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Meet Dallas’ First-Ever Poet Laureate

Joaquin Zihuatanejo was one of 21 applicants to become the Dallas Poet Laureate, an honor that was pursued by the Deep Vellum publishing house.
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Joaquin Zihuatanejo, Dallas’ first-ever poet laureate. Jess Ewald

Dallas, we have a Poet Laureate. Our first. This morning, Mayor Eric Johnson made it official at City Hall, with the crowning (sans laurel) of Joaquin Zihuatanejo.

Will Evans, the founder of the nonprofit publishing house Deep Vellum, had advanced the notion of a poet laureate to city officials some five years ago. The idea seemed to go nowhere. But after U.S. poet laureate Amanda Gorman blew the minds of every living American at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Evans did an “Ahem, remember that idea about the poet laureate?” The Dallas Public Library ran with it. The Office of Arts and Culture funded the program.

Zihuatanejo was one of 21 applicants. The application process required each poet to produce a plan for inculcating the love of poetry to the city at large. Dozens of transformational ideas were proposed. I’m talking change-the-world ideas that came from a large swath of the poets, and I hope that at some point they are all brought in to help orchestrate the program.

The candidates also submitted samples of their poetry, which ranged from merely earnest to soul-swelling. After scores were tabulated, three finalists were interviewed by the judges; I was lucky enough to be one. Any one of the finalists would have been a fine poet laureate, but Zihuatanejo’s faith in poetry as an agent of grace made him the ideal choice.

In a pandemic-bruised city, with a war raging on the other side of the world and politicians gone mad, he seems to occupy an honest, quiet headspace, a space where people would want to be, whether they live in Vickery Meadow or Highland Park.

“Dallas is a place where street poets tell awful truths in beautiful ways,” he said in an email Tuesday night. “A place where page poets press the pencil down hard … so as to leave an impression on things they were not intending to impress. I hope to use my time as Dallas Poet Laureate to help Dallas recognize its poetic potential and its metaphorical and actual brilliance.”

Zihuatanejo’s poetry is accessible, and he challenges with varying structures.

Two samples:

Bendito,

Bendito,

Bendito sea a Dios…

los ángeles cantan y alaban a Dios

Memories of my grandfather’s garden come back to me

differently than other child of the hood memories

Memories of my grandfather’s garden come back to me

in well water voices,

in deep chest hymns,

that begin as a gurgle deep in the belly and rise to the throat…

slowly,

I remember little of the day my friends jumped me

I remember fists flailing and afterwards

those deep, fleshy embraces

only Latinos know how to give

but grandfather’s garden comes back to me with aromas, with tastes

with corridos sung to the sun

with novenas sung to the moon

thanking both sides of life

the light and the dark

for their bountiful harvests

Ay, Dios mío,

all those nights we knelt together in brown earth

it was always about harmony, about balance

He’d intone deeply thanking the life-giving soil for its gift

and I’d follow suit

carefully pulling up cilantro, manzanilla, yerba del manso

always making sure metal spade never touches fragile root

sweet, ancient Abuelito,

how could I be anything but a poet after these moments we shared

Don’t you see,

In my grandfather’s garden chiles grew

In my grandfather’s garden children grew

In my grandfather’s garden poems rose from the earth

like the twisted arms of la llorona desperately reaching out for her missing children

In my grandfather’s garden all of these things grew…

slowly,

because…

Beautiful things take time to bloom

In my grandfather’s garden all of these things would rise slowly like

well water voices

like deep chest hymns

that begin as a gurgle deep in the belly and rise to the throat

slowly singing

always singing

Bendito,

Bendito,

Bendito sea a Dios…

los ángeles cantan y alaban a Dios


Another one of his poems references his father, who deserted him and his mother in East Dallas.

Final Exam for My Father

1.  True or False.  The night that you walked out me and my mother, you hesitated before grabbing the doorknob.

2.  If a bus leaves the city at 60 miles per hour to nowhere in particular, and a man on that bus has left his only son behind in the darkness of that city, how many miles will it take before that son forgets what his father’s hands look and feel like?

3.  On the night that you left us, how many hearts did you break?

A.  one, mine

B.  one, my mother’s

C. two, mine and my mother’s

D. three, mine, my mother’s and yours

4.  True or False.  In certain species of the animal kingdom, when a male member of that species abandons his offspring that male member of that species is ostracized, beaten, and in some instances killed.

5. In the space provided, define the terms further, farther, and father.

6.  On the night that your father died, what if anything did you have to say to God?

7. When we survived nine days in a row before the welfare check came in, on a bag of maiz and a crock pot full of wishes that tasted just like frijoles, did you feel the fire on your fingertips every time my mother winced as she turned the tortilla on the open flame?

8.  Because of your blood, I have spent every day of my life enveloped by skin that’s too light to be brown and too dark to be white.  I used to hate this about myself, but I have finally come to love this about myself.  What do you love and hate about yourself?

9.  As a young man you

A.  never loved a young, beautiful dark brown woman.

B. loved one young, beautiful dark brown woman.

C. loved many young, beautiful dark brown women

D. loved only the idea of young beautiful dark brown women

10.  List five things that you are truly grateful for and five things that you are truly regretful for.

11. A famous American poet’s mother once said, “[Single] mothers are almost always better men than men are.”  What do you make of this?

12.  Without using the words, “I’m” or “sorry” in the space provided write an apology letter to my mother.

13. On a scale from one to ten, with one being not difficult at all and ten being quite difficult, how challenging do you think it is for a guerro to grow up in the barrio of the lower east side?

14.  As a child your son remembers hearing his drunk uncles whisper in hushed voices not meant for his ears that more than likely you were not that child’s father.  What if anything do you have to say to them?

15.  Finish this sentence:

My son, if I only had one thing to say to you, it would be

And one final question to conclude the test:

Would it mend or break your heart if I told you,

I forgive you?

Author

Christine Allison

Christine Allison

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Christine Allison is Editor-in-Chief and CEO of D Magazine Partners. She founded D Home in 2000 and has been leading…

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