John Warner Smith Named Louisiana Poet Laureate for 2019-2021

Local News

BATON ROUGE – The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH), along with Governor John Bel Edwards, is proud to announce Louisiana’s newest Poet Laureate, John Warner Smith. Following Jack Bedell’s successful tenure as poet laureate from 2017 through August 13 of this year, Smith will assume the post beginning August 14 and serve for two years.

“John Warner Smith’s writing captures the human experience through meaningful, passionate poetry that moves your emotions. John is not only a talented and gifted poet, he is a trailblazer who devotes himself to education and the greater good of the community,” Gov. Edwards said. “He is making history today as the first African American male appointed as Louisiana Poet Laureate, and I’m confident that John will serve our great state well. I want to thank the LEH for leading this search, and I congratulate all of the nominees whose writings tell the unique stories of Louisiana, the place we call home.”

Smith, a native of Morgan City, began writing poetry while simultaneously building a successful career as a public administrator and a banker. He now teaches English at Southern University in Baton Rouge, in addition to regularly publishing new works of poetry.

“Reading Smith’s poetry, which often reflects the rich beauty of black humanity with razor-sharp precision, is a sensual feast,” said Cynthia Brown, dean of the College of Humanities and Interdisciplinary Studies at Southern University and A &M College. “His words bring the reader deeply into the world of his personas, leaving a lovingly indelible impression that feeds a desire to experience more. We are proud to call him one of our own.”

A fellow of Cave Canem, Smith has four published collections of poetry: “Muhammad’s Mountain” (Lavender Ink, 2018), “Spirits of the Gods” (ULL Press, 2017), “Soul Be A Witness” (MadHat Press, 2016) and “A Mandala of Hands” (Kelsay Books – Aldrich Press, 2015). His fifth collection, “Our Shut Eyes: New & Selected Poems on Race in America,” is forthcoming this year from MadHat Press. 

Smith’s poems have appeared in numerous literary journals across the country, including Ploughshares, Callaloo, North American Review and Missouri Review, and he is the winner of the 2019 Linda Hodge Bromberg Poetry Award. Much of his poetry draws upon African American history and his personal experiences of growing up and living in the South.

Prior to his career as a published poet, Smith earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of New Orleans. He also holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and Bachelor of Science degrees in Psychology and Accounting from McNeese State University.

“Poetry found me long before I realized that I was a poet, even as I pursued other career interests,” said Smith. “The journey has been quite fulfilling, and I feel blessed to be a vessel in that sense. As an African American writer, my perspectives are not unique, but I do portray the human condition in a different and somewhat important light, particularly of history and personal experience.”

As Louisiana’s literary ambassador for the next two years, Smith will travel the state encouraging fellow Louisianans to explore and engage with poetry. In addition to Bedell, previous poets laureate include Brenda Marie Osbey, Darrell Bourque, Julie Kane, Ava Leavell Haymon and Peter Cooley.

“I like to think of my work as helping to narrow or bridge the distance that our differences often create between us,” said Smith. “As poet laureate, I hope to broaden awareness of how poetry enriches our lives. Having spent my early childhood in a public housing project and attended public schools during the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement, I would especially like to bring that awareness to the youth of poorer, rural parts of Louisiana.”

According to selection guidelines, nominees must have published works in books, anthologies, literary journals or magazines. In addition, the selection committee must seek information from the general public and the literary community. The committee must select nominees who reflect the diverse cultures and heritage of Louisiana.

Under state law, the LEH is charged with overseeing the poet laureate nomination process. This year’s panel included Bedell along with LEH President/Executive Director Miranda Restovic; Darrell Bourque, PhD, former poet laureate and professor emeritus at University of Louisiana at Lafayette; Jessica Faust, poetry editor of the Southern Review; Ava Leavell Haymon, former poet laureate and a published poet;  Laura Mullen, the McElveen Professor in English at Louisiana State University;  Sheryl St. Germain, director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Chatham University and a published poet; and Erin Greenwald, vice-president of content at the LEH.

The Poet Laureate will be available for public programming, including readings, workshops and lectures, at venues across Louisiana during his tenure. For sites that wish to host the Poet Laureate, please contact Christopher Robert at (504) 620-2639 or robert@leh.org.

“I always look forward to immersing myself in Louisiana’s vibrant and thriving poetry scene for the poet laureate process,” said Restovic. “Here at the LEH we are proud to not only manage the selection process, but also to support meaningful interaction with the Poet Laureate and communities around the state during each tenure.”

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