On August 29th at the Mayor's Arts Awards ceremony, Jourdan Imani Keith, read a poem as the first public act in her new role as Seattle's Civic Poet. (Start around 16 minutes in to this video if you'd like to see her perform the poem, which is a celebration of Seattle as a place that has always existed and that has always changed.)
How does Keith feel about her new role? "I'm very happy," she says over the phone, with an audible smile in her voice.
Keith was born and raised in Philadelphia, but she's been in Seattle for over two decades. "Over the years of living here I've been very engaged with the city," she says. It's impossible, in fact, to separate Keith's civic engagement from her poetry. She's celebrated Seattle through poetry in city programs including the Parks Department, youth learning initiatives, and other municipal celebrations of the arts like the Poet Populist program. She has participated in the Jack Straw Writers Program and she's worked closely with the Northwest African American Museum.
Poetry is Keith's way to honor the city's past and to look forward. Poetry, she says, has "made me feel more committed to the city." Now, as Civic Poet, she hopes to expand that commitment to a macro scale by strengthening the bond between Seattle and its citizens through poetry. One of her most important charges as Civic Poet is to "highlight emerging poets and to lift youth voices" by giving them a platform at city functions.
Education is vital for Keith. She's looking forward to a project that will encourage people to write poetry in response to Seattle's public art "as a way of envisioning the city." Seattle's public art stretches back over a century and attempts to incorporate the city's ethnic and cultural diversity. By encouraging people to write in response to the art, she says she's "layering the web of art through the city — that's what I'm most excited about," Keith says.
This is about more than just accessing a city's history through poetic dialogue. Keith hopes to awaken a whole army of poets through this communication through public art. And why not? It's not too far-fetched a notion to believe that a person can fall in love with poetry overnight. In fact, Keith can recall the exact moment she fell in love with poetry: "I had a wonderful incredible outdoor experience climbing a mountain. It shifted my whole perspective. I took myself through what I later realized was all these sensory exercises." Closing and opening her eyes, seeing birds take flight, and feeling bugs on her skin, keith was visited by something.
She ran down the mountain — "I fell down and skinned my hands," she laughs, a little tenderly — and "I went to my little plaid journal and wrote a poem. It was the first time i had written a poem."
Beyond sense explorations, Keith immediately started to explore the possibilities of the form. "I was grounded early in the fact that poetry could be used for social responsibility — in fact that it had to be." For Keith, poetry is nothing unless it engages with the world, and encourages the world to be better than it is. For the next two years, as Civic Poet, she's going to try to encourage more Seattleites down that path.
Keith takes her new role as Civic Poet seriously. "It's important to be an ambassador for the city," she says. Seattle has "changed a lot from the place I came to twenty years ago. It's still what it was, but it's also becoming something else. It's really critical for people to know a history of a place and to feel they have a hand in shaping its future."