Chicago’s first poet laureate: ‘Find the material that does touch your heart’

Avery r. young told a gathering Saturday he plans to do his best “to make sure poems go in a whole bunch of rooms.”

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avery r. young, Chicago’s first poet laureate, performs during Saturday’s Poetry Fest at the Harold Washington Library Center.

Avery r. young, Chicago’s first poet laureate, performs during Saturday’s Poetry Fest at the Harold Washington Library Center.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Avery r. young strutted, danced and stomped along the stage, working up a sweat as he pumped up the crowd.

It was a rousing performance for Chicago’s first poet laureate, making his first public appearance in that role Saturday at the Chicago Public Library’s 24th annual Poetry Fest at the Harold Washington Library Center downtown.

The appointment of the award-winning composer, teacher, visual artist and producer was announced days earlier by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

“I’m the first poet laureate of Chicago!” young declared as he walked onto the stage amid cheers.

He spoke, and he also sang some of his poetry, including “Lament,” “emmett (til de remix),” “Madison,” “Little Lily” and “Resurrect Fred.”

avery r. young, the first poet laureate of Chicago, performs during Poetry Fest at the Harold Washington Library Center in the Loop, Saturday, April 29, 2023.

Avery r. young, the first poet laureate of Chicago, performs during Poetry Fest at the Harold Washington Library Center in the Loop, Saturday, April 29, 2023.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago writer Eve L. Ewing interviewed young following his performance.

“So right before we came out, I asked you, ‘Are you gonna sing? Are you going to do some poems?’ And you said, ‘Well, what’s the difference?’” Ewing said.

young’s response? “The work for me is not to write a poem that will touch your heart, but the work for me is to find the material that does touch your heart and then put the poetry in that. The thing that makes you wake up to write the poem is the poetry, not the poem itself. The poem just wants to be heard.”

Writer Eve L. Ewing speaks with avery r. young, the first poet laureate of Chicago, during Poetry Fest at the Harold Washington Library Center in the Loop, Saturday, April 29, 2023.

Writer Eve L. Ewing speaks with avery r. young, the first poet laureate of Chicago, during Poetry Fest at the Harold Washington Library Center in the Loop, Saturday, April 29, 2023.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

young’s two-year appointment as the city’s ambassador for literary and creative communities comes with a $50,000 award to commission new poems and create public programming for young people and students.

“I felt immediately embraced by the community, and I’m doing this with the community,” young said. “I hope to create a situation where I can garner support and resources so that we can open up opportunities for other artists to create poems, songs and artwork.”

young, who grew up in Austin, is the co-director of the Floating Museum art collective, a Cave Canem fellow, Leader for a New Chicago 2022 awardee and a performer with his blues, funk and gospel band — avery r. young & de deacon board.

“We, as the poets, have to live, have to listen, have to gather those stories that want to be heard,” young said. “And I’m going to do my very best in this laureateship to make sure poems go in a whole bunch of rooms.”

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