureate was twofold: to bring people together through poetry and to bring poetry to groups of people all over town. She created a public Facebook group to provide a platform for readings, workshops, connections, and publication opportunities for area poets and writers. She also worked with groups that were not traditionally connected to owriters writers—holding workshops with the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati, for example, to help caregivers process their experiences through poetry. “I worked with some men who are living in a homeless shelter, and I went to Cincinnati State and other schools and institutions around the city,” says Hansel. “I was looking at poetry as a way to help people talk about their experience and to share their experience with other people through sharing poetry.”
Poet, essayist, translator, and educator Manuel Iris served as Poet Laureate from 2018 to 2021, which included an additional year as result of a pandemic hiatus. He calls the opportunity to serve as Poet Laureate a “wonderful privilege” that allowed him to connect with many local artists. “Cincinnati is a city of poets, of artists,” he says. “It has a very active cultural community. Poetry is important here.”
Iris’ work is published in both English and Spanish, reflecting his Mexican heritage. He explores concepts like life, death, transcendence, spirituality, and other related themes. In April, he published The Parting Present, a collection of poetry largely inspired by the pandemic, social unrest, and contentious political landscape of 2020.
One of the numerous events Iris organized during his term was a reading series called “All We Have in Common” held in nontraditional venues throughout the city. Iris gave participating poets a central theme (hope, peace, fear, etc.) and they’d deliver their own takes. The goal was to allow writers and audience members to see how people from different backgrounds and walks of life could connect to the same concept.
“I became Poet Laureate during a very difficult time for Mexicans and Hispanics in particular,” says Iris. “Many times, my presence, my language, and my accent were political statements even though I was not trying to make any political statement in my poems. I have always tried to find the common ground with others. I believe in the celebration of differences, of course, but I think if we spend too much time celebrating differences then we lose what we do have in common.”
Iris views the Poet Laureate Program’s formalized partnership between the Mercantile Library and Cincinnati City Hall as a positive change. He says that, despite the privilege of the role, it was lonely work without a lot of infrastructure or resources to support him. “It was oftentimes uphill work,” he says. “If [the Mercantile Library] hadn’t taken over, I was sure the Poet Laureate Program would cease to exist. It was very important for me, personally, to not allow the program to disappear.”
Hansel expresses similar appreciation, saying the Mercantile Library is uniquely situated to provide the kind of support the Poet Laureate needs. During her tenure, she says she was better able to put programming initiatives into motion because of her positions as a teacher and arts administrator. “I had the skills, interest, and background to really be able to make a lot of things happen pretty quickly,” she explains. “There are many people out there who could do some wonderful and unique things for the city if they had a little organizational support behind them.”
Faherty also says poetry is too important to let slip among city government’s myriad responsibilities. “We did not want to let this program die, and I was afraid it was going to die if it stayed in the city’s hands alone,” he says. “We need this city to have poetry in our midst.”
Job No. 1 for the next Poet Laureate, says Iris, is to promote healing. “The city of Cincinnati, the community of Cincinnati, the whole world,” he says. “After all the things we are still passing through, we need space for silence and slowness and beauty and intelligent reflection. Poetry can bring that because all of those are ways of healing. I think that the work of the Poet Laureate and of every artist now is to help bring some sense out of this chaos.”
The Mercantile Library is accepting submissions for the next Poet Laureate until November 29. View details about the application process and candidate qualifications here.