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Person of Interest

How Dallas’ Poet Laureate Plans to Connect the City

Joaquín Zihuatanejo, the first-ever poet laureate of Dallas, believes poetry can be a bridge.
By Tim Rogers | |Photograph by Marc Montoya
Joaquin Zihuatanejo
Marc Montoya

Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway in 1987’s Barfly or Tupac and Janet Jackson in 1993’s Poetic Justice? I got to go with Poetic Justice. That was my wheelhouse. Every poet that I was around at that time, it reminded us of us. There’s a famous poet from Dallas named Jonathan “GNO” White. He has this incredible poem called “Street Poet,” and I wrote a poem with his permission called “A Revision of Street Poet Originally Written by Jonathan GNO White.” It’s about being from the streets of East Dallas and hip-hop and art, the influence all that had on us. In that movie, they were singing our song.

When you were teaching English to high schoolers, a student challenged you to take your poetry to the stage, and that started your slam career. Do you know what that student is up to now? I do! We’re Facebook friends, and he’s a really accomplished visual artist. Marco Zavala, he lives in Denton. 

You won the 2009 Poetry Slam World Cup in Paris. At that point, you could say you were the best slam poet on the planet. How did that work as a pickup line? [laughs] It did not work as a pickup line. At the time, I was in love with and married to the same woman that I’m in love with and still married to. She was in Paris with me. When we came home and I referred to myself as a world champ one time in the kitchen, she just casually walked by, without even turning her head, and said, “I think you mean world chump.” Aída is the one who keeps me humble.

I’ve heard you talk about googling words or phrases to find connections that maybe your brain wouldn’t make on its own, which means really that you’re using Sergey Brin’s brain as a filter. How does that feel? It feels ridiculous at times, but it also feels—I don’t know—necessary at times. 

As the poet laureate, you represent the city to the world. Part of that job, I imagine, is to celebrate Dallas, but I also know that you’re very aware of a lot of the shortcomings of the city. How do you balance those? I’ve been madly in love with the city of Dallas since I was born here, but I’m not so taken by it that I don’t understand it has its faults. One of the skills that I bring to the table is that I can reach audiences on the south side, and I think I can reach audiences on the north side. I want to use my position to create dialogue and to create connections and to challenge our audiences in the north side to come to Oak Cliff, to come to South Dallas, to come to Pleasant Grove, to come to Arcadia Park and West Dallas, to come to all these parts of Dallas. They’re beautiful places. I want to challenge people in Dallas to cross-pollinate, to write together, to listen to one another, and to realize that there’s a beautiful shared humanity that binds us all. That’s one of the things that poetry does. It reveals that to us. I was at a luncheon in downtown, and I read a poem in front of an audience of some of the wealthiest people in Dallas, Texas. And at the end of the event, a gentleman came up to me. I could tell from his suit that he came from a different social strata than I do. And he said these exact words to me: “Your poem was not momentary. It changed me. I will remember it always.” And then he walked away. That’s a connection. We shared that moment. 


Tim Rogers

Tim Rogers

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