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Dallas appoints its first poet laureate

A champion slam poet, teacher and motivational speaker, Joaquin Zihuatanejo grew up in East Dallas, reading poems to his grandfather.
Jess Ewald
Courtesy Joaquin Zihuatanejo
A champion slam poet, teacher and motivational speaker, Joaquin Zihuatanejo grew up in East Dallas, reading poems to his grandfather.

Joaquín Zihuatanejo grew up in East Dallas, plans to be a "catalyst" for poetry in the city

Dallas has its first, official poet laureate. The appointment ofJoaquín Zihuatanejo was announced Wednesday morning. He's a former prize-winning slam poet-turned-teacher-turned-motivational speaker.

Zihuatanejo was born and raised in Old East Dallas. He gained his love of poetry reading poems aloud to his grandfather — from books like The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Working as a yardman, his grandfather often found such books set outside for pick-up. He would listen to the English-language poems being read "and he would critique my reading abilities in Spanish," Zihuatanejo said. "And if your readers or listeners don't know what 'critique' means, it means 'Yell at you.'"

But his grandfather also could smile or almost tear up listening to them.

"So I knew I would have to do a really good job to capture his attention," Zihuatanejo said. "And when I wouldn't, he would say things to me like, 'Mijo, little one, if you don't breathe life into it with your voice, how can I breathe life into it with my mind?'

"So he was my first teacher. And from very early on, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be paid money someday to shake people with words."

Joaquin Zihuatanejo - "Final Exam For My Father" @WANPOETRY

Zihuatanejo eventually became a fixture in Dallas' slam poetry scene. As with most slam poets, his work drew on his own life — in his case, growing up in the barrio, growing up without a father.

In 2008, Zihuatanejo was the Individual World Poetry Slam Champion, and the following year, the World Cup of Poetry Slam Champion in Paris, France. Since then, Zihuatanejo has quit regular teaching to tour, performing at spoken-word events, speaking at TEDx talks and conducting workshops in poetry

The United States poet laureate is officially a consultant to the Library of Congress — he or she arranges public readings and literary series. As Dallas' poet laureate, Zihuatanejo said he plans to perform in all of the city's branch libraries. He'll also have two rooms set aside for him on the third floor of the Central Library downtown.

"A private office just for me to write in," he said, "and an open-air communal space. So if a teacher is wondering how to incorporate poetry into a lesson plan — something I've often done — they can actually come and sit with me. If a seventh-grade student is writing a poem for a class — or just trying to write a poem on his own — we can workshop that poem together."

A collaboration among the city's Office of Arts and Culture, the Dallas Public Library and the local publisher Deep Vellum Books led to the creation of the poet laureate position. Interested poets had to apply online starting last year.

Zihuatanejo's two-year appointment comes with a $20,000 dollar honorarium -- it'll become a one-year appointment after this. But Zihuatanejo also receives a $2,000 dollar advance from Deep Vellum.

That's for the poetry collection that he'll now have the time to put together.

It'll be his seventh.

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.