Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has appointed the city’s first-ever poet laureate. Author, playwright, and political activist Pearl Cleage is currently the playwright in residence at the Alliance Theatre and the Just Us Theater Company, but she is no stranger to Atlanta City Hall. She formerly worked as a press secretary and speechwriter for Mayor Maynard Jackson. When Cleage spoke with Lois Reitzes, host of “City Lights,” she talked about struggling to balance her work as a speechwriter and her work as a poet:
“I remember one night,” she said, “up really late, trying to write a speech. And I finish the speech, and now it’s time for me to write my own poetry. And I couldn’t get the Mayor’s voice out of my head. And I could not love him more, but I did not want his voice in my head when I was trying to write a love poem! That was not gonna work! But the idea that going from that moment when I was really struggling and weeping sometimes about, how would I ever get my poet’s heart to survive City Hall? And now to be the city’s first Poet Laurete, it really is a wonderful arc of that journey.”
Cleage also talked about her mother’s influence on her writing:
“My mother always used to say, ‘Poems are good for regular people. People should be able to be riding the bus coming home from work and read a poem and understand it.’ And I always remember that. How do you take this complex idea that you have and translate it into something somebody can read on the bus coming home from work?”
She says poetry has been helpful in her process as a playwright, forcing her to listen to and understand the rhythm of language and balance “realness” with heightened language.
“Within the lines of that play, I want the magic that a poem can bring, where all of a sudden you feel something that you didn’t even know was coming, and you catch your breath. You know, there’s no greater moment for a writer I think to imagine than if you’re reading something or actors are saying something you’ve written, and you hear people gasp, a recognition gasp, when they’re listening to it. That’s when you say to yourself, ‘Ok I got it right. They recognize the human part of what I was trying to say, and their humanity responded to my humanity.’ And that’s where we meet.”
As the official poet of Atlanta, Cleage hopes to inspire young people to find their voices.