Santa Cruz County poet laureate David Sullivan talks about upcoming events — a show opening Friday at the downtown library and a workshop set for June 18 — and reflects on changing the world through the written word.
Cabrillo College teacher and poet David Sullivan began his tenure as Santa Cruz County’s poet laureate in January 2021 and, from almost the beginning of that term, he has been focused on June 2022.
Now that his target date has arrived, Sullivan, 61, is ready to unveil “Agents of Change,” his signature project as poet laureate. “Agents of Change” is a collaboration between local visual artists and poets, a traditional art show enhanced by poets reacting to specific works of art. The arts show opens Friday at the downtown branch of the Santa Cruz Public Library. On June 18, Sullivan will host a poetry workshop followed by a poetry reading featuring many of the artists and poets who participated in “Agents of Change.”
The poet laureate program dates back to 2009, when the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County (now the Arts Council) in collaboration with the arts group Poetry Santa Cruz and others developed the idea, drawing from Santa Cruz’s historically rich poetry subculture that nourished the creative work of celebrated poets Adrienne Rich, William Everson, Morton Marcus and others. Past laureates have included many of Santa Cruz’s most accomplished literary names, such as Ellen Bass, Robert Sward, Danusha Lameris, David Swanger and Gary Young.
We chatted with Sullivan about “Agents,” his experiences as poet laureate, his most recent book of poetry, and poetry’s ever-evolving role in public life.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Lookout: What’s your elevator pitch for “Agents of Change”?
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David Sullivan: As we headed into COVID, and I had just become poet laureate, I thought we needed some strand of hope to hang on to. I was gonna do poetry obviously, because I was poet laureate. But I also wanted to reach out to other creative types in Santa Cruz because it’s such a rich, diverse community, with such amazing artwork. I’d already written some myself, poems about artwork. And so it’s kind of natural for me to invite artists to submit pieces, and then poets to write about those pieces. And the idea was to frame it as broadly as possible and let people interpret that as they wanted to. And so as the artwork came in, we posted it up on the website, and then people began to write about it. So that’s what will go on display, the artwork with the poems written about it beside it.
I think there’s a great cross-fertilization that happens among artists, and it’s really wonderful to watch those things take root and begin to grow. My mom was an art historian. So I’ve always been in museums and looking at art. And so pretty early on, I started reading about art, or reacting to artists. And I think it’s just such a rich world. It’s called “ekphrastic poetry,” and that’s when you write about a piece of art. It doesn’t just have to be artwork. It can be making a scene come alive, but it’s really about the way that words can interact with seeing the world. It’s a Greek word.
So I was hoping that that richness would be something that you could put on display. [At the time], I imagined you know, six months, we’ll be over this pandemic thing and get back to life. And I thought, well, we should do a project that’s going to celebrate coming back into the world. Well, a long delay two years later, and we’re still kind of in it.
Lookout: Tell us a bit about the art in the show.
Sullivan: The work that got submitted kind of reflects that feeling of hunger for change, that need for spiritual transformation in our culture. And some of it’s critical and more political, but a lot of it is more spiritually oriented and trying to embrace change. I think there’s opportunity during the pandemic to kind of reevaluate what we value, what we’ve looked towards and how we live our lives. And I’d like to think that some of us are waking up to the fact that we have to change this world and we have to do it in our kindness to individuals nearby us. And I think the vehicle of art and poetry can be one way to manifest that kind of compassionate way of being.
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Lookout: On June 18, you’re hosting a live event to promote the art show. What’s happening on that day?
Sullivan: We’re gonna do a workshop for the first hour, and I’ll talk a little bit about ekphrastic poetry, and the different approaches people have used over the years, give some examples of them. And then we’re going to do a collective response to one of the images. Each person’s going to choose an image up on the wall and write their own poem about it. At the end of the time period, if they feel like it, if they like the work, they get to print it on a piece of cardstock, and we will mount it with glue mounts beside the artwork itself. So we’ll do that for the first hour [at 11 a.m.]. And then, at 12, there will be the art show. So all the artists and poets will show up and be able to read their work. And the artists will talk a little bit about why they submitted their work and their response to poems about their own work.
Lookout: The general public might not have a clear idea of what a poet laureate is. What’s been your experience in that position over the past 18 months?
Sullivan: The mission of the poet laureate is to connect poetry to the wider community around you, and re-enliven that sense of poetry mattering in people’s lives. Poet laureates before me like Ellen Bass started the prison writing project where they visit and write poems with prisoners in jails. And that’s still ongoing. Danusha Lameris was the one right before me. She started “The Hive” poetry show on [KSQD-FM]. It’s wonderful to see when you get poetry into people’s hands and they begin to realize it’s not a daunting, erudite thing, but can be a very accessible communicative tool, how powerful it can be as we work through traumas or difficulties as they try to find their voice.
Lookout: You have continued to teach at Cabrillo and publish poetry while serving as poet laureate. Tell us about your latest book of poetry, which is specifically about the Iraq War.
Sullivan: “Black Butterflies Over Baghdad” came out in October of last year. And the centerpiece of that book was a series of co-translations, things I worked on with Iraqis. During that time, when you didn’t have other ways to connect, I was using some social media devices, like Signal and WhatsApp, to communicate and work with Iraqis. That was a huge education for me, because they were constantly telling me about why they were doing protests in Tahrir Square. They were sending me photographs of what was happening, and just educating me about what post-Saddam Iraq has been like and how they’re really fighting for their country. So, I think when there are times when we’re shut down, there are also openings that we can access and use, things like social media to really connect across borders and frontiers, if we’re willing to go beyond the sex-and-violence-getting-more-hits way of looking at the world, and instead dig into topics and really get to know people.
Lookout: That’s also a reminder that poetry is not just about contemplating flowers, but actually has a place in the real world, as ugly and divisive as it can be sometimes. What do you see as the role of poets in today’s world?
Sullivan: Well, I think a lot about the great Black poets writing right now. This is a huge explosion. And they’re getting published now. That willingness for people, after Black Lives Matter, to begin to really listen to Black voices and try to understand what a Black experience would be like in this country. I know when I teach it to my students, they’re just floored when they look at the actual incarceration rates. They look at what happened with the Jim Crow laws, and they begin to say, “Oh my God, what a different America they live in, simply by the color of their skin.”
Lookout: You’re approaching the end of your term as poet laureate. How has it changed you as a poet and as a person?
Sullivan: It’s been great. I’ve really felt that sense of moving poetry out of classrooms and making it a vital force, a kind of a lifeline of a community. I’ve realized how much it has taught me and how much when people get it, it’s such a powerful process — how much, once you can get that bug, that you can realize how rich that world can be, and how it can be transformative for others. So I’m really touched by what people have written about and shared with me through poetry, and through our work.
“Agents of Change” will be at the downtown branch of the Santa Cruz Public Library from Friday through the end of August.