Andru Defeye

Andru Defeye
is a poet, writer, community organizer, and musician. In 2021, Defeye was listed by Sacramento Magazine as one of the city’s one hundred business leaders, and was nominated to receive an honorary doctorate from California State University, Sacramento. Defeye will implement a citywide Sacramento Poetry Day curriculum, host the city’s first cash prize poetry contest, and employ local poets in publishing, performing, and judging. Mayor Anne Rudin declared October 26 Sacramento Poetry Day in 1986, and the program will bring the day to life for the next generation by creating a diverse and engaging curriculum for the 250,000+ students in schools. What do you hope for the future of poetry in Sacramento, and what support do you hope future poets laureate in California have?

Andru Defeye: I envision a city where everyone feels safe and supported in creating and expressing themselves, regardless of where they come from, their style, genre, forms, or experience level by creating relevant entry points to poetry for everyone in the city. I work to help the city recognize poets as the community leaders they are, and ensure that poets and artists are included at all stages and arenas of civic development. We are cultivating a pipeline that supports our young poets in their work and provides outlets, education, and resources outside of historic academia. I insist that poets are recognized and valued for their insights and contributions to our city. 

When life gets the hardest, people turn to poets and poetry for comfort and guidance. They always have. This is because poets look at the world differently and offer different perspectives. I feel like, for years, the title of poet laureate has been treated like a lifetime achievement award and that is changing. A new generation of laureates have turned it into a working title, and that requires city support and budgets to allow laureates to create impact locally. In Sacramento, the yearly stipend for a poet laureate is three thousand dollars, which isn’t really enough to cover a month of rent and living expenses. I look forward to California leading in efforts to recognize and value poets and their contributions to society. How has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing?

AD: There was a period of time when it felt like everything I wrote, released, or performed was under extra scrutiny because of the title. And it was. But not from anyone else that mattered. I was putting extra pressure on myself. No one tells you how much imposter syndrome this title can come with. And I thought I was alone in it until I talked to a few other laureates about it. It is a dream I have dreamed my entire adult life and a title I carry with the utmost respect. I think it took me the first year of my tenure to really settle into it and the new bar I set for my writing. 

My “Illicit” series has always allowed me to find and celebrate those little gritty pieces of everyday life. I’d say it was that series more than anything that kept me centered and helped minimize some of the hyper self-criticism after being awarded the laureate title. I’m really excited to share that collection with everyone in 2023. I’ve got some really exciting things planned for it. How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together? 

AD: Poetry is a means of communicating life’s deepest and most complex feelings. It always has been. In Sacramento, we have used poetry as a vessel to empower and bring communities together around issues like mental health, social justice, and arts funding. In 2018, when citywide protests surrounding the police murder of Stephon Clark erupted in Sacramento, it was young poets who were uniting the people with verse and leading new chants for this generation. We have creative installations, like Chainlink Poetry, that give communities a means to create their own collective, representative messages instead of being bulldozed by corporate ads and marketing. Poetry tends to strip away not only the extra words, but, when done right, it strips away everything but the most honest intent; and when we can hear that from each other often, it creates a way for authentic communication and connection. What part of your project were you most excited about?

AD: The entire premise of paying poets high dollar amounts to create curricula and bring local poetry into schools that helps teachers meet California educational standards has been a dream of mine for some years now. There were a few unexpected moments, including getting citywide resolutions from both the Sacramento City Unified School District and city council, and receiving support to award twelve local poets with California Senate resolutions that recognize Sacramento as the poetry capital of California. The biggest explosion in my heart happened during our first Zoom session on poetry day. Kindergarten to fourth grade students were being visited by poet Diamond Key, who had also contributed to the curriculum. One of the classes stopped her as she went to read her poem and told her they had been memorizing her poem that week. They asked if they could perform her poem for her. It was one of the most beautiful moments that I have seen in my art career, as a young poet realized the impact of her work. Thanks to the Academy of American Poets’ support to propel Sacramento Poetry Day 2022, we are already working on Sacramento Poetry Day 2023. What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project? 

AD: The biggest obstacles this year were the short planning time and the lack of communication between teachers and districts in Sacramento. Three months to plan Sacramento Poetry Day 2022 meant gathering poems, creating a curriculum, getting it approved, then working on a website, social media, graphics, promotion, and everything else in a very short period of time. This required a lot of organization and support from the poets. There are a few districts in Sacramento and some of them have more direct communication with their teachers than others. A big part of my work this year will be to establish those connections with teachers and build more based on their directly expressed needs. We have a whole year for the next one and I am hoping that, after proving the impact of Sacramento Poetry Day, that we will receive more support from the city and the Office of Arts and Culture. What do you feel is most critical to the Ten Twenty Six Curriculum that differentiates it from other lesson plans? How do these lesson plans stand out when teaching poetry to youth?

AD: Relatability, flexibility, and representation. These are poems that are written by poets who come from the same places as the youth learning them. We prioritized diversity, equity, and inclusion at every step in creating the curriculum so that students see themselves reflected in the work they are studying. This provides greater opportunity for connection with not only the poem and the poet, but poetry itself. As someone who is neurodivergent, it is always important to me to include flexibility for different learning styles in lesson plans. Providing audio, visual, and kinesthetic options, depending on classroom culture and learning styles, is an essential and unique facet of the Ten Twenty Six curriculum. Is there a poem on that inspires you and your work in Sacramento? How so?

AD: “Nevertheless: An Ecstatic Ode” by Airea D. Matthews is a personal favorite. I relate heavily to the poet’s pride and celebration of the beautiful grit of their city. Thank you, Ms. Matthews.