What’s a poet laureate and why does Johnstown need one?

Wikipedia says a poet laureate is a poet that has been officially appointed and is “typically expected to compose poems for special events and occasions.”

So why so we need one? The answer, says Eric Schwerer, is about enhancing the city’s culture. “Any city needs art, including poetry, because people want art in their lives. Murals, statues, monuments, graffiti, ballet, dancing in a bar with friends … the more art in our life, the better.”

Schwerer, who is an author and associate professor of creative and professional writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, is one of the community members spearheading a contest to find Johnstown’s poet laureate.

“We want to get submissions from people who have been writing poems for years as well as from people who’ve never written a poem before seeing the announcement for our contest,” Schwerer says. “The important thing is that the poem they do submit must not have been published anywhere.”

A poem does not need to rhyme. “In fact, we are not fans of light verse or lines that end with a rhyming word rather than the right word,” Schwerer says.

The subject matter can be just about anything. “We do love poems that provide a sense of place, but the winning poem might not do that. “Send us a poem that is on fire, full of color, cuts to the bone or sets us free.”

Submissions will be accepted through Jan. 31 from the following zip codes: 15901, 15902, 15904, 15905, 15906, 15907 and 15909. Residents between the ages of 11 and 111 are invited to participate.

A panel of community members including Schwerer and artist Asa Ana will review the submissions and select 10 finalists and two nationally renowned poets, Jim Daniels and Toi Derricotte, will chose the winner.

That person – Johnstown’s poet laureate – will be announced in the spring.

The winning contributor will be proclaimed poet laureate by the mayor of Johnstown during an award ceremony that will be followed by a brief, public poetry reading by the new laureate and a parade or party in downtown Johns-town. Local CamTran buses will showcase the winning poem as well as poems from other community members who submitted to the contest. The Tribune-Democrat will publish the poem with a feature article about the poet laureate.

Throughout his or her lifelong appointment as poet laureate, the winner will receive informal support from Pittsburgh-Johnstown faculty and other professional writers and community members.

Additionally, the winner will agree to be a lifelong advocate of poetry, continue to write poems and share their poetry with others, and encourage  Johnstown residents to read and write poems and to celebrate poetry’s place in our culture.

“Many towns, cities and countries appoint writers to represent their communities and to help foster an appreciation for the art of poetry,” Schwerer notes. “Here in Johnstown, we hope this initiative will enrich local residents with creative energy and give people the opportunity to learn about one another through poetry.”

Schwerer says he has no idea if there are many poets in the region. “It will be interesting to see how many people submit,” he says. “I’m a poet. My neighbor is a poet. Many of my students at UPJ think of themselves as poets. My four-year-old son is a poet.

“The famous poet William Stafford said, ‘Everyone is born a poet – a person discovering the way words sound and work, caring and delighting in words. I just kept on doing what everyone starts out doing. The real question is: Why did other people stop?’”

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