When I applied to be the inaugural poet laureate of Dallas, I did so with the idea of service in mind. My abuelo, who raised me when my mother could not and my father would not, was a picker. He picked cotton until the machines came and took that job from him. Then he became a yardman. But he served our church and our community. Faithfully. First and foremost, he was a servant. To serve others might be the highest calling one can answer.

I wanted to make service my first priority as a poet laureate, and while I hope to mentor and teach emerging poets in my city, I am more concerned with bringing poetry to those who might not yet grasp its significance. I wanted to make sure that students, youth poets, and community members of the greater Dallas area had a connection to poetry. I wanted to be a catalyst. A fire starter. A link between them and poetry. So, I put out a call. To all. Letting the greater community know that I would be offering office hours in downtown Dallas for not only emerging poets but also young students and writers—and yes, even to those who didn’t like poetry or understand it.

These office hours, administered over the last year, have been nothing short of life-affirming. I have had the chance to sit and discuss poetry with an eight-year-old student as her mother sat just behind her, allowing her daughter to ask questions and write from the prompt I gave. Seeing a mother allow her child that kind of space and ownership of a moment left me in awe of her grace. I also recommended the work of Natasha Carrizosa, who describes herself in her poem “mejiafricana” as someone who was “born with two tongues” to a young person debating whether or not continuing their education beyond high school would be beneficial, as they had never been able to read a poet or author who looked and sounded like they did. Like a person born of a Black mother and a Brown father.

One of the most astonishing moments of my term so far came to me during an office hour session with an unhoused man who found refuge in our downtown Central Library. He asked if he could sit with me and discuss “the idea of poetry.” How can a poet laureate say no to that? He opened the discussion by stating that he felt the world had “grown too dark and weary for poetry.” We sat and exchanged ideas and thoughts. He stated why he felt poetry was dead and no longer needed. I spoke of the work of Danez Smith, David Hernandez, Sharon Olds, and, more locally, Mag Gabbert, and how the work of these poets and others was saving me. I’m not sure if I converted him into a poetry lover, but I did offer him a book of poems as a parting gift, which he accepted before leaving. 

 One of the goals I had when I applied to be the poet laureate of Dallas was to bring poetry workshops and poetry slams to youth poets all over my city. This fellowship prize has given me that opportunity. Whether it’s at W. W. Samuell High School in Pleasant Grove on the south side of Dallas or Solar Preparatory School for Girls in Old East Dallas (my old neighborhood), seeing the faces of youth poets as they brave the front of the classroom or an auditorium stage to share a poem with an audience is electrifying. There’s a photo of me out there floating around on the Internet. It’s my favorite photo of me as a working poet. I’m in the background of the image, leaning on the side of a stage in a high school auditorium. In the foreground, a young Black poet who was in my workshop earlier in the day recites his poem. Perfectly.  

That photo captures what being a poet laureate means to me. Finding a way to teach, to inspire others, to press the pencil down hard as they write a poem so as to leave an impression on things they were not intending to impress. And then seeing these young poets’ faces glow as we hand them a gift card for $100 or $50 or $25 … priceless. As Dallas’s poet laureate, I hope to prove that their voices matter, that their writing matters, and that their work is worthy of both praise and prizes.

Joaquín Zihuatanejo is the author of several collections, including Occupy Whiteness (Deep Vellum Books, 2024); Dollars for Scholars (CoolBooks Publishing, 2020); and Arsonist (Anhinga Press, 2018), winner of the Anhinga-Robert Dana Prize for Poetry. In 2023, he was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. As the founder of the Dallas Youth Poets, Zihuatanejo will continue his work engaging young people in the community by creating a Dallas Poet Laureate Youth Poetry Scholarship for high school juniors and seniors. He will tour schools in traditionally underserved communities, with an emphasis on southern, eastern, and western Dallas, and host writing workshops and youth poetry slams. In addition, Zihuatanejo will create a broadside series that will feature living poets from Dallas and promote the Express Yourself Youth Poetry Anthology in the city.