BELFAST - Toussaint St. Negritude has lived in a lot of places, but none that valued poetry as much. On Tuesday the City Council unimously voted to appoint him as poet laureate of Belfast.
“It really is something we shouldn’t take for granted,” he said. “I haven’t seen it anywhere else.”
Not in San Francisco where he hails from, not in his travels to Europe and the Caribbean, and not in Vermont where he lived before moving to Belfast a couple years back.
“The mountains were beautiful, but none of this was going on,” he said.
In Internet searches logged from the Green Mountain State, the same coastal city in Maine repeatedly topped lists of poet-friendly communities. St. Negritude decided to go for it, and on arriving in Belfast quickly became a familar face on the scene. If nothing else, his eye-catching handmade hats and improbably natty outfits made him easy to spot. He carried a bass clarinet with him and gave impromptu performances on street corners and at gallery openings. He also played and gave readings at organized events like the Belfast Poetry Festival and Free Range Music Festival.
On Tuesday, he described the conferral of poet laureate honors as a kind of arrival.
“I’m 55 and I’ve been a poet my whole life, and this is the greatest use of the skills I have to offer,” he said.
St. Negritude was introduced on Tuesday by former Belfast poet laureate Linda Buckmaster, who headed up the poet laureate search committee. She shared a few of the ideas put forward by of the incoming laureate in his application, including a centralized venue for readings and performances and a journal of local poetry.
The idea of a city poet laureate was hatched informally around 2000 by Mike Hurley during his first term as mayor. The intent was to honor local poet, ex-nuclear physicist and eccentric-about-town Bern Porter. He was given a gold cape embroidered with his name, but was assigned no duties and received no honorarium.
The post was made official after Porter’s death in 2004 and the term limited to two years. Though it remains an unpaid title — the running joke is that poet laureates get a box of printed business cards — subsequent honorees including Elizabeth Garber, Karin Spitfire, Buckmaster, Jacob Fricke and current laureate Ellen Sander have used the platform to promote the form through poetry jams and slams, public art installations, contests and collaborations with visual and performing artists at the annual Poetry Festival.
St. Negritude now lives in Swanville, which falls within an abutting towns residency requirement\. The city started looking beyond its borders for candidates several years ago, but even with the additional towns in the mix, Buckmaster said the committment involved in being poet laureate weeds out many eligible applicants. The committee typically gets 2-3 applications, she said.
Many poets live further afield and Buckmaster recommended that the city cast a wider net next time and allow applications from all of Waldo County.
St. Negritude begins his term on New Year’s Eve. The gold cape now bearing the names of six poet laureates, and soon a seventh, is traditionally transferred in a ceremony at New Year’s By the Bay, Belfast’s first night celebration.
Related article and video:
Tousssaint St. Negritude: All Green Lights
Ethan Andrews can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org