Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is the 2021-23 Poet Laureate of Santa Fe, New Mexico. An uprooted Southerner who is now a New Mexican, he has been a professional journalist for the over 20 years, with articles, fiction, and poetry in The Nation, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He is also a playwright and performance artist. His essays on poverty, economic justice, race relations, African American history, civil rights history, and post-Katrina New Orleans have appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, The Christian Science Monitor, The Atlantic, Dissent, Crisis (The NAACP magazine), The Guardian, and many more. He has appeared as a guest on the Tavis Smiley Radio Show and is presently a Writing Fellow at the Center for Community Change in Washington, DC. In the arts (sometimes in life) he loves playing with fire. His recent full- length collection, Psalms at the Present Time (Flowstone Press), appeared in November 2021.
Sometimes, it seems like folks are afraid of—or intimidated by—poetry. Others dismiss it as an unimportant or irrelevant genre. Many leave high school or college and never look at a poem again. As a poet yourself, what’s your response to this phenomenon?
We all have our interests, strengths and weaknesses. That isn’t the point. The point is that primary school is where you receive foundational knowledge, like basic knowledge of math, science, and history—all of which is supposed to make you an able citizen: able to do income taxes, understand Newtonian physics, and appreciate the democratic process.
I conduct workshops with an appreciation that teaching poetry and the arts to high school students activates a different set of receptors, having to do with becoming what I like to call “ a responsive human being.” A responsive human being has cultivated another kind of training. This person is responsive to aesthetics—and accordingly responsive to feelings like concern, empathy, understated humor—capabilities fostered by having an imaginative curiosity.
Knowledge, skill, and taste are culminative—and memories build upon memories—so the student who interacts with poetry in high school retains a starting point. And if they enjoy something artistic, they have a little bit more insight into why they enjoyed it. Furthermore, if they re-engage with poetry in later life, they have a background memory to draw on.
I want to note here that, contrary to the implication that interest in poetry is in jeopardy, by many people’s measurement poetry is more popular than ever in American history. Let’s assume this is true. It may be that more young people latch on poetry via social media. Through no fault of theirs, this comes with its own set of problems. Poetry is disseminated in a way that begins to resemble celebrity culture, with the kind of faddishness that makes hype an integral part of a reputation. And in a culture of hype, social connections and/or being connected to powerful institutions becomes more important. It feels to me that something like Emily Dickenson being rediscovered, or Walt Whitman being reappraised as the most important poets of their times, has become much harder to imagine. I don’t think interest in poetry is dying out; actually, it’s cresting. Nevertheless, this complicates matters.
You’ve lived in Santa Fe for ten years. How has this city influenced your writing?
I wrote a story in set in Santa Fe for the short-story collection Santa Fe Noir. And I write a column that addresses local issues. My creative axis is not New Mexico, however. I hope this isn’t a disappointing answer. Because without being disingenuous, or roundabout, I really do believe the New Mexican influence on my writing has been both profound and inconspicuous.
You’re not going to find references to New Mexico in the poetry collection, Psalms at the Present Time. No poem directly relates to Santa Fe, the culture or landscape. I’m not that kind of a creative writer. Yet.
I was born in the South, raised in the South. I experienced being a Black American in the South. I still return to Charleston, South Carolina, occasionally, and I live there imaginatively in my head.
This dichotomy is not so unique. It’s the genesis of the expression, “Silence, exile, and cunning” by James Joyce—famously describing his physical exile from Ireland. Joyce left Ireland when he was 20, never returned, but always wrote stories set in Dublin. I am a person ‘in exile’ who keeps one foot in the South. This will always be the case.
I am a New Mexican too, given my past decade. I am still sorting through what that means. I suspect that sorting through its meanings is the most integral part of being a New Mexican! New Mexicans adopt rooted perspectives, yet this is a place of cultural divergences. I am a newbie. I am a stranger. I am culturally estranged. Yet isn’t every New Mexican simultaneously rooted, yet insecure, located, yet displaced? And how do the pieces make up a whole? And who are you within these cultural divergences? And how do you define your contours? It may be that managing feelings of displacement is the real new Mexican experience.
I have discovered a number of new writers, new voices, “new” (meaning new to me) literary histories since coming to New Mexico. The writers include Western story spinners, like Max Evans; culturally-rooted Hispanic writers, like Rudolph Anaya, author of Bless Me Ultima; and my favorites: highly abstruse, experimental Native American authors, including Layli Long Soldier, James Thomas Stevens, and Jake Skeets—wordsmiths who struggle with the hegemony of writing in the English language at all.
Forgive me. I had never even heard of Bless Me Ultima before coming to New Mexico. In the South, institutions steer you toward books written by regional authors. The South is obviously a site of historical conflict, shadowed by the legacy of slavery. But when I imagine books by the major Southern writers, reflect on the shelved titles, I can conveniently divide them into two categories: those that confront racism, and those that try to avoid dealing with it. When I imagine New Mexican titles lined on a shelf, I see a cultural divide more extreme—definitions worlds apart—containing whole diverse universes and cosmologies of culture, language, religion, and visions of revolution. And I picture large spaces in between the shelves that must be the gaps where the individual wanders, investigating New Mexico.
In America, literacy rates have declined over the past decade, particularly in New Mexico, where, this year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked our state 49th for child welfare. As our city’s Poet Laureate, what ideas do you have for cultivating literacy amongst children and adults alike?
I am confused by these statistics. Since becoming the Poet Laureate, I’ve traveled to Santa Fe schools—charter schools and public schools—and I am amazed by the students’ language skills. This week, I taught poetry to a handful of ten-year-olds. I can’t say enough to praise their level of concentration and comprehension. New Mexico schoolchildren have remarkable potential, but extreme poverty and cross-cultural issues must be widening achievement gaps and pulling our students down.
I posted this question on Facebook to get feedback. Friends responded that New Mexico would achieve better results in literacy education if there was higher pay for pre-K and elementary school teachers. Others emphasized the importance of introducing children to culturally relevant reading material. It makes sense to me that you have to entice children who can’t read, or only marginally read, just like you have to entice adults to pick up a paperback. I also emphasize the pernicious effects of poverty. It destabilizes families, and induces anger and frustration at school.
Among your many activities, you teach a workshop for adult poets. What’s your favorite part about teaching? What common struggles do you observe among your poet-students?
Youths and adults alike have different way of reading texts. I have shared poems with students that I have never read in the same way afterwards. A good workshop, like a good short story, benefits from surprises. A good discussion goes beyond the obvious. And something unique, odd, or enlightening happens. I adore the unusual.
This story is exemplary although the class of adult learners studied Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, rather than poetry. One student had a particularly special way of reading texts, because he was a trial lawyer. He ignored symbolism and intangibles. He read like he was gathering moral evidence. He focused on tangible evidence, specific statements that justified the narrator’s behavior. It was like a legal defense of Existentialism. The whole class benefitted from the way he had been trained to read. Experiences that enhance the group’s versatility in reading and writing belong among my favorites.
Creative struggles are irreducible. Yet to address the question with an appreciation that creativity is your own Sphinx’s riddle—poets whose work isn’t successful sometimes haven’t sufficiently relied on a process. They think they’re exploring language that develops mysteriously. They think they’re then exploring the unknown. They haven’t let go control, using a process. Or maybe they don’t understand how subtle that is. They think the language on the page is the key. They don’t appreciate that history, biography, sociology, physical motion, stray thoughts, biography, time, philosophy, and zeitgeist are all aesthetic processes. Poetry is a reflection of consciousness. Each passing second is a potential new aesthetic process. If they’re not engaging with the multiplicity and duplicity of patterns and processes, maybe the writing isn’t layered.
As a poet, playwright, performance artist, essayist, and journalist, how do you get into the creative “head space” for each? Do you work with a muse? Ultimately, what inspires you to create in so many different forms?
People say they have a hard time describing my writing; in fact, I have a hard time describing my writing.
The kinds of questions that writers usually get asked—“What is your most urgent theme?” “Is you writing autobiographical?” “What has been your major influence?”—I can’t, or don’t answer. I am too busy discovering these answers through new pieces of work. I am a bit hooked on a process that is moment-to-moment, critically conscious, literary, yet performative. There are precedents for writers who can’t be easily labeled. I admire versatile talents, Cocteau and Pasolini, namely, although I doubt I will match their stellar careers. Joy Harjo is a poet and a musician. Versatility can be called a contrivance. Think again. Labeling writers is actually a terrible contrivance. There have been so many authors that have been publicized for one brand of writing, then scholarship has proven this label is superficial. I don’t have to stop to puzzle which idea will fit which medium. A story sometimes becomes a poem, or vice versa. A play monologue from yesterday becomes a poem today. A poem becomes a brief discursive essay. An idea that began inside a poem is incorporated in a performance piece. This is not a problem. I barely notice. Possibilities tend to swirl around me amorphously. My muse is Energy.
You once remarked to the Santa Fe Reporter, “So what the hell is poetry? It is to make. I believe this is the most useful definition.” What advice would you give to someone struggling with finding creative inspiration to make poetry—or any form of art?
Grasping that the etymology of “poetry” is the Greek word poiesis, which means “to make,” is in itself a source of energy, liberating you from self-conscious baggage. And liberates you to perceive that every activity in your daily life may be poetry. I fielded this question recently. Someone asked, “I sit down to write. And nothing happens. What do I do?” I responded, “You’re sitting down to write? Why not stand up!” This is a comical answer—if you leave it at that—yet I often stand while I’m writing. I stand up because it reinvigorates me. See? I’ve taken writing out of a purely literary context. My literary work sometimes intersects with body, space, and place. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “Life is Motion,” called this ‘the marriage of flesh and air.’ Find a way to find energy. Stand up.