At a City Hall ceremony today, Mayor Nutter announced the appointment of Frank Sherlock, 44, as the second poet laureate of Philadelphia.
Sherlock succeeds Sonia Sanchez. He'll serve for two years, during which he will receive a stipend of $5,000.
Duties include mentoring young poets, a couple of official readings, and community-service work. One of his first duties will be to help select a youth poet laureate, also the second, succeeding Siduri Beckman.
Beth Feldman Brandt, executive director of the poet laureate governing committee, said: "This position is not just an honorary appointment. We make it clear that the poet will be busy writing, working with younger poets, taking a lot of energy and commitment around the city." She said, "I think Frank Sherlock will make things happen."
Contacted at his South Philadelphia home, Sherlock, a native of the city, said he was notified "just before New Year's, but I haven't told many people, to keep the news in for the official announcement."
Sherlock is on a roll, having received a Pew Fellowship in the Arts for last year. He is the author of at least five books of poetry, plus collaborative long-term works such as his project with fellow poet, Philadelphian, and Pew fellow CA Conrad titled The City Real and Imagined, based on walks through Philadelphia. He calls that "a conversation among different Philadelphias."
The appointment was the mayor's idea, announced in a speech in May 2011. It is organized by the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. The committee includes a range of writers, publishers, and cultural officials. An open call went out for applicants, and 26 poets applied. That was narrowed to about a dozen, "and then," says Brandt, "the hard part started. We had a small group of finalists come in to talk to us and tell us what they wanted to do as poet laureate. It was really hard to make a choice, because they were all so distinguished.
"Frank spoke in a really compelling way," Brandt says, "about his connections to Philadelphia."
Sherlock grew up in Southwest Philadelphia and attended Temple University, where he met poets. His interest in poetry began after he saw a reading by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko at the University of Pennsylvania. "I left there, and knew what I wanted to do," says Sherlock, who has worked with nonprofits that include the Food Trust and the Mural Arts Program.
His poetry, he says, is "a poetry of public spaces, a collaboration of encounters, a generative act." He is an urban poet, "because I've been in the middle of a city, and I love a good story, bits of speech you hear in passing. The real poetry is all around us: Everybody is putting it out there. You just have to have an ear for joint conversations."
His poetry is generous, as in these lines at the end of his poem Over Here: "Welcome home now get / back home The oven's been exploded / the bread is still expected This is for you let's eat."
The poem really is meant for the "you" who hears or reads it - and it's a collaborative act, something the poet and the reader make together, and consume together, thus the "let's eat."
There's also a sense of having a party in challenging surroundings. (Even though the oven's been exploded, we still expect bread.) From Ready-to-Eat Individual, a collaboration with the New Orleans poet Brett Evans: "Let us be this new city and liberate ourselves . . . This moment in the history of history, we might climb through the window to coronate ourselves as monarchs of our skin."
Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have poets laureate. Many cities, from Boise, Idaho, to Key West, Fla., do, too.
Is Philadelphia a poetry town? Stroudt says the experience of choosing a laureate showed that "there's an amazing range of really wonderful work being done out there."
The city "has so many contradictions, complications that somehow find a way to work together," says Sherlock. "Through my writing, my own Philadelphias have been transformed."
He says he hopes to start a program, titled "Write Your Block," in which residents "are encouraged to map their own neighborhoods through memories, stories, poetry."