Boston’s new poet laureate wants to make poetry comfortable for all
As a young child, Danielle Legros Georges learned that life could stop in one place, and begin again thousands of miles away. She was born in Haiti but her family left for Zaire, political exiles from their homeland. They moved again, to Boston, when she was 6, joining some of the city’s early Haitian immigrants in Mattapan.
“I was constantly trying to make sense of things,” she said.
The small community of Haitians in Boston exposed their children to the arts — theatre and dance and painting — of their home country. Somewhere Legros Georges fell in love with poetry and she published her first creative piece in the Emerson College literary journal. Many of her poems describe her native country, which she visits regularly.
This fall, Legros Georges was chosen as Boston’s second poet laureate, following Sam Cornish, who won the position in 2008. She plans to use it to bring poetry to diverse groups in the city, capitalizing on the talent she learned young: traveling between different communities.
“She’s able to move in many worlds and very successfully,” said Priscilla Sanville, who teaches with Legros Georges in the creative arts department at Lesley University. “She can go into a Haitian community and speak Creole or speak French. But I think it’s a deeper connection as a black woman in US society and as a scholar. She can relate to whomever she’s with.”
Legros Georges doesn’t want to seem too proper or unapproachable in her new job as poet laureate. She calls herself “the P.L.’’
“It’s slightly humorous,” she says, smiling. “It sounds less formal.”
She applied for the position, which pays $2,000 a year, with a proposal to take poetry to the city’s oldest and youngest residents: adults in nursing homes and children.
She has experience with both. Legros Georges’s mother, who died last year, had lived in a nursing home, and Legros Georges appreciated the arts programming in her mother’s last years. She has worked with children through Troubadour, the program that brings arts to schoolchildren, and is continuing to work with the group as poet laureate.
“It’s who she is and how she wants to share the art form,” Sanville said. “She has grown up in Boston and is part of the city. This is her city.”
She has asked threeLesley colleagues — MaryAnn Cappiello, Erika Thulin Dawes, and Grace Enriquez — to recommend poetry books for children and young adults. The list will appear in some branches of the Boston Public Library this summer. She plans to hold office hours in some branches, where anyone can bring in their own poetry for her to read and discuss.
But mostly, she wants people to recognize that poetry isn’t frightening.
“Some people love poetry and use poetry and are comfortable with poetry,” Legros Georges said. “But there are those for whom poetry may be a giant living in the hills. It’s out there. Maybe they have been figuratively whipped by a pedantic, Alexandrian-sonnet-loving English instructor.”
One way to draw in the poetry-averse, she said, is to remind them that they already know poetry. Most of us first hear poems in nursery rhymes when we are children. She quotes from memory the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky:”
“ ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe. . . ”
“I think that my role as poet laureate is to demystify poetry for people who may not know quite what to think about it,” she said.
For her, poems do not exist only on paper: They are meant to be spoken as poems originally were. She doesn’t belong to the low-intonation school of reading, where poets utter their lines as if they were reciting the ingredients in a Twinkie.
Legros Georges delivers her poems as if each one were a drama, unfolding line by line. At Lesley recently she read her 135-word poem, “Intersection.” The poem uses three lines, changing only slightly, to describe the deadly 2010 Haiti earthquake. Legros Georges read: “The earth shook. A portal opened. / I walked through it” — in rhythm.
Her early life in Boston felt temporary, poised to change. “We were considered in exile,” she said. “My family moved here as a result of politics in Haiti. There was the expectation that we would somehow return.”
Her family was filled with artists. Her father was an architect and engineer who taught his children to draw and experiment. Her mother worked at the Federal Reserve Bank and made elaborate cakes at home. Her grandmother created one of Legros Georges’s favorite artworks: a white gabardine skirt with a crescent-shaped pocket, covered with navy, star-shaped buttons.
All three of Legros Georges’s brothers ended up in creative fields: one is a musician, one a clothing designer for extreme sports, the third, an architect and photographer.
She graduated from Emerson, where she studied communications, and got master’s degree in English and creative writing from New York University. In between, she was part of the Dark Room Collective, a community of black writers. The group was founded in 1988 by poets Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange, who hosted a salon at their Cambridge house.
The group formed an important part of her education. Poet and playwright Derek Walcott, novelist Terry McMillan, and poet Yusef Komunyakaa were invited guests. “It was a great sort of scene,” she said.
Legros Georges is private about her own life. She rarely writes about herself, and in her new role, she doesn’t plan to focus on herself.
“This is not a confessional poet,” said Aafa Michael Weaver , a poet and Simmons College professor. “She doesn’t like that. She likes to look outside herself at the larger world.”
Weaver has known Legros Georges since 1999, when he come to Boston from Rutgers in New Jersey. Since Boston’s black community has become increasingly international, he said, Legros Georges’s background, including recent trips to Africa, will benefit everyone.
After the earthquake Legros Georges went there to visit family, and contributed writing to support relief efforts. “She knows the intricacies and complexities of Haitian culture and politics as well,” Weaver said. “She knows where to go, who to talk to.”
During media coverage of the disaster, Legros Georges grew weary of hearing Haiti described as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. She wrote a poem that Bill Moyers included on his PBS show, “Bill Moyers Journal.” The poem began: You should be called beacon, and flame, / almond and bougainvillea, garden / and green mountain, villa and hut, / little girl with red ribbons in her hair, / books-under-arm, charmed by the light / of morning.”