City of Richmond announces first poet laureate to encourage unity

Richmond’s inaugural poet laureate Roscoe Burnems poses for a portrait in front of the Mending Walls mural of Lorna Pinckney. An inspiration to Burnems, she created the open mic poetry series, Tuesday Verses, where he performed.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Reggie Gordon’s last name.

Kofi Mframa, Contributing Writer

The term “poet laureate” has been on the lips of many since hearing the inaugural poem by the nation’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman. The importance of promoting unity through spoken word has found a place not only in the nation’s capital, but also in the heart of Richmond. 

The city named Douglas Powell the first poet laureate of Richmond on Jan. 13. Powell, known by his stage name of Roscoe Burnems, will serve as an honorary guest at citywide events, schools, libraries, recreation and senior centers and community festivals. The position aims to “highlight gifted artists” and gives them the task of promoting poetry, according to a release.

“Without art, there’s no innovation. The ability to be creative and act on that creativity is so important to progressing as a people and giving voice to our experiences,” Burnems said. “Art is how we connect to each other.”  

Burnems cites his storytelling influence across genres, from musicians like Prince and Outkast to the poetry of Maya Angelou and Gil Scott-Heron. He also finds inspiration in some of his peers: Tonya Ingram, Frederick Eberhardt and 13 of Nazareth. 

“This city helped mold me. The events in the literary community, the art community, the musicians, the writers and all the things we’ve watched shape Richmond artistically created who I am today.” — Roscoe Burnems, poet laureate

Burnems began to pursue poetry during his junior year of high school through his adoration of music, particularly gospel, soul and hip-hop. 

It allowed me to express what I was feeling inside in a way other art forms didn’t,” Burnems said.

The poet laureate position grants the artist the freedom to explore a variety of topics, with the primary goal of promoting poetry throughout Richmond.

“I write poetry to create challenging conversations and broaden perspectives,” Burnems said. “Whether the topic is race, religion or mental health, my work is dedicated to educating, uplifting humanity and breaking down the walls that divide us as a community.”

Reggie Gordon, deputy chief administrative officer for Richmond Human Services, said the city should continually embrace the arts as an avenue for hope and encouragement. 

“The Poet Laureate will give us another opportunity to use the power of words to heal wounds, open hearts and minds and weave us closer together,” Gordon said in a release.  

The poet laureate planning committee — which includes a diverse group of poets, writers, publishers, book sellers, librarians and people representing literary organizations — developed the rationale and the process for establishing the position in summer 2020. This process began with the Richmond poet laureate proclamation, signed by Mayor Levar Stoney in September.

“I think sometimes it is just time for things to happen,” said Patricia Parks, an information concierge for Human Services and a member of the planning committee. “There are more and more city poet laureates popping up all across the country.”

Parks said the opportunity enables the poet to reflect their love of poetry and make it readily accessible to residents and visitors to the City of Richmond.

“Roscoe has performed in a variety of venues and with diverse audiences — at poetry slams, literary events, teen workshops, city events, pop-ups, library programs and with the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia,” Parks said. “Everyone comes away smiling and/or at least thinking differently about that poetry experience.”

Burnems made his public debut as poet laureate on Jan. 16 at a virtual celebration of Edgar Allen Poe’s 212th birthday, hosted by The Edgar Allen Poe Museum. Burnems introduced himself at the event and stated his intentions as the premier poet laureate. During this event, Burnems performed an original poem describing Richmond’s beauty and vibrant culture.

“The title of poet laureate is a prestigious one that shows the power of poetry and its impact on community,” Burnems said.

In the position, Burnems hopes to blend all forms of art and curate events that promote artistic integration in the Richmond community. 

“I plan to conduct accessible workshops — in person and virtual — and use poetry as a form of advocacy, agency and activism,” Burnems said. “This title has been used as a platform to discuss plagues of our society, highlight the greatness of our culture and bring unity where there is divide.” 

Before Burnems’ appointment to the position, his work coaching multiple poetry slam teams has led both the Richmond and the VCU slam poetry teams to regional, national and international titles, with the VCU team ranking third in the world in 2018

Burnems hosts The Writer’s Den monthly slam and co-hosts Tuesday Verses, one of the oldest Black-owned open mics in the South.

“I owe a lot of my career to Tuesday Verses. Without it I don’t think I would be Roscoe right now,” he said during the virtual event. “This city helped mold me. The events in the literary community, the art community, the musicians, the writers and all the things we’ve watched shape Richmond artistically created who I am today.” 

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