Taylor Johnson Takes Helm as Takoma Park Poet Laureate
Most small cities across the country don’t have their own poet laureate, but Takoma Park is different.
Since the program’s inception in 2005, the Takoma Park poet laureate has served as the City’s ambassador to promote public appreciation of poetry and support a creative community for local poets. The poet laureate also helps organize the City’s popular Takoma Park Arts poetry reading series, which features free poetry readings at the Takoma Park Community Center by poets from across the D.C. area.
The Takoma Park Arts and Humanities Committee unanimously recommended Johnson as the City’s next poet laureate based on his selection by a subcommittee led by outgoing Poet Laureate Kathleen O’Toole. The subcommittee reported that Johnson “has the heart, vision, and skills to collaboratively weave poetry into the fabric of Takoma Park and harness the power of the arts to help build community.”
The City Council unanimously approved Johnson’s appointment at a Council meeting on Sept. 28. Johnson, who will be paid a $2,000 annual honorarium from City funds, will serve a three-year term beginning Oct. 1.
After growing up in the D.C. area, Johnson moved from New Orleans to Takoma Park this year with his wife. He has led poetry workshops at schools and colleges in the D.C. area, and his work has been published in many journals, including The Paris Review and Tin House.
Johnson has received several fellowships and residencies and currently serves as the inaugural poet-in-residence for the Guggenheim Museum. His first book of poetry titled Inheritance was named a Best Poetry Book by the New York Times in 2020.
Johnson spoke recently with the City’s Arts and Humanities Coordinator Brendan Smith about his work as a poet. You also can learn more about him at taylorjohnsonpoems.com.
When did you first start writing poetry and what sparked your interest?
Johnson: I had an interest in poetry when I was 15 years old and was taken with the language of John Donne and Gwendolyn Brooks. Then I found more contemporary poets to study, including Dawn Lundy Martin, Terrance Hayes, and Carl Phillips. Around that time, I also was a member of the D.C. youth slam poetry team. I studied poetry in college and am grateful for where that deep study continues to lead me.
How can poetry influence or inspire people?
Johnson: Poetry attunes people to the beauty, complexity, and deep emotion present in everyday living. Poetry can inspire readers to speak about their identities, their loves and losses, and their joys and hardships.
As a poet, I’m moved by how reading another poet’s work opens me deeply to my own language, a sense of being beheld as a member of this universe. Poetry illuminates the spiritual possibilities of color, tessellations of line and form, unuttered vernaculars of beauty in the natural world, and tensions between self and society.
What projects would you like to develop to encourage poetry writing by residents?
Johnson: I would love to lead some nature-based poetry walking tours utilizing our great trail system. I’d also enjoy updating the poem signs around Takoma Park to reflect a more diverse range of contemporary voices with a focus on local poets.
I also am interested in creating a youth poet laureate position that could work with me to make poetry books and hold youth poetry workshops in local schools and libraries. Finally, I would like to hold poet laureate “office hours” at local farmers markets and other events where I could suggest poems and poets as well as lend or give away poetry books.
What are some common misperceptions about poetry, and
how can we address them?
Johnson: Poetry can be a daunting art form to take in because it’s often seen as having a “right way” to read it, which isn’t true. There’s such great openness in the language of poems, but I think it requires a level of humility and dedicated time in the approach.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to write poetry but has never tried?
Johnson: Read and find people who want to discuss poems. That feels like the most important part, observing your language and the language of others and then joining that great conversation.
This article was featured in the October 2022 Newsletter. Visit the Takoma Park Newsletter webpage to see the full list of past newsletters.