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Austin doesn’t have a poet laureate. One local writer wants to change that.

Patrons look at a table of books inside of a crowded, modern-looking book store.
Deborah Cannon
KUT News
Among Texas' largest cities, Austin stands alone in the fact that it doesn't have a poet laureate program.

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Austin is a city that considers itself an arts destination. In addition to being the world’s “live music capital,” it is home to one of the nation’s premier graduate programs for poets, one of the state’s longest-running poetry slams and the Texas Book Festival. So local writer KB Brookins wondered: Why doesn’t the city have a poet laureate?

“To not have a position that … props up poetry as part of that arts feel that Austin tries to market itself as I think is a real shame,” Brookins said.

In general, poet laureates are tasked with advocating for the arts and documenting important cultural moments through poetry. Current U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón, for instance, will visit national parks across the country this year to unveil poetry installations on picnic tables at each location. She was also commissioned by NASA to write a poem that was sent on the Europa Clipper mission.

Among Texas’ largest cities, Austin is alone in lacking a poet laureate program for adults. Houston, San Antonio and Dallas all have poet laureates, as do other cities, including Corpus Christi and McAllen. Austin does have a youth poet laureate program for teen poets, which is supported by the Library Foundation.

Brookins, a Texas-born poet and memoirist, has been active in Austin’s literary community since they moved to the city in 2018. They’ve gone to the Austin Poetry Slam, held open mic nights, judged student poetry competitions, and bought books at local independent bookstores like BookWoman, the Little Gay Shop and Black Pearl Books.

Over the past few years, Brookins has seen the poetry community grow. But after seeing Dallas launch its poet laureate program in 2022, they wondered if Austin could benefit from a similar program.

“I think this would be a great opportunity to promote literacy, learn more about Austin history and also promote all of the goodness that already exists in our poetry and literary community,” Brookins said.

Aside from raising Austin’s profile as a literary hub, Brookins said a laureate’s work to promote literacy could be a key benefit from a poet laureate program. According to the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas, more than 121,000 adults in Central Texas either struggle with reading or can’t read at all. Brookins said a poet laureate could hold free events in schools and other community locations to help kids and adults practice reading and writing.

Brookins is circulating a letter penned to the Austin City Council with a proposal for a poet laureate program that would be run by the Austin Public Library and advised by a committee that includes representatives from the library, the Austin Arts Commission and the local literary community. Brookins’ proposal also asks the city to dedicate $50,000 every two years to fund the program.

As of publication time, the letter has received 181 signatures of support. Signatories include Amanda Johnston, the current poet laureate of Texas, as well as all 11 members of the Arts Commission.

"I think it's an opportunity for Austin to catch up with some of the other our neighboring cities as well as other major metropolitan cities in the country," said Celina Zisman, chair of the Arts Commission. "We're at a moment where our cultural vibrancy is really at risk."

Baylor Johnson, public information manager for the Austin Public Library, said that while the library couldn’t comment on specific calls for support from the city like this one, it generally would welcome a poet laureate program aimed at uplifting local writers.

“It’s the kind of thing that aligns perfectly with our mission: to inspire all to discover, learn and create,” Johnson said.

Brookins said they are in the process of lobbying various city commissions to support their program proposal. They hope to address the city council and formally ask council members to set aside money for a poet laureate program while planning the upcoming year’s budget.

Olivia Aldridge is KUT's health care reporter. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @ojaldridge.
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