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Elevating Expression

Shawn Welcome ’17 reflects on the power of poetry in a community as he begins his term as Orlando’s poet laureate.

When Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer announced English alum Shawn Welcome ’17 as the city’s second poet laureate, it was a natural progression for a life devoted to performance poetry and community work.

“I feel like the trajectory of my life will always be surrounded by arts and community,” says Welcome. “I always want to do something impactful.”

Over the last 15 years, Welcome has performed across Florida and made a name for himself on the spoken word scene. At the same time, he’s served as a counselor in Title I schools, a teacher, and a family engagement coordinator and program facilitator for local nonprofits.

Welcome also created a poetry and life skills program for youth offenders, and he launched Orlando’s longest running weekly open mic night, which he continues to spearhead in the downtown area — all while raising five children with his wife, Jannah, and earning a master’s degree in applied sociology at UCF.

“The English program grounded me academically as an artist, and the sociology program will ground me academically as a community guy,” Welcome says. “It’s everything that I thought it would be, and I’m learning more and being stretched and challenged in all the right ways.”

Now, Welcome is poised to bring his passion for arts and community to an even wider audience as Orlando’s poet laureate.

How did you get into poetry?

It started off more as rap, during my senior year of high school. It was kind of a surprise — like, “Oh, I’m really good at this.” And it was creative and fun and just kind of tickled my brain.

When I started school at Valencia, there was an open mic type show they had through the African American Cultural Society. That was my first real performance, with a microphone and a formal audience. I don’t remember what piece I performed, but I do remember the reaction: People were going nuts. And I thought, “This is it. I’m staying right here.”

What inspired you to start your own open mic night?

The open mic scene was very homogenous in my opinion, like the same people and the same groups depending on what open mic you went to in what part of town. So, in 2006 I went to the National Poetry Slam, and it was very much mixed and diverse. That’s when I thought, we have to capture that same spirit here in Orlando.

In 2006, some of my poetry friends and I were invited to speak to youth offenders at the [Orange County] 33rd Street jail. We ended up going back [weekly and] created a 12-week curriculum for a poetry and life skills course. Seeing the impact that had, in addition to my exposure at nationals, was the primary spark for starting an open mic night. I was developing an awareness that poetry isn’t just entertainment. It can be much more.

What do you hope to accomplish in your role as poet laureate?

I think part of what I want to accomplish as poet laureate is helping define what it is. I’d say about 80% of people who hear that term don’t know what it means. And I’m interested in amplifying the awareness, the presence, the importance, the imagination of what the role of poetry can be in a city. Whatever I do … I want to create something that’s ongoing, something the next poet laureate can build on.

We want to create an energy in the city that says poetry is important, and it does more than we think it does at its face value. I’m also invested in developing more infrastructure for other artists to be heard, to get paid. I never had that, and I found a way. I want to build a pathway that other Orlando artists can follow.

What would you say is poetry’s role in a city?

A few years into hosting the open mic, I started to get a sense of the social impact that was happening beyond the poetry. People were dealing with heartbreak and addiction and tragedy … and there’s an audience listening. It’s like a legitimate form of free therapy. Poetry is entertaining and inspiring, but the strength of relationships and networks that are built because of it, I think that’s big.

I also think it’s helpful to be in the space of imagining what our future can be like. And one way our imagination is provoked and tuned into our own identity and the identity of our community is through poetry. Collectively, we start to put these pieces together and develop concrete ideas when we enter this seemingly abstract space. So, I think stimulating the imagination of a community and building social capital are two major benefits of poetry.