Arts & Culture

Houston’s New Poet Laureate Thinks Poetry Can Help Us Reconnect During The Pandemic

Interest in poetry has been rising over the past year, creating an opportunity for renewed community engagement as a new local poet laureate takes the helm.

Emanuelee Outspoken Bean

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Emanuelee Outspoken Bean begins his two-year term as Houston's fifth Poet Laureate at a time when poetry may be having a moment.

According to the Academy of American Poets, visits to the website poets.org have gone up 30% during the pandemic. Online poetry events on the platform Eventbrite increased by 24% after Amanda Gorman recited her Presidential Inauguration Poem, which went viral. Poetry was also featured at this year's Super Bowl — a first in its history — during a pre-game poetry video by Gorman.

"A lot of people don't know what the word ‘laureate’ means, but they know who Amanda Gorman is," said Outspoken Bean. Then, with a laugh he added: "I'm her — for Houston."

Gorman served as the National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017. Bean's current position as the adult counterpart at the city level is sponsored by the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs and Houston Public Library. He was selected as Houston Poet Laureate through an application and interview process by a panel of local literary scholars, experts and poets, and he will receive a $20,000 honorarium funded through the hotel occupancy tax dedicated to the arts.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Outspoken Bean during the Houston Poet Laureate virtual celebration on April 30, 2021

The San Antonio-raised Houstonian considers himself a poetic "producer of experiences," whose words live beyond the page.

Bean brings to the role an extensive background in performance poetry — as a nationally ranked slam poet, head coach of the youth poetry team Meta-Four Houston and founder of Prairie View A&M University's slam poetry team. He created "Five Minute Poems," a project in which he writes and performs custom poems within five minutes at local markets.

"When I'm writing, it's meant to be alive, it's meant to be out loud," he said.

Bean plans to use performance poetry to help Houstonians connect with the artform and with each other by sharing their own stories. He plans to create a community spoken word album, which will feature 20 tracks written and performed by everyday Houstonians.

"We'll have these writing sessions where anyone can come,” he said. “I don't care if you never wrote poetry before — you can just come and tell your stories, and we'll listen to music and just write.”

Those poems, or "mini memoirs" by Houstonians, would then be set to music, recorded and released on digital platforms as part of his community outreach project, "Space City Mixtape."

As poet laureate, Bean said he’ll also conduct writing workshops, create poems for public events and social media, mentor the Houston Youth Poet Laureate and produce a podcast.

And if he happens to help some Houstonians find their literary calling, that's great, he said — but it's not the point.

"I'm not really trying to create an army of poets," Bean said. "But I am trying to create an army of people who are empaths, who feel and think with empathy, and think about others' well-being rather than just of their own, and (who take) responsibility and accountability of their actions."

That empathy and self-awareness through poetry, he added, becomes a potential way to counter the isolation and stress of the past year and beyond.

His predecessor, poet Leslie Contreras Schwartz, saw her term defined by the pandemic, with Houstonians sending her poems about COVID-19, masks and social distancing as a way of processing their experiences.

"For many, the arts helped us through COVID," said Debbie McNulty, former director of the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs, at a virtual celebration for the new poet laureate. "As we emerge from the pandemic — hopefully sooner rather than later — and we continue to get everyone vaccinated, we will need the arts to heal and recover. Houstonians will look to the words of the poet laureate for hope and inspiration."

For Bean, his goal is to help people discover the power of their own words.

"The impact that poetry has on people's lives is — truth be told, it's not really visible, it's more like a faucet than a flood," Bean said. "I want to turn on the faucet. I want to turn on the faucet with this position. I want people to see how poetry in its reflective state is really transformative."

Listen to the poem “This Side Up” by Outspoken Bean here.

Listen to his complete interview below:

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Catherine Lu

Catherine Lu

Content Producer & Announcer

While growing up in Chicago and Houston, Catherine’s love for art, music and creative writing was influenced by her teachers and parents. She was once concertmaster of the Clear Lake High School Orchestra and a four-time violinist of the Texas All-State Symphony. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Catherine...

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