Dallas appoints its first poet laureate

Joaquín Zihuatanejo grew up in Old East Dallas, reading poems to his grandfather. Now he plans on being a “catalyst for poetry” in the city.

Dallas has its first, official poet laureate. The appointment of Joaquín Zihuatanejo was announced Wednesday morning. He’s a former prize-winning slam poet-turned-teacher-turned-motivational speaker.

Zihuatanejo was born and raised in Old East Dallas. He gained his love of poetry reading poems aloud to his grandfather de el — from books like The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Working as a yardman, his grandfather often found such books set outside for pick-up. He would listen to the English-language poems being read “and he would criticize my reading abilities in Spanish,” Zihuatanejo said. “And if your readers or listeners don’t know what ‘critique’ means, it means ‘Yell at you.'”

But his grandfather also could smile or almost tear up listening to them.

“So I knew I would have to do a really good job to capture his attention,” Zihuatanejo said. “And when I wouldn’t, he would say things to me like, ‘Mijo, little one, if you don’t breathe life into it with your voice, how can I breathe life into it with my mind?’

“So he was my first teacher. And from very early on, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be paid money someday to shake people with words.”

Joaquin Zihuatanejo – “Final Exam For My Father” @WANPOETRY

Zihuatanejo eventually became a fixture in Dallas’ slam poetry scene. As with most slam poets, his work drew on his own life — in his case, growing up in the neighborhood, growing up without a father.

In 2008, Zihuatanejo was the Individual World Poetry Slam Champion, and the following year, the World Cup of Poetry Slam Champion in Paris, France. Since then, Zihuatanejo has quit regular teaching to tour, performing at spoken-word events, speaking at TEDx talks and conducting workshops in poetry

The United States poet laureate is officially a consultant to the Library of Congress — he or she arranges public readings and literary series. As Dallas’ poet laureate, Zihuatanejo said he plans to perform in all of the city’s branch libraries. He’ll also have two rooms set aside for him on the third floor of the Central Library downtown.

“A private office just for me to write in,” he said, “and an open-air communal space. So if a teacher is wondering how to incorporate poetry into a lesson plan—something I’ve ofen done—they can actually come and sit with me. If a seventh-grade student is writing a poem for a class — or just trying to write a poem on his own — we can workshop that poem together.”

A collaboration among the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, the Dallas Public Library and the local publisher Deep Vellum Books led to the creation of the poet laureate position. Interested poets had to apply online starting last year.

Zihuatanejo’s two-year appointment comes with a $20,000 dollar honorarium — it’ll become a one-year appointment after this. But Zihuatanejo also receives a $2,000 dollar advance from Deep Vellum.

That’s for the poetry collection that he’ll now have the time to put together. It’ll be his seventh of him.

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