Monterey County’s first poet laureate sets goals – Monterey Herald

When you ask Daniel B. Summerhill about his career as a poet, he leans in to speak, like he’s sharing a secret carefully tucked away somewhere in writing. But when asked about his new role as Monterey County’s first poet laureate, he leans a little closer, careful not to let a single word of his plans for the community slip by.

Earlier this year, the Arts Council for Monterey County honored the published poet, performance artist and assistant professor of poetry, social action and composition at CSU Monterey Bay with its inaugural laureateship position.

At 30 years old, Summerhill’s work has taken him across the United States and overseas. His poetry by him has appeared in Columbia Journal, Rust & Moth, Button Poetry, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Hellebore, among other publications. In 2021, Summerhill published his debut collection “Divine, Divine, Divine,” with his sophomore collection, “Mausoleum of Flowers,” set to release in April. He has taught at CSUMB since 2019.

Summerhill was selected as poet laureate through a competitive application and evaluation process by a panel of literary experts, with the Monterey County Board of Supervisors approving the final decision. The honorary position primarily asks whoever is chosen to open the door of poetry to Monterey County, as well as celebrate the area’s cultural heritage and promote literacy and literature among residents. The county has granted Summerhill a $2,500 honorarium to see his two-year laureateship through her.

Daniel Summerhill, an assistant professor of poetry and social action & composition at CSU Monterey Bay, has published his first volume of poetry, “Divine, Divine, Divine.” (Photo courtesy of Daniel Summerhill)

Summerhill now finds himself tasked with expanding poetry under a local scope, a role he is uniquely poised to define through the next two years after decades of innate commitment to the art form.

Question: I know that you were raised in Oakland and that your family played a role in your introduction to writing, but how and when did you discover that connection?

Answer: I’ll never get tired of this story. I like to think I was born a poet, mostly because poetry is more than what I do, but rather who I am, the way that I think, the way that I move throughout the world, how I operate. …But when I was in middle school, my oldest sister – I have four older sisters – had just got married and moved to New York with her new husband. She’s also a poet and 15 years older than I am. I was 11 years old or something, in middle school when you’re trying to figure out who you are and your body’s changing, everything’s changing and you’re trying to find your place, and I found this photo album of poetry my sister had written while she was in high school.

It was one of those things that was kind of like a spark. I found it as this 11-year-old and one of the poems that still sits with me to this day is called “Wishing Upon a 747.” Essentially, it’s about my sister wishing upon an airplane because stars aren’t visible in the inner city with light pollution, and at the end of the poem, she comes to that realization. As an 11-year-old, realizing language could allow me to understand that image and what my sister experienced was really cool and exciting and just one of those sparks.

The other spark is that about a year later, I had a teacher named Mr. Ross in my English class. We had a unit on poetry, and we got to write poems. At the end of the class, he pulled me aside and told me he brought me two things: one was a novel by Paul Beatty called “The White Boy Shuffle” … and the other was a journal. In it, he wrote, “So much talent, never waste it.” Although those gestures were kind of small, they were huge in terms of nudging a kid in the right direction. Those two folks are what kind of sparked my newfound curiosity in poetry. …That’s how I got started, then I pretty much just wrote.

Q: When did poetry go from something you did in your free time to something you wanted to pursue as a career?

A: I went to a junior college right out of high school, and I was playing football. I was writing, too, but it was more so just something I enjoyed. It wasn’t something I was going to fully pursue. In my head, I was still playing football, until my sophomore season when I broke my collarbone. It wasn’t that I couldn’t come back from a broken collarbone, but mentally I was taken out of it. … For the next two years, I was just working. I worked two or three jobs at one point, but I was still broke. I realized this wasn’t it, this wasn’t the way. So I decided to go back to school and finish my bachelor’s degree. I wanted to learn more about language and writing and how to get better at it. I guess I just wanted to rewind a little bit.

Daniel B. Summerhill, a published poet, performance artist and professor at CSU Monterey Bay, is Monterey County’s first poet laureate. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

As a middle schooler, I did say to myself that one day, I want to be a college professor, and I want my poetry to take me around the world. As you know, I’m a professor, and my poetry has taken me to four different continents at this point. So I guess in some ways, those dreams I had as a middle schooler through poetry have come to fruition.

Q: You’ve described yourself as a quiet and reserved person. How has poetry helped you to express the thoughts you may not be as comfortable saying in casual conversation?

A: That’s tough because honestly, I’m in the school of James Baldwin who says, “You write to discover something which you don’t know,” or to confront something about yourself and what you didn’t have to confront before. So it’s a dangerous place. James Baldwin also said that nobody in their right mind will become a writer or a poet. And it’s because of those very reasons. You have to confront those things in yourself that you might not otherwise have to. …On the one hand, it’s cool to write and get my thoughts, my emotions, my feelings down. But on the other hand, some of those emotions, thoughts and feelings are things that a lot of folks have the privilege of compartmentalizing away. … It’s a constant battle.

Poetry is a truth-telling art form. You have to confront those things because that’s what the art form requires. But I don’t know any other way but to function other than poetry. Like what would I be doing if I wasn’t a poet?

Q: When you write, do you have any guiding philosophy or principle you go into the process with?

A: Tell the truth. Again, June Jordan, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, they all say that to reflect the times is to tell the truth. Nina Simone said that’s true of painters, sculptors, musicians, poets. …We don’t always know what the truth is, but we do know when something is false, right? That’s the only rule. Does it tell the truth? I’m just trying to figure out something I didn’t know before I sat down. Language is how we wrestle with things. Language is our only mechanism for wrestling with ideas, thoughts and emotions. The process is usually me trying to figure out or discover something, and oftentimes there’s no answer at the end of that. The process is what the poem becomes.

Q: After focusing on your writing for so long, have you had to adjust to becoming a teacher?

A: Kind of, but it’s more of a continuum. In some ways, I just get paid a little more to do what I had already been doing. …I was already dedicated to the craft, to the artform, and then I decided I wanted to try to become a professor, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. There wasn’t ever really a huge shift.

Q: How does “truth-telling” fit into your approach to teaching?

A: The creative writing program (at CSUMB) is the only one in the country that has a social action piece embedded in it. The founders of the school… were insistent that the social action piece be a part of the curriculum instead of it being just a creative writing program. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here. Creative writing here is dedicated to speaking the truth, is dedicated to fighting injustice, is dedicated to chronicling and excavation. With that, I teach classes such as social action writing, poetry and pop culture, environmental creative writing where we explore the different environmental injustices.

Q: Has teaching or your students, in turn, affected your writing?

A: I haven’t thought of it that way before. … I take inspiration from wherever. Perhaps there is a poem a student writes or an idea that a student brings up that might spark something… but oftentimes there’s a big separation. It’s almost like I wear two different hats.

Q: And now you wear a third hat as poet laureate. When did you become interested in the position?

A: In the fall, I was invited to apply, which included writing samples, a CV, and a statement of plans or a description of the project you would put forth as the Poet Laureate. Initially, I wasn’t going to apply, but then I considered how I would be able to use the role in the same ideas of truth-telling and excavation. There’s also using the role as a vector for other folks’ stories and imaginations and poetry, which really drew me into the role. And then there’s kind of my selfish desire to get more plugged into the area. It allows me to tap into libraries, schools and people that I might not have otherwise had the opportunity to meet.

Q: Now that you’ve taken on the responsibility of poet laureate, what do you have planned?

A: There’s lots of work to do. I applied for an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship. That would give me a stipend to enlarge the project that I’m already going to work on, which is to bring Latinx writers to Monterey County public libraries to host workshops and readings free for anyone to come. From that, I’m also going to compile an anthology of Monterey County poetry. That will be disseminated both in print and online.

Lastly, I want to create a phone line in which folks can call in and choose categorically or thematically what kind of poem they want to hear. For example, if somebody’s dealing with anxiety or depression, perhaps they can call in and press two for poems about anxiety. … That’s not to fix their situation. James Baldwin says you think you’re suffering and that your problems are unique, then you read and realize somebody across the globe is dealing with the same thing. The idea of ​​the phone line is to create a sense of empathy so folks can call in and really connect with somebody else that might have dealt with the same thing but found a way to wrestle with it through a poem.

Q: You have these smaller pieces of what you hope to do lined up, but is there a place you’d like to see Monterey County be at the end of your two years as poet laureate?

A: Poems are never finished, likewise the process won’t be either. I think if I expose a bunch of young folks to poetry… because they’re the change-makers, that’s a job well done for me. What I’m interested in doing, is exposing folks to poetry that might not have ever been exposed to it. So no, there’s no grand goal, but hopefully, I can get more folks to tell their stories, to share their stories, to write. And that’s an ongoing goal. Even beyond the laureateship, that will still be my work every day.

Q: Did the experience of your sister exposing you to poetry when you were younger inform these motivations to connect with youth?

A: Yeah, I mean I know the power that poetry can have on young folks. Honestly, a lot of young folks think poetry is old, dead white men. They come to poetry thinking it has to rhyme and they have to write like a romantic poet from 300 years ago. They have a very limited scope of what poetry is and what it can be. Usually, after I break that, they realize they can share their own stories and it doesn’t have to look a certain way. That’s when the excitement happens, when they realize there are so many other possibilities with poetry. Once that happens, I think they understand not only another way to express themselves, but also to make sense of their world, of their struggles and triumphs, their beauties.

For young folks, all they’re trying to do is figure out who they are, their place in their world, what they want to do. And poetry is all about that. …I think poetry was a super useful tool for young folks, and it was for myself. I was in the middle of middle school chaos, but finding the poems my sister wrote really allowed me to discover who I was going to be, and I know poetry has the power to do so with young folks elsewhere.

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