Notes On Being Poet Laureate

June 27, 2019

Notes on How Being Laureate Helped My Work

by Flower Conroy,
Poet Laureate of Key West 2017-2019

Being Poet Laureate has truly been an embarrassment of riches. I feel my two-year term was hashtag blessed, and it wouldn’t have been the magical experience it was without the support and love from my fellow Poetry Guild members and the community at large. You people are awesome. (I’m not crying, you’re crying.)

It’s not just the work itself, but the greater responsibility I felt to the art of poetry and to my fellow poets. Corny or not, I felt like a poetry ambassador, that what I was doing—insinuating poetry into the lives of people whom may not otherwise ‘seek’ poetry out, or introducing inventive ways for lovers of poetry to engage with the written word—was (and continues to be) meaningful work—and which would not have been possible without the help of my fellow poets—so I thank you!

The work doesn’t stop when the title changes hands. It will continue to be my pleasure finding interesting ways to bring poetry into people’s lives.

One obvious way it changed my work, I started writing for Decimos: The Word (which you are reading right now!). I’d always thought about writing craft essays but just never found the time—that is, until I had a specific deadline and audience. These are the two greatest motivators: a clear deadline and an imaginable audience. Thank you for indulging me and letting my prattle on and on about the space between the title and the first line of a poem, for example (a real essay I wrote about), or whatever other crafty thing I was thinking about. [If I’m allowed to continue this column, in the future you may read essays on craft concerns such as: “Wham! Bam! Pow! How Loud is this COMMA?: The Sound of Punctuation in a Poem,” or, “I Don’t Know What That Means It Must Be Poetry.” I’m kidding and I am totally not kidding.]

Additionally, I was asked by my dear friends Phil and Terri Wilson to be the “Arts” of a TSKW “Arts and Eats” in which I (re)introduced poetry to a group of about 35 participants during a prosecco brunch. In the Wilson’s lovely, orchid-filled backyard, I set up five Poetry Stations: a limerick; an acrostic; an exquisite corpse; a haiku; and one I named “Zelda’s Inferno” (which was a ‘fill in the blank’ that followed the formula: The [adjective] [noun] of [abstraction]”). Participants were encouraged to visit each station and let their creative juices flow. After, I read every inscription aloud; a poetry reading of my work and a book signing followed.

As Poet Laureate, I was deeply honored to be asked to write and read poems for World Aids Memorial Day in 2017 and 2018. In fact, this may be the most important responsibility I had as Poet Laureate. I personally have lost friends to this disease, so raising awareness and finding a sure are near and dear to my heart. Standing at the pier, reading to an already emotional audience, I could not help but feel the love and loss in the air. I knew it was my job to write and read something that acknowledged and spoke to that sorrow but which, very much like prayer, left the listener feeling calmed, hopeful, reassured.

In addition, I’ve been awarded (a second) Anne McKee Artist Fund Grant to produce another anthology of work written during my poetry workshop at the Key West Library. To differentiate this anthology from its predecessor, I plan on restructuring the anthology to include the prompts and if space allows, a selection of the Decimos craft essays. My hope is that the anthology develop from ‘collection of poetry’ to ‘collection of poetry with practical craft applications through prompts’ such that the anthology can become a tool for writers.

Perhaps second on my list of honors since becoming PL, is that I’ve been asked by the Studios of Key West to judge their applications for the next TSKW’s poet in residence. And this may not have been possible had I not been asked by Dennis Beaver to judge the Tennessee Williams Poetry Contest (twice). Thank you for trusting in me, Dennis! And, in part as a result of judging the TWPC, I’ve participated in Marathon Craft conference twice: once, leading a workshop on image and this last time as a panelist along with Emily Schulten Weekley discussing the intersection of poetry and prose.

I felt like I had to work harder as a poet after being named Laureate—because that title deserves at least that. It is/was not lost on me that, as Poet Laureate, I not only represented Key West (at different conferences and through my publications), but also the Key West Poetry Guild. And I fully understand: being a member of the Poetry Guild IS NOT a prerequisite for Poet Laureate of Key West. That being said, the Guild exists because of the unquestionable need for community—for literary community—and for a literary community ALL may have access to. It is a place to be heard and seen, to hear and see. It is my poetry family.

When my fellow writers at Bread Loaf or Tin House ask me what the writing scene is like in KW, I always say ‘we are few but we are mighty’. The Guild is very important to me; it was and continues to be a safe place for sharing. Those who attend have made a commitment to their art and their fellow writers. And I think with the ‘birth’ of Po’Key, the Guild is expanding in fun and meaningful ways.

I feel like I’d prepared my whole life to be Poet Laureate and yet nothing prepares you for the felling when you are. I decided to leave that typo—felling instead of feeling—as it carries resonance. It is a felling in the sense that being recognized with the honor Poet Laureate was an emotional bringing to one’s knees, a humbling—but it also proved itself an uplifting.

As with any accomplishment (or failure for that matter), there’s the moment poised between the impending future and the past that has led one toward this newly stumbled upon path; things that didn’t make sense may seem to fit into place, things that seemed certain may reveal themselves as no longer viable. You make things fit into place or you let them go or you “simply” contemplate the ‘how’ of ‘how you got where you got’. I mention all this because it is integral to my progression as a writer and as Poet Laureate.

Standing before the Commission meeting in June 2017, receiving my title and proclamation, I couldn’t help but think of my college graduation. I was named valedictorian of the graduating class and as such was invited (with my mother and father) to the college president’s office before the graduation ceremony.

I was going to be the first person in our family to graduate from college—and not only any college, but the same college my mother began attending but had to drop out of—because she had gotten pregnant with me. My father—a quiet man not known for great displays of emotion—began tearing with joy and blamed those tears on his allergies to the orchids hanging in the college president’s office.

[My parents were not in the audience the day I received my Poet Laureateship. My mother lives in New Jersey, and my father passed shortly after I graduated (at the young age of 45)]. Had he been present, I know he would have had another “allergy spell.” Meanwhile my ecstatic mother was phoning her bingo buddies, bragging.]

My writing—the act and art of it—was very important to my father because it represented a life of other possibilities: I remember as a child riding my bike and the chain popped. I turned the bike over and figured out how to get the chain back on, based on having watched my father fix it on other occasions. I peddled home to show him my grease-stained hands—grease-stained like his were grease-stained—proud of my accomplishment, but instead of sharing in this, my father grew upset and told me to ‘wash [my] hands right now’. He didn’t want me to labor like he labored, he wanted me to work with my mind. I know these memories are helter-skelter, but they are also integral to my development as a poet.

My father’s death was sudden—or, I should say, his first death. I didn’t have a clear plan of what I wanted to do next after graduating college, so I passed the time working at a steak house in a mall. Graduate school was a vague plan, I knew I didn’t want to teach, and figured I’d take a year to sort it out. On a Friday night—November 19, 1999, to be precise—my father’s heart stopped while he was on the phone with one of his friends. My mother was on the computer in the living room with her back to my father who was on the couch. [I just realized I can no longer recall his exact last words (which had been repeated to me) and now I will not forgive myself for that]. My father told his friend, “I don’t feel good,” then something along the lines of “Something’s not right.” With that, my father’s heart stopped. By the time my mother realized what was going on and called 911, she was informed “someone else had already phoned in the call.” The ambulance showed up and the paramedics defibrated my father’s heart until they found a beat. Carrying him out on the stretcher, they lost him again. Dropping him to the ground, they pounded his heart until they got another pulse. By now my father had been without oxygen for over half an hour. As a result, my father was about to fulfill his worst nightmare—one he had been vocal against in life but had not put into writing—to be hooked up to machines, in a vegetative state.

After his passing, I decided to leave New Jersey and move to Key West. Still wracked with grief and trauma, I shut down as a writer…for almost ten years.

This is a lot of personal information—perhaps too much—but it’s important because I rose out of the ashes, I came back to writing—and I hope others can find inspiration in their circumstances, not matter how grave they seem at the time. As any artist will attest, one can only suppress one’s natural calling for so long until the art overpowers. I began reading and writing (really bad) poetry again. I needed compassion and permission to be a writer again, and so attended the Cape May Poetry and Prose Getaway (now the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway) where many of my early mentors taught workshops for the weekend.

I considered this my re-introduction to the writing world. I needed to return somewhere familiar and welcoming. It was at one Getaway my mentor Laura McCoullough insisted I get my MFA—as it would provide the discipline I needed for my art, and also because it communicates to other writers that I take this art seriously enough to devote time, energy and money to bettering myself at it. It was around this time I also began attending the Key West Poetry Guild. I remember thinking what an idiot I was for not attending earlier—had I begun attending the Guild when I first moved to Key West, I would have found I had a welcoming poetry space close to home.

I am thankful for everyone who has helped me along this journey. I know the journey isn’t ending but beginning anew. I look forward to welcoming and working with Key West’s next Poet Laureate.