Georgia Popoff holds the proclamation declaring her Onondaga County poet laureate at the CNY Book Awards. She is pictured with CNY Arts Executive Director Steve Butler at left, and at center, Phil Memmer, executive director of the Arts Branch of the YMCA of Central New York. The annual CNY Book Awards, sponsored by the Y's Downtown Writers Center, is for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children's literature in an eight-county region of CNY.

Across the United States, various geographic entities have a poet laureate: cities such as Boston and Santa Barbara, California; states like South Dakota, Kentucky and many more; localities such as Westchester County, just north of New York City.

And yes, locally we have our own Onondaga County poet laureate, Georgia Popoff. She was named to that post in September and brings multiple skills to the position.

Popoff has published four books of her poetry: Doom Weaver and Coxing Nectar from Longing; Psychometry and The Agnostic’s Book of Common Curiosities. She’s long worked at the Downtown Writers Center, part of the YMCA, coordinating workshops for adults and the Young Authors Academy which teaches poetry and fiction writing to youth.

In addition, she’s passionately interested in the role poetry can play in educating children ranging from kindergarten pupils to high school students. Over the years, she’s been a poet-in-residence at various schools and the co-author of a book, Our Difficult Sunlight, A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, and Social Justice in Classroom and Community.

Now she’s making plans for her two-year term as county poet laureate.

First, she hopes to create a cultural-diplomacy project based on a statue in Schiller Park, on Syracuse’s North Side.

The statue portrays two well-known 19th century German poets: Friederich Schiller, often called the poet of freedom, and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. This is a Syracuse landmark, but it’s not one of a kind.

Statues made from an identical mold were erected in Milwaukee, Cleveland and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In each city, German Americans raised funds to pay for a statue. Popoff plans to contact parks and recreation departments in those cities, with the hope of establishing cultural ties.

Second, she wants to use her platform to apply for a fellowship from the Academy for American Poets. The Academy funds $50,000 fellowships which are available only to active poet laureates and are used to support poetry programs across the nation.

Georgia Popoff (provided photo)

Winners of the 2022 fellowships have utilized them for varied purposes: initiating and hosting a poetry podcast, presenting interviews with poets on community-access television, holding summer workshops for underserved youth at state parks.

Popoff plans to apply for a 2023 fellowship. While approval of an application certainly isn’t a given, there’s little doubt about her priorities for poetry.

She has long argued that poetry readings shouldn’t be confined to events on campus. Over the course of her career, she’s set up readings at various community sites: coffeehouses and parks, the Everson Museum and neighborhood centers.

She has also asserted that poetry should be taught in a way that engages students. In her view, poems aren’t meant to be solved in the manner of a math equation. Instead, she says students should move through several stages: reading a poem, reading it a second time, interpreting it, reflecting, responding to the verse. Among other things, a teacher can ask students if a poem connects to their own experiences.

Finally, Popoff sees her post as an avenue for celebrating Onondaga County’s first poet laureate, the late Jackie Warren-Moore. There was little opportunity for Warren-Moore to carve out a template for the position; she was named on a posthumous basis, recognized for her poetry, her discussion of nonviolent options for resolving disputes, and her willingness to talk about her status as a survivor of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and racism.

“It’s so important to commemorate her work,” Popoff said. “She was an advocate for the arts, for their role in healing, in bringing people together. She regarded poetry as a roadmap for survival.”

Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 to 2019. He continues to write about exhibitions and artists in Central New York, and about the local poetry scene from time to time.

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