On Thursday October 30, 2014, Tate Street High Society Managing Editor, Abigail Browning met with Celisa Steele, the current Carrboro, North Carolina Poet Laureate, at a local coffee shop, The Looking Glass. Bright, articulate, and thoughtful, Celisa Steele spoke with a welcoming and focused demeanor about her experience in the role.
Raised in Arkansas, Steele’s history with North Carolina intertwined from a young age. Since her mother’s family lived in Charlotte and her father’s family hailed from Statesville, Steele and her family traveled east twice a year during her childhood to make their holiday visits. In fact, it was during one of those car rides that she was inspired to write her first poem. Celisa Steele became a full-fledged Tarheel in 1996 when she was accepted to UNC-Chapel Hill’s graduate program in Comparative Literature, where received her master’s. Steele has lived in North Carolina ever since, and works as Managing Director of Tagoras, a market research and consulting firm, while also writing and supporting the community of poets across the state.
To say the least, Celisa Steele is an active poet. Before her term as Carrboro Poet Laureate, she had already served for eight years with the Poetry Council of North Carolina until it merged with the North Carolina Poetry Society in 2013. There, she spent a term as vice president, and now chairs the long-range planning committee. To cap it off, she is an inaugural member of the Carrboro Poets Council, and she has a bounty of awards and poems in literary journals. You can buy her chapbook, How Language is Lost (2011) published by Emrys Press, here. Steele’s two-year tenure as Carrboro Poet Laureate continues until June 30, 2015.
North Carolina boasts a population of just under 10 million residents, and Carrboro, is home to 20,000 people (statistics via the 2013 census). According to the Town of Carrboro’s search announcement, the role of the Carrboro Poet Laureate is:
“to engage in activities that enhance the presence of poetry in the social and civic life of Carrboro. These may include participation in Carrboro Day, contributing to the planning of the West End Poetry Festival, which is held annually in October, and outreach to local schools.”
In the interview that follows, we explore Steele’s thoughts on what it means to be a poet laureate, her writing process, and the value of diversity in poetic voices.
A: I was listening to that great piece that you have linked on your website to Jay Bryan talking on Frank Stasio’s radio program “The State of Things.” Bryan, former Carrboro Poet Laureate, said that Carrboro was the first town in the state to have the position. How would you say that reflects the kind of town that Carrboro is?
C: For me I think that it just reflects that Carrboro is a very arts-friendly, arts-hip kind of town. There is a poet laureate and the film festival, the music festival, the poetry festival—not only does the town purport to be “arts-friendly,” I think it is walking the walk, by doing some of these things and being committed to having some of these things, and giving some funding towards them.
It’s just a good example of the town realizing that business is important. We have to have the tax base, but I don’t think that anybody wants to live in a town that is driven by business alone. The arts are going to be part of what is going to attract people to come here, whether to live or to visit, and to hang out somewhere like The Looking Glass.
A: How long have you lived in Carrboro?
C: My son was born in 2007 and we moved at the end of the year before he was born—so 2006. And that was all of three miles from Chapel Hill to Carrboro.
A: You were pregnant while you were moving?
C: Yes. [Laughing.] Five or six months pregnant and unpacking boxes. It was…strenuous. I had a lot to do. But then when I had insomnia, I could get up and unpack boxes. [Laughs.]
A: You’re in your second year of being poet laureate. How do you reflect on the last year and what are your goals for this next one?
C: Well, what I’d really like to focus on in my remaining time is this poetry in public aspect, and I’m calling the initiative “Carrboro is Poetic.” The goal is to get some poetry in busses, which we did for the festival—we had a poem by Cathy Smith Bowers in busses—but get some more poems up there. Also then to start doing some chalking on the sidewalks of poems, do some realtor boxes with poems. I’d really like to focus on that because I also think that it could be something that once we get it started would be easy for the next poet laureate if she or he wanted to continue it.
I’m glad that it’s a two-year term because I feel like the first year you spend time trying to figuring out: “Okay, what is it that I need to do?” Then, the [West End Poetry Festival] takes up a big chunk of time. For me, that is where my heart and passion is in particular, because I do think that [the festival] is a way to serve the poets in the area and to get that interface between community and poets as well. I talked to some people the Saturday of the festival who said, “I just saw a poster and wanted to come see what it was about.” I think that is exactly what it can do.
Charles Wright did an interview not long after he was appointed Poet Laureate and was being asked what he planned to do, and said something like, “Well, I’m not really a project poet.” I was like—oh—that sounds great—to not be a project poet [laughing]. Meaning, I’m trying to balance what can I do, and what I think would be meaningful to do with the fact that I’d still like to write. I still need to—have to—work, I still want to spend time with my family and all those things. It’s a balancing act. I think the two-year term is a good length of time to figure out what you are doing, if you choose to undertake a project, to get a project hopefully far along enough that it has some legs, then turn it over to someone with fresh ideas and fresh enthusiasm.
A: How does being a poet laureate make it easier or more difficult to write poetry?
C: I think right now it makes it harder—just in the sense that it’s one more demand on my time, and poetry takes time to write. It ends up competing.
That said, I think this is maybe kind of like banking for the future? I went to Spain with my family this summer, and I didn’t do any poetry writing while I was there. We were gone for six weeks. There was so much caught up in the daily living, and trying to enjoy what was going on—and keep up a little bit with work from home. So it was very busy and I didn’t write any poems. But I did keep a journal. I can imagine poems coming out of those six weeks. They just haven’t come out of them yet.
I think probably the same thing is true of the poet laureateship. It’s exposing me and giving me experiences, in a way that Spain did, that will feed into future poems. But it’s not happening right now. It’s kind of a time of fallowness that will be followed by some bounty down the road.
A: What types of poems have you been commissioned to write?
C: I wrote one poem when Lydia Lavelle was sworn in the December right after I was appointed. They invited me to come read a poem at that swearing in of Lydia as mayor, and what turned out to be the re-elected Board of Alder-people at that point. They said, “We’d love it if you would read a poem, and if you wanted to write one for the occasion, that would be great.” But it was not, you know—“You have to.” I figured: I’m going to take it like a prompt. I’m going to take it as a writing challenge to write for the occasion.
I actually ended up writing two poems for the occasion. I don’t necessarily know if they’re great poems—but they serve a purpose. I think it’s a nice recognition on the Town of Carrboro’s part that poetry is and can be part of these types of momentous occasions. I really appreciated there was the thought of: let’s have a poem to mark this important event.
A: Since the Town of Carrboro is so supportive, and the West End Poetry Festival is in its 9th year, do you think that Carrboro could have an even bigger poetry festival?
C: Yeah, I think it could. I would love to see it grow. My understanding is that the Carrboro Music Festival, which I think was the 16th this year, was huge*. You have thousands and thousands of people out for that. So I think that there are certainly models of a poetry festival where we could go that route. We could decentralize, start having different venues to put people in. I think that takes time and enthusiasm. The town relies on volunteer committees for all the festivals, so there’s also the wherewithal and the stamina of the volunteers doing something like that. But, absolutely, there are towns that have that type of broad-based more dispersed kind of festival and I think Carrboro could, down the road, be one of those as well.
For me personally, the downside of a more dispersed festival is that then I couldn’t be everywhere. That’s the difficulty with the music festival right now—you have to pick: who am I going to go hear at this time slot? But then that’s also a wonderful dilemma to have [laughs].
[*Editor’s note: In 2014, the Carrboro Music Festival celebrated its 17th annual with 180 bands at different venues across the town.]
A: One thing I absolutely loved, and you might have seen in my review on Tate Street High Society, was that there was an intergenerational component to the West End Poetry Festival. How do you think we could be better about inviting young people to participate in the poetry community?
C: One thing I can say is that when people talk about diversity among poets, I think sometimes that age is not one of the factors that gets talked about or thought about. I do think it is an important one. […] That said, age shouldn’t be mistaken for experience. You’ll have the octogenarian who suddenly decides, “okay I have time, I’m interested in poetry” and she’s going to start writing poetry.
A: Yes, That’s my grandmother. She’s [age obscured to protect the source]!
C: That’s great! So, yes, you’re going to have some of that. I think we have to be careful too. The younger poet could be more experienced, more heavily credentialed, and all of that. There’s a lot that happens when different styles, different levels of experience, different points of life and career, when those brush up against each other, rub up against each other can create some interesting points of comparison.
I guess that’s it for me—I did my masters in Comparative Literature, and I’m a comparatist at heart. I like the juxtaposition that can happen when you put different poets beside each other. I think you can get some really exciting resonance that wasn’t even planned, just by having it there.
Also, when people say “young poets” I think we have to stop and say, “what do you mean by young poets?” because obviously there’s everything from grade school up, or do we mean young adults, and where along that range [of skills]? There are probably different ways to [market to] those different groups.
[Interview continues in Part II: The Creative Process]
A huge thank you to Celisa for meeting with us! We look forward to seeing the second half of Celisa Steele’s term as Poet Laureate unfold.