Before she moved to Johnstown last year, Lael Haselrig was stepping up to stages and open-mic venues to join in slam poetry sessions, an intense, in-the-moment iteration of her passion: writing poetry.
“When it comes to writing, poetry has always been where I feel the most comfortable, and then I branched out when my son was born and wrote a book,” she says. When he was a little older, and before she had a computer at home, Haselrig would take her little one to a library and type away.
Now, the 29-year-old, who was born in Johnstown and grew up visiting family here, hopes to build a life here, near friends and family in Kernville. She moved to be closer to her grandmother and to turn her training as a welder into a career.
But she didn’t want to leave everything behind, least of all her voice. She continues writing, and, while she’s yet to find a poetry slam locally, she was encouraged when she heard about a search for the first poet laureate of Johnstown. She saw a flier at a local library and didn’t hesitate. She submitted a new piece, one about dancing through her familiar “new” neighborhood. Her poem, “Shall We Dance,” was one of 60 submissions to the search for a laureate, a creation of conceptual artist Asa Ana, who lives in Belmont.
“When you come back to Johnstown, you’re kind of waltzing through everything,” Haselrig says. “It’s the feeling of knowing I can put my music on and go for a run and knowing that around the corner is going to be the same thing, the same ladies on the same street.”
Submissions were accepted through Jan. 31, with an announcement now planned for later this year. The laureate will be tasked with serving as an ambassador for poetry in the community, collaborating with cultural leaders to promote poetry, and nurturing a local appreciation for the art form.
With references to history, heritage, or hockey — and plenty of familiar places — the city was a common theme among many of the poems, but not all. Some were fierce, others funny. Ana has reached out to some of the participants to collaborate on visual art to accompany their work and also performed an analysis of the most frequently used words among the submissions. “Johnstown” was the second-most used word.
“Love” was the first.
Now he’s collaborating with Moriah Conant, a poet who entered, to embroider the word “love” as many times as it appeared in poems.
“More than 2,500 words were submitted. Seeing that ‘love’ was the most used word, it confirmed to me not only did we create a supportive community who shares a passion for language, the project tells me there is still love and communality in these divisive times,” Ana says.
He was happy, too, with the number of poems submitted, a sign of the abundance of talent and passion for writing among the city’s neighborhoods. Right now, a team of reviewers is working to narrow down their top selections and soon will pass along 10 poems to nationally renowned poets Jim Daniels and Toi Derricotte to recommend a laureate. The hope is to make an announcement this fall, perhaps with an event to unveil the laureate and also highlight the talent of others who submitted, Ana says.
Johnstown Mayor Frank Janakovic has agreed to make a proclamation to honor the city’s poet. Organizers also hope to showcase local poetry on CamTran buses and in other mediums. The priority is to nurture community and connection among local poets.
The Rev. René Whitaker, pastor at Westmont Presbyterian Church, says she submitted one of her pieces on a whim.
Writing lines of poetry during in-between moments has been part of her life for years. She’s written four books of poetry so far and another on gratitude.
“It’s like writing sermons,” she says. “You learn to live with however it happens.
“It’s a mystery.”
She says she knows of a handful of others locally who write poetry, but not many.
Ana says he hopes to help more poets find each other, including those who may never before have had the encouragement to try their hand at shaping lines.
A laureate will be named later this year. Updated information and announcements will be shared at www.poetjohnstown.com.