What is a Poet Laureate?

What is a Poet Laureate?
The custom of fashioning a wreath of laurel leaves to honor a poet or hero likely dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and it continued through history.


By Zeina Azzam

This is the question that I hear most often when people learn of my new position as Poet Laureate of the City of Alexandria. I am sure that previous poets laureate encountered similar inquiries. So, what exactly is a poet laureate, and what does one actually do?

First, I am delighted to serve as the newest holder of this position, and the seventh since the program was reestablished in 2007. Before that, Alexandria had a “Poet in Residence,” Jean Elliot, from 1979 to 1999. I am honored that the Literary Task Force, set up and organized by Alexandria’s Office of the Arts, selected me. And I am incredibly grateful to the City of Alexandria for making the arts and literary programs and poetry in particular a priority. This illustrates the importance of creativity in our city and the profound role that the arts play in our lives.

The adjective “laureate,” according to the dictionary, refers to being “honored for outstanding achievement in an art or science” worthy of the laurel wreath. The custom of fashioning a wreath of laurel leaves to honor a poet or hero likely dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and it continued through history.

We have seen such wreaths ornamenting statues from older eras. For example, in Washington, D.C., there is a statue of the Italian poet-philosopher Dante Alighieri with a laurel wreath. Today, the fragrant leaves of the bay laurel tree are used for cooking, herbal medicines and soap making, among other things. One can imagine the lovely scented halo that a wreath of fresh laurel leaves bestowed on the honored person in ancient times.

This age-old “laureate” designation may seem anachronistic, but it does imbue the position with a seriousness and historic respect. We have poets laureate on many levels of U.S. society, starting with Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of Virginia Luisa A. Igloria and poets laureate for numerous counties and cities such as Alexandria. There is also a National Youth Poet Laureate, a position held by Amanda Gorman, who wrote and read the inaugural poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, as well the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate, currently Naomi Shihab Nye.

For the City of Alexandria, the aim of the poet laureate program is “to promote appreciation of poetry as an art form; to encourage creative writing and reading of all forms of literature; and to promote literacy through poetry.” During each
year of the three-year term, the poet laureate is expected to write two to four
poems that contribute to marking seminal events in Alexandria’s culture and history; my first such activity was to read an original poem at the commemoration of one of Alexandria’s two documented lynchings, in honor of Joseph McCoy. The poet laureate also offers an original poem at Alexandria’s Birthday Celebration in July.

Other poet laureate responsibilities include participating in judging the “DASHing Words in Motion” poetry contest – writing a poem for it – and holding poetry workshops and readings to involve the community. Poets laureate are given leeway to pursue special projects, like working with students in Alexandria City Public Schools and libraries, offering programs in recreation and senior centers, reaching out to the diverse communities in Alexandria, celebrating National Poetry Month through various activities, attending and participating in events held by civic organizations in the city, writing a column for one of the local newspapers and judging poetry contests or initiating programs for particular communities, such as youth, women or the incarcerated.

Poets bring their own strengths and interests to the table. For fulfilling these duties, the poet laureate is given an honorarium of $500 annually, with an additional $500 available for organizing two workshops for the community.

A little about me: I have lived in northern Virginia since 1981 and in Alexandria for the last 11 years. I have always loved reading and writing poetry, and a number of my poems are published in literary journals and anthologies as well as in a poetry chapbook. My family is Palestinian; my parents were refugees who fled Palestine in 1948 and later settled in Syria, then Lebanon, then the United States, where we immigrated when I was 10.

So, my background, and especially being a bilingual and bicultural Palestinian American, helps me to understand the diversity of identities in Alexandria and to have empathy with those who are discriminated against, marginalized or face some kind of injustice. Some of my poems focus on these themes. And like all poets, I also write about my family and friends, love and loss, natural phenomena and universal human experiences.

I am pleased to be writing this bimonthly column for the Alexandria Times to explore literary events and initiatives in the city. As one way to encourage the writing of poetry, I will add a poetry prompt for the reader with each column, in hopes that it will serve as an inspiration to write a poem of your own.

Poetry prompt:

As a city by the water, Alexandria and its history are intertwined with the Potomac River. Write a poem to the Potomac River, addressing it in the second person, i.e. as “you.” Explore its history or your relationship to the river today, and what this means to you.

The writer is the City of Alexandria’s Poet Laureate.