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St. Louis’ new poet laureate task force seeks nominations from the public

Cheryl Walker, chairwoman of the poet laureate task force, is a St. Louis native. Her published work includes a poetry chapbook called Silence Isn’t Quiet.
Cheryl Walker

After months of discord over who should be the next poet laureate for St. Louis, the city could select a new voice this fall.

St. Louis has been without an official poet for more than a year after a disagreement between the task force that recommends a poet laureate to the Board of Aldermen and a former member of that group.

Now, a new task force is in place and its members are asking the public to play a role.

The changes follow the events of December 2016, when the task force sent its nomination of Jane Ellen Ibur to Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. Former committee member MK Stallings thought the honor should go to another poet, Shirley LaFleur.  

The process came to a halt,mired in a debate that included questions about whether Stallings’ term was officially up when then-chair Aaron Williams asked him to leave.

The new task force aims to create more transparency by taking nominationsfrom the public, beginning Monday. Public input also widens the pool, according to local attorney and poet Cheryl Walker, who chairs the new group.

“Like, if it was me and you and one other person in the room," Walker said, "we’re sort of limited by the people we know, right?” Walker said.

Poet and public speaker

Reed appointed seven of the eight task force members including Walker. Mayor Lyda Krewson chose one, Jill McGuire, co-founder of the Regional Arts Commission. The group,which is more racially diverse than the prior task force, is taking nominations through July 20.

In August, its members will choose three to five semi-finalists, interview them, select a final candidate and send the name to Reed for approval. The last step will be a vote of the entire Board of Aldermen after they resume meetings in early September.

None of the current task force members was on the prior committee, and the new group hasn’t spent much time second-guessing its predecessors’ methods, according to Walker. Instead, she said, her task force studied the processes and guidelines used by other cities and the state of Missouri.

The new selection criteria include a demonstrated ability in public speaking as well as poetry writing.

“Because it is publicly facing role, we want someone that also will feel comfortable engaging in those public interactions,” Walker said.

 In this file photo, St. Louis Poet Laureate Michael Castro talks with students at an event presented by the 7th Grade Poetry Foundation.
Credit Adelia Castro
In this file photo, St. Louis Poet Laureate Michael Castro talks with students at an event presented by the 7th Grade Poetry Foundation.

St. Louis' first poet laureate, Michael Castro, performed in numerous public spaces during his term, which ran for two years beginning Jan. 1, 2015.

The task force is planning to recommend a candidate  to the Board of Aldermen on Aug. 18. But with an eight-person committee, a tie is possible.

“I think I’m safe in saying that the president would be the tie-breaker,” she said.

Walker is hopeful that this time, the task force can avoid getting to the point where Reed has to make a decision or let the process stall.

“But at the end of the day, we realize we are not a decision point,” Walker said.

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.