avery r. young named first-ever Chicago Poet Laureate

The appointment of the award-winning composer, teacher, visual artist and producer was announced Monday by city officials.

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Chicago Poet Laureate avery r. young is photographed at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

Chicago Poet Laureate avery r. young is photographed at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

Patrick L.Pyszka/City of Chicago

Chicago officially has a poet laureate.

The appointment of award-winning composer, teacher, visual artist and producer avery r. young to the new post was announced Monday by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in partnership with the Chicago Public Library, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the Poetry Foundation.

Young’s two-year term 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 youths and students, Monday’s announcement said.

“When you READ the words you’re supposed to SEE the words. In poetry, it’s the words that matter — only the words that are necessary. You don’t have a photo, so your imagination is sparked,” young said during a phone chat.

His love of poetry started in the third grade, after reading his first book of poems, “I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans,” compiled by Arnold Adoff. Needless to say, the works of Richard Wright, LeRoi Jones, Langston Hughes and others were a heavy lift for a young child. Young said he was undaunted.

“I just loved the poems,” young said with a hearty laugh, about seeking out the book at the age or eight or nine. “I guess I was a nerd.” But it was the title that truly spoke to him: He is the “darker-skinned brother to three sisters,” he explains with exuberance.

Reading the poems aloud in his third-grade class led to a CPS oratory contest and ignited a lifelong passion for the art form.

Young is currently co-director of The Floating Museum art collective, a Cave Canem fellow (a nonprofit celebrating the artistic and professional growth of Black poets), and a Leader for a New Chicago 2022 awardee. He also performs with his blues, funk and gospel band, avery r. young & de deacon board. His poems as well as prose have been featured in several anthologies.

“First and foremost, poems are little stories, and the poetry is the means by which we capture those moments through language. Just as a painter uses paints, the way in which photographers use a camera. Poets use words to paint those pictures. It may sound like a cliche but a poem is a photograph made from words.”

Young, who works as a teaching artist for Urban Gateways, says Chicago has a rich history of spoken word poets, such as J. Ivy, who earlier this year made history by winning the first-ever Grammy Award for best spoken word poetry album. Young hopes especially to inspire young children and students to seek out poetry (and the arts in general), via his new role.

“Poetry is way more integrated with us than we think. We learn the alphabet by way of poetry: (singing) a-b-c-d-e-f-g, h-i-j-k-l-m-n-o-p. That’s where it starts, through this simple rhyme scheme. ... It’s not about being a good poet. It’s about being good people. Whatever you do in life, do it well. Keeping the course pays off. Stay focused. [Poetry] is as near to us as the air.”

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