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Meet Emeryville's first poet laureate

Janell Moon, Emeryville Poet Laureate
Janell Moon, Emeryville Poet Laureate

Emeryville, best known for big box stores and a movie complex, currently has something San Francisco lacks: a poet laureate.

One would expect San Francisco, home of the beat poets of the fifties, to have the position – and it does, but the term of the previous poet has expired. This will be remedied soon; candidates interested in the post have two more days to file.

Ruth Atkin proposed the poet laureate program back when she was Emeryville’s mayor. The town, population 10,000, has a strong history of supporting visual arts, so Atkin thought it was time “to do something that can enhance the spoken and written word.” The City Council agreed and the position became official in 2010.

Lisa Sullivan, who coordinates the city’s Art in Public Places program, sees the position as an inspiration to young people. “It’s important to have the arts and it’s important to write poetry,” says Sullivan. “And this is what gives life meaning.”

The first person officially charged with the task of “writing poetry to give life meaning” is Janell Moon, a hypnotherapist and a writing coach. She acknowledges that being young today is very different from her youth, but she maintains that poetry still has a purpose for students today. “It gives us a wider view of living,” she says. “It gives us metaphor and language of places where we haven’t been, so it can enrich our world. And I think poetry can teach us about oppression, and it can teach us about beauty, and meaning-making.” Moon says poetry can inform and make their life richer.

She contrasts that view with a time when “academic men took over poetry and you had to know the myth, or be very well educated – know the references, in order to understand their poetry.” She says this changed when women such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath came on the scene. “They changed poetry so people could relate to it as narrative, as a lyrical story.” Ultimately, Moon says, those changes helped open rap to a wider audience.

While not a rapper herself, the white-haired poet admits to a love of any kind of poetry because “it’s a people’s voice, and it tells a story. And also, it’s a way that marginalized people get their voice out.”

Moon says she wouldn’t mind seeing a rapper in the position of Poet Laureate. “There’s no reason it has to be an older person that’s been in the community for a long time.”

But for now, it is. Moon holds the title until October 2012. During that time, she’ll use her poetry to inspire “beauty, and meaning-making, and a wider view of living.”