One Poet's Vision To Celebrate The Beauty — And The Warts — Of Tacoma
Tacoma is often in the shadow of its more glamorous neighbor to the north, Seattle. But Tacoma’s poet laureate Lucas Smiraldo says he wants to celebrate his city — both its beauty and its warts — through poems, and not just his own. He’s putting out the call to all residents of the city to try their own hands at poetry and paint a picture of the place they call home.
Smiraldo grew up in New York and the Midwest, but he’s lived in Tacoma longer than anywhere else. He’s grown to love this city that hugs the southern shore of Puget Sound, even the complicated parts.
One of them is the Chinese Reconciliation Park in Tacoma’s Old Town neighborhood, where trains rumble by and fog shrouds the water. The park commemorates a dark moment in the city’s history in November 1885, when prominent people in town rounded up all the Chinese people in the city and forced them out of town.
“What happened was literally the mayor and a number of key individuals organized secretly and gradually saw the Chinese as the nexus of all their problems,” Smiraldo said.
Smiraldo explores that legacy of racism in his poem called "Witness."
Smiraldo has been Tacoma’s poet laureate since last year. He has written poems about many parts of the city, but one of his main goals is to get other people excited about poetry.
He had a spark of an idea when he watched a TED talk online, in which composer Eric Whitacre described how he got people all over the world to video themselves singing parts of his piece, titled "Lux Aurumque." Then Whitacre stitched the individual recordings together to create a virtual choir.
“The first time I saw that, and even as I think about it now, I want to cry,” Smiraldo said. “When I saw all of these people from so many different ways of life, from 6 to 90, and African-American, and Asian, and from Indonesia and etc., all collectively joining to bring music and beauty into the world, I was just floored by it.”
Smiraldo’s idea: Why not do something similar with poetry? He could create a map of Tacoma that’s not just streets and landmarks, but words, feelings, perceptions, personal stories. So he’s asking people to write their own pieces and then he’ll record the people reading them. Each one will be archived online on a city map. Click on one button and you’ll hear his piece about the Chinese expulsion. Click on another button, and you might hear your neighbor sharing a poem.
“I’m looking for people that may have done this for the first time. I’m not looking for polish,” he said. “I am looking for substance, but I’m not looking for polish.”
He sees this as a way to celebrate Tacoma, but not in a sugar-coated way.
Poetry In Potholes
Smiraldo isn't sentimental in his own poetry. On a recent day, he took me to 21st Street, which he's written about. At the bottom of the hill, where 509 feeds into downtown, the road is newly paved and smooth. Then you cross Pacific and head up the hill, and suddenly the road is rough. Part of it was recently repaved, but before that, it was full of potholes “like craters in the Jamaican bush.”
“I lost a muffler once going up this road,” he said. “Near the top of it, I heard the scraping, and part of it was the bumps along the way on 21st.”
Smiraldo says that’s Tacoma: smooth, bumpy, sidewalks, no sidewalks. To really tell that full story, he’s trying to get all kinds of people to contribute.
Among the voices that will be part of Smiraldo’s listening project are high school students. He recently taught a three-week leadership course at Peace Community Center, and at the end of it, the students created a poetry montage about how society defines them and how they define themselves.
That piece will be one of the dots on the map of Tacoma Smiraldo is creating.
High school junior Chad Namikaze says he loves the idea of their poem being part of Smiraldo’s project. He says it’s a chance to dispel misconceptions people may have about his hometown.
“People stereotype Tacoma as the ’hood,” Namikaze said. “Sure, there’s a few parts, but I think they can get cleaned up over time and I think this place isn’t as bad a place as everyone thinks it is.”
Smiraldo says he wants the project to get beyond stereotypes and superficiality.
“What I’m hoping that this project is is looking at all the nuances of Tacoma clearly with different voices and different perspectives and eventually getting a larger picture of this town,” he said.
Smiraldo invites Tacoma residents to come share their poems at listening sessions he’ll be holding in a conference room at the Bostwick Tully’s, located at 764 Broadway, on Wednesday, Aug. 27 from 9 a.m. to noon, and Tuesday, Sept. 2 from 10 a.m. to noon and again from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Come with a piece that you’re ready to read out loud that’s shorter than three minutes in length. For more information, contact Smiraldo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His project is supported by The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation Spark program and the city of Tacoma.