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Catching up with Amie Whittemore — now a Poet Laureate

June 22, 2020

When I interviewed Amie Whittemore last December, she mentioned she was asked to serve as Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro for 2020 and looked forward to using this role to engage more closely with writers in her community.  Surely, one doesn’t let an opportunity like this slide! How many Poets Laureate do you know? So, of course, I asked Amie to catch up all my readers on what fame is like and how everything is going—from her workspace, where Sage the cat keeps an eye on productivity. img_1978

NM: Last time we talked, you just learned that you have been selected as Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro, TN. The Murfreesboro Cultural Arts Laureate Program is a notable honor for local artists, providing recipients with further opportunities to educate, advocate, and represent the community through their own creative initiatives. Laureates serve for one year with an optional one-year renewal. You are part of the 2020 cohort, along with a painter and a photographer; this is the third year of the program.  Can you tell me more about the program?

AW: The program is designed to recognize leaders in the arts, across artistic genres, to be advocates of arts and artists in our community. For me, that means trying to connect community members to poetry through a variety of projects, including some collaborations between the painter and photographer laureates and myself.

NM: How long have you lived in Murfreesboro? When you applied for the program, did you have a project in mind? 

AW: I moved to Murfreesboro in 2016, so I’ve lived here for a little over four years. The inaugural poet laureate, Kory Wells, a friend of mine and wonderful advocate for the arts in Murfreesboro and Rutherford County, suggested that I apply for the program. I was a bit nervous about doing so, as I have a tendency to overfill my plate. The application process requires applicants to indicate a potential community project, and it was thinking of such a project that helped me get over my trepidation about taking on this role. 

One of the key projects I had in mind was to offer workshops for LGBT+ youth in our area. Fortunately, through support from The Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow program, I will be able to do so by partnering with regional nonprofits, Southern Word and The Porch. Southern Word has agreed to devote staff time to this enterprise, so together we are planning several workshops and open mics for LGBT+ youth in Middle Tennessee, culminating in a youth writing conference in partnership with Middle Tennessee State University’s annual LGBT Conference (April 1-3, 2021)

NM: For you as a writer, what has this been like? Are there themes you turn to that you haven’t explored before, for example? 

AW: One of the requirements of the laureate program is to create work inspired by Murfreesboro. While many of my poems already are invested in place, I wanted to make sure not to let this requirement go by the wayside as I tend to go wherever the writing wind carries me. Thus, I have committed to writing a poem about each full moon this calendar year. I make it a point to take a walk on the evening/day of the full moon and take special note of my surroundings and feelings on these days to channel them into the poem. I have found this process quite rewarding: I like the poems I’m generating and I like the nudge to be more attuned to the moon’s phases. 

moon, trees, tommy womack, photography, murfreesboro

Photo by Tommy Womack

It’s also been interesting to hold a more public role. While the pandemic has limited the number of public engagements originally scheduled as part of the laureate program, it has still been a unique experience stepping into the role of championing the arts. I’ve really enjoyed connecting with organizations and individuals in the community through this role and am excited to continue to develop these relationships. 

NM: What community activities have you done? How do you see the value of the program for the community? 

AW: In collaboration with the other laureates, I just finished a collaborative arts project, Dream Geographies. Inspired by my own fascination with dreams, this collaboration involved a community member contributing a description of a dream, which a visual artist and a poet turned into a piece of art and a poem respectively. It was wonderful seeing the work that came out of this project and I look forward to coordinating a second round in the fall. I also feel that this project offered some solace during the pandemic and recent protests; many of the artists and dreamers shared how this project offered some measure of solace during this time of isolation and strife. 

NM: How big is Murfreesboro? From a practical standpoint, if someone wanted to start a program like this in their community, what would they have to do? 

AW: According to the United States Census Bureau, the population of Murfreesboro is approximately 140,000. Since I was not part of the founding process, I can’t speak specifically to how difficult or easy it would be to start this kind of program. I think the main hurdles for a community to consider are the financial and energetic ones: can the community offer a small stipend to the laureate(s) for taking on this role? Can the community offer financial or logistical assistance in developing public programming? Perhaps most importantly, does the community have a long-term investment—financially, as well as energetically—in the arts (or does it want to begin nourishing that kind of investment)? 

If the answer to these questions is yes, or even maybe, then I think such a program is quite possible. It does not require a lot of infrastructure, or a large financial investment; I think the return on the program is well worth the time and energy. I know I have been inspired by the work of past laureates and my co-laureates. I am excited to see how this program continues to grow. 

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