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City Of Asylum Launches Poet Laureate Program

city of asylum
Courtesy of City of Asylum

A longtime cornerstone of Pittsburgh’s literary scene, City of Asylum runs a range of programs - from supporting exiled writers to managing a bookstore. This year, the nonprofit will expand even further with the launch of two new initiatives: a “Poem of the Week” series created by Allegheny County residents; and a poet laureate program titled “All Pittsburghers are Poets," which received a RADical ImPact Grant from the Allegheny Regional Asset District last September.

The latter initiative is part of an effort to explore “the local literary ecosystem” according to City of Asylum manager of special projects Erin Roussel. Until March 2, submissions will be open to the public for Poet Laureate of Allegheny County, Youth Laureate, Emerging Laureate, and the first American Sign Language Laureate. Those selected will be announced by City of Asylum in April. The official Laureate will be announced by the Allegheny County Executive’s Office.

“It really aligns with our mission to protect, celebrate, and build on creative freedom of expression,” Roussel said. “We want to help people either create or appreciate poetry and connect with each other.”

Once selected, the Poet Laureate of Allegheny County will serve a two-year term, while the other laureates will serve for one year. Each will participate in public readings and pursue a community project of their choosing. The Youth Laureate will also compete in a regional competition sponsored by Urban Word. Additionally, the laureates will assist in curating the “Poem of the Week” series.

That initiative is the latest in a history of developments for City of Asylum’s in-house magazine Sampsonia Way (named for the street in Central North Side where the organization houses exiled writers). Just last year, the magazine saw its biggest transformation to date: City of Asylum’s founder Henry Reese initiated a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh in which Pitt students now create and edit content for the magazine. 

“Sampsonia Way Magazine, at this point, is what the students make it,” said Pitt Professor Timothy Maddocks, who manages the publication. “I’ve just been kind of blown away with the creativity and eagerness and talent and skill that they’ve brought to this.”

He added that, with one year under their belt, the students are set to release a range of new content in 2020, including a Latino series, interviews with City of Asylum writers, and – of course – the poems of the week. Most excitingly, said Maddocks, those poems signal a shift in Sampsonia Way’s tradition of writing about literature toward actually publishing it.

Both initiatives represent a movement by City of Asylum toward merging its longtime investment in national and international writing with a celebration and acknowledgement of Pittsburgh’s local literary scene.

*This story on Tuesday, Feb. 18 was updated to include additional grant information.

Caldwell Holden is a Pittsburgh native and production assistant for 90.5 WESA. He studies creative writing and journalism at Bennington College in Vermont, where he is currently a junior. He has previously worked for HowlRound, a digital theatre platform based out of Boston, Massachusetts, and for Kneerim & Williams, a literary agency also in Boston.
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