Mayor Poet Laureate? Sure, why not?

Gulfport mayor Sam Henderson mixes poetry and politics.

Poet Politico: Gulfport's mayor, Sam Henderson is the second person in the city's history to be named poet laureate. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Poet Politico: Gulfport's mayor, Sam Henderson is the second person in the city's history to be named poet laureate.
You would think that politics and poetry don’t mix but with the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature going to Bob Dylan, obviously, they do.

Perhaps it’s part of the populist movement to wrench the laurels from the academic elite: The majority of Americans do not have a privileged education; they are blue collar workers, farmers, manual laborers, bartenders and mayors of small municipalities barely eeking out a wage. If poetry and creative writing are indeed owned by universities, we should not be surprised by the robust alternative backlash.

Poetry belongs to the people, and they are about to take it back. Yup, “times, they-are-a-changin.” The Nobel Prize Committee has chosen the populist “urban hillbilly” Bob Dylan because he is a poet of the people, by the people and for the people. All the people — including those who work with their hands for their daily bread.

As Gulfport’s first poet laureate, I was naturally anxious to promote local poets and I found myself diving headlong into the works of the city's new poet laureate Mayor Sam Henderson. Big surprise.

He has was a finely honed, mature voice. He is not a hobbyist, maybe a full-time mayor and a part-time bartender, but Sam is a poet first and foremost. Let me give you a glimpse into two of his poems. “The Ride” is about a kid's first joyride in an old Ford Falcon. Henderson plays with the notions of memory, time, desire and destiny and the ride goes from zero to a hundred as a life journey. It's a rite of passage that ultimately extends beyond itself, and the poet knows this. His poetic voice, while resonating with the unabashed surge of youth, is at the same time aware of itself as it probes its own nature.

Philosophers call this phenomenon, this deep level of awareness, "metacognition," a rare intelligence in which the author is aware of his creation and vice versa. Mayor Henderson is not just another politico or just another guy who occasionally tends bar at the Peninsula Inn.

In town, he is not known as Mr. Mayor nor as Sam Henderson, but as Sam. Like all true poets, Sam has a special brain — one where the left and right hemispheres feed on each other in spirited, symbiotic harmony; his poetry is cerebral, instinctual, emotional and philosophical, always deeply nuanced in a rhythm of his own.

When the boy in "The Ride" drives his Falcon, top down in the "afternoon sun" and feels the "rush of air," we too feel the heady excitement. There’s nothing quite like children rushing out into the open air with the accelerating tempo of a heart trapped beneath the ribs. We, too, want to break free and let our hearts keep time and fly off with that swelling, boundless joy and relish the smallest, dearest, foolish things in our lives, if for no other reason than they were and are part of that great ride.

In “Night Orchestra,” each line percolates with original energy. The images are striking, haunting and evoke beauty from the gritty details of everyday reality. The poem makes music of the night that, though no different from any other, becomes claimable as our own. Because the poem is so spot on, so timed and timely, it feels as close as to our hearts as the cobblestone streets and the grassy sidewalks.

Sam’s poetry is informed by his special weave of the noise of life; all life. Henderson's world is one where chirping insects can become percussionists and human voices are never drowned out but harmonized by the crack of doom from boom boxes in the park and the swirling sirens of police cars. The throbbing beat is a city that is truly alive.  

His “Night Orchestra” becomes our Mendelssohn's “Nocturne.” The experience of living teams with croaking tree frogs and cicadas singing and holding down the beat while voices say things like “shit they’re coming" and the poet declares "that unseen moonlight maestro gives the sign, and everybody comes back in, on the one, two, three... 

You should hear it on the 4th of July.”

*Sam Henderson is the second Poet Laureate of the City of Gulfport. 

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