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Cabrillo College professor and poet David Sullivan began his tenure as Santa Cruz County Poet Laureate in January 2021, and from nearly the start of that tenure he has focused on June 2022.
Now that his target date has arrived, Sullivan, 61, is ready to unveil “Agents of Change,” his flagship project as Poet Laureate. “Agents of Change” is a collaboration between local visual artists and poets, an exhibition of traditional art enhanced by poets reacting to specific works of art. The art exhibit opens Friday at the downtown branch of the Santa Cruz Public Library. On June 18, Sullivan will host a poetry workshop followed by a poetry reading featuring many of the artists and poets who have participated in “Agents of Change.”
The Poet Laureate program dates back to 2009, when the Santa Cruz County Cultural Council (now the Arts Council) in conjunction with the arts group Poetry Santa Cruz and others developed the idea, drawing inspiration from the historically rich poetic subculture of Santa Cruz that has nurtured the creative work of famous poets Adrienne Rich, William Everson, Morton Marcus and others. Past winners include many of Santa Cruz’s most accomplished literary names, such as Ellen Bass, Robert Sward, Danusha Lameris, David Swanger and Gary Young.
We spoke with Sullivan about “Agents,” his experiences as Poet Laureate, his most recent book of poetry, and the ever-changing role of poetry in public life.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Look for: What’s your uplifting pitch for “Agents of Change”?
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David Sullivan: As we headed into COVID, and I had just become Poet Laureate, I thought we needed a bit of hope to cling to. I was going to do poetry of course, because I was a poet laureate. But I also wanted to reach other kinds of creatives in Santa Cruz because it’s such a rich and diverse community, with such amazing artwork. I had already written some myself, poems on art. And so it’s quite natural for me to invite artists to submit plays, and then poets to write about those plays. And the idea was to frame it as broadly as possible and let people interpret it however they wanted. And so, as the artwork came in, we posted it on the website, and then people started writing about it. So that’s what will be on display, the artwork with the poems written about it next to it.
I think there’s a lot of cross-fertilization that happens between artists, and it’s really wonderful to see these things take root and start to grow. My mother was an art historian. So I’ve always been to museums and looked at art. And so pretty early on, I started reading about art or reacting to artists. And I think it’s just such a rich world. It’s called “ekphrastic poetryand that’s where you write about a work of art. It doesn’t just have to be works of art. It can bring a scene to life, but it’s really about how the words can interact with the worldview. It’s a Greek word.
So I was hoping that this wealth would be something you could showcase. [At the time], I imagined you know, six months, we’re going to overcome this pandemic and come back to life. And I thought, well, we should do a project that’s going to celebrate coming back into the world. Well, a long delay two years later, and we’re still kind of in it.
Look for: Tell us a bit about the art in the show.
Sullivan: The work that was submitted somehow reflects this sense of hunger for change, this need for spiritual transformation in our culture. And some of them are critical and more political, but a lot of them are more spiritually oriented and trying to embrace change. I think there’s an opportunity during the pandemic to reevaluate what we value, what we’ve turned to, and how we live our lives. And I would like to think that some of us are waking up to the fact that we have to change this world and we have to do it in our kindness to the people around us. And I think the vehicle of art and poetry can be a way to manifest that kind of compassionate way of being.
Lookout: On June 18, you are hosting a live event to promote the art exhibit. What happens that day?
Sullivan: We’re going to do a workshop for the first hour, and I’ll talk a bit about ekphrastic poetry, and the different approaches that people have used over the years, give some examples. And then we’re going to do a collective response to one of the images. Each person will choose a picture on the wall and write their own poem about it. At the end of the period, if they feel like it, if they like the artwork, they can print it on a piece of cardstock, and we will mount it with glue mounts next to the artwork it -same. So we’re gonna do this for the first hour [at 11 a.m.]. And then, at 12 p.m., there will be the art exhibition. Thus, all the artists and poets will present themselves and will be able to read their work. And the artists will talk a bit about why they submitted their work and their response to the poems about their own work.
Look for: The general public may not have a clear idea of what a Poet Laureate is. What has been your experience in this role over the past 18 months?
Sullivan: Poet Laureate’s mission is to connect poetry to the larger community around you and rekindle that sense of poetry that matters in people’s lives. Laureate poets before me like Ellen Bass started the Prison Writing Project where they visit and write poems with prisoners in prison. And it’s still ongoing. Danusha Lameris was the one just before me. She started the poetry show “The Hive” on [KSQD-FM]. It’s wonderful to see when you put poetry in people’s hands and they start to realize that it’s not a daunting, erudite thing, but can be a very accessible communication tool, how great it can be to be powerful as we work through traumas or difficulties as they try to find their voice.
Look for: You continued to teach Cabrillo and publish poetry while being Poet Laureate. Tell us about your latest book of poetry, which specifically deals with the war in Iraq.
Sullivan: “Black Butterflies Over Baghdad” was released in October last year. And the centerpiece of this book was a series of co-translations, things I worked on with Iraqis. During this period, when you had no other means to connect, I used some social media devices, like Signal and WhatsApp, to communicate and work with Iraqis. This was a huge lesson for me, as they constantly told me why they were holding protests in Tahrir Square. They would send me pictures of what was going on and just tell me what post-Saddam Iraq looked like and how they were really fighting for their country. So I think when there are times when we’re closed, there are also openings that we can access and use, things like social media to really connect across boundaries and borders, if we’re ready to move beyond sex-and-violence-getting-more-shots from looking at the world, and instead digging into topics and really getting to know people.
Look for: It’s also a reminder that poetry isn’t just about gazing at flowers, but actually has a place in the real world, as ugly and divisive as it can be at times. What do you think is the role of poets in today’s world?
Sullivan: Well, I think a lot about the great black poets who are writing right now. It’s a huge explosion. And they are published now. This willingness for people, after Black Lives Matter, to start really listening to black voices and trying to understand what a black experience would be like in this country. I know that when I teach this to my students, they are simply stunned when they look at the actual incarceration rates. They look at what happened with Jim Crow laws, and they start to say, “Oh my God, what a different America they live in, just by the color of their skin.”
Look for: You are nearing the end of your term as Poet Laureate. How has that changed you as a poet and as a person?
Sullivan: It was great. I really felt this feeling of taking poetry out of the classroom and making it a life force, a sort of lifeline for a community. I realized how much it taught me and how when people get it it’s such a powerful process – how once you can get that bug you can realize how great this world can be rich and how it can be transformative for others. So I’m really touched by what people have written and shared with me through poetry and through our work.
“Agents of change” will be at the downtown branch of the Santa Cruz Public Library from Friday to the end of August.