Voice of the People
The goal of the Poet Populist Program is to promote the practice of Art and Democracy, and to promote the literary arts and local arts organizations to a general audience city-wide.
The program engages the public and artists in this goal together. In doing so, it promotes the idea that arts and democracy don’t have to be separate: the idea, in other words, that our leaders can think and speak with creative vision, and that a dialogue with the public is a literal, integral part of that vision.
Unlike Poet Laureate programs, for which dignitaries or government officials select a poet, Seattle conducts a city-wide popular vote to determine who can speak as the Voice of the People—the Poet Populist.
The Poet Populist, once elected, is charged with promoting the principals of populist poetic expression when performing in and around the City, providing public education in poetry and authoring an original poem for inclusion in the City’s archives at the conclusion of his or her one-year term.
On February 13, 1999, Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata sponsored the Seattle Neighborhood Arts Celebration (SNAC) to augment the City’s already-established Neighborhood Appreciation Day. Twenty-three poets and performers performed at Benaroya Hall, while a dozen neighborhood arts groups exhibited in the lobby.
Attendees to the SNAC as well as the general public cast ballots and elected Seattle’s first Poet Populist, Bernard Harris, Jr., a postal employee who went on to win the following year’s election as well.
Airline pilot Bart Baxter won the third year’s title. Next came writer Tara Hardy, who was elected for the 2002-2003 term through a process managed by Eleventh Hour Productions, in conjunction with their production of the Seattle Poetry Festival.
Educator Pesha Joyce Gertler was elected as the City’s 5th Poet Populist in 2005, followed by Jourdan Imani Keith in 2006 and Cody Walker in 2007.
In 2007, the city hired longtime program advisor Ampersand Arts (now Luna Park) to manage the program and strategize its growth and success for the future. The program has moved to a fall schedule to increase participation by students, developed a curriculum for use in high schools, created a new version of the website, established partnerships with local organizations, increased voting, and begun national outreach to develop the program in more cities.