Jersey City has an official poet laureate — this is what he does
JERSEY CITY — At just 24 years old, Jersey City's newly minted poet laureate has made a name for himself as a competitive poet and now wants to use his new role to reach and help a wider audience.
Rashad Wright said his poetry started as something of a fluke during his senior year at Marist High School in Bayonne. The school had a group called the Soul Poetry Club, whose biggest draw was that it met in one of the few rooms in the school with air conditioning. He took his newfound love of writing and combined that with four years in the drama club to become a well known slam poet in the city.
Wright said all his writings have a similar theme, which he hopes to use to help others in his new position.
"I think everything I've ever written is like maybe messages or letters that I wish I heard at some point in my life that might have made things easier for me," he said.
"When I figured out it was like this weird art form that was a combination of these two random things I did that I thought had no correlation it really worked out when I realized how big the slam community is," he said.
Wright said his message is geared toward people like him who thought there was nobody who could relate to their childhood. But he has been surprised by how many people his writing has touched.
"I've been to shows and people have walked up to me saying they were touched by my work," he said. "These were people from completely different worlds from my own."
The role of poet laureate is a two-year term and comes with a $3,000 stipend, but it certainly is far from the only job Wright will have over the next two years. A recent graduate from New Jersey City University, he is also a soldier in the National Guard, a swim instructor and a performance coach.
He was named to the post at a recent banquet for the Jersey City Arts Council and accepted the role with Mayor Steven Fulop at his side. During his acceptance speech, Wright delivered a simple message with the help of those in the audience. When he said "day by day" the audience responded with "we're getting better and better."
Council Chairwoman Robinson Holloway told New Jersey 101.5 that the exact parameters of the role are still being defined but she is excited to see what Wright does with it. She said since he was named the winner of the contest there have already been new avenues explored for ways he can help spread the power of the written and spoken word. Holloway said the $3,000 stipend is paid by the city.
In this new role, he said he hopes to help people and expose people to poetry that might not otherwise experience it. That includes going to grade schools to talk to children, going to senior homes to speak to the elderly, and even going to prisons to speak to inmates.
"I really just want to bring poetry back or put it where people don't usually get it," he said. "There's always more I want to do. I just didn't always have the avenue to do it. I just hope this might make that a little easier."
Poet laureates have have not come without controversy in the past. In 2002, noted author Amiri Baraka was named the state's poet laureate. When he wrote a conspiratorial poem called "Somebody Blew Up America" about the 9/11 attacks, then Gov. Jim McGreevey and others called on him to resign. Baraka defended his poem, saying it was not anti-Semitic and condemned the "dishonest consciously distorted and insulting non-interpretation of my poem."
Since Baraka could not be fired and wouldn't resign, the state eliminated the position entirely in 2003.
Holloway said she did not foresee the same issues with Wright, whose work does not shy away from topics some might see as controversial.
"He has a First Amendment right to say what he wants. I think he's also a responsible enough person that I don't think he wants to start a war," she said. "I feel that if we're actually arguing about poetry in the next two years then the world wins. It's a triumph if that's what we're fighting about."
As for the subject matter of his writing, Holloway called him "an authentic Jersey City native who is speaking the truth and we wouldn't want to muzzle him.
"He speaks for a generation that actually does not have a large voice in this city. I think we need to listen to what he says," Holloway said.
Wright is expected to be officially appointed to the position when the city council meets later this month.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.