Listen above: “I have a duty to just bear witness to the truth and express that through my poetry,” says E. Stanley Richardson, Alachua County’s first-ever poet laureate. (Mikayla Carroll/WUFT News and Alachua County Commission YouTube)
When E. Stanley Richardson first met his future wife, Carol Velasques, he had boxes full of poems and short stories at his home in Alachua. Having mostly worked in sales and the hospitality industry, he was only writing for himself. She urged him to do more with it.
“I’ve always been a writer,” he said. “I just never pursued it.”
Carol Velasques Richardson, chair of the Alachua County Arts Council, knew differently. They met at a county commission meeting in 2009 and were married two years later.
“What makes him really unique is his ability to notice things that we don’t see – and notice people we may not necessarily notice,” she said.
These days, people across north central Florida are benefiting from her foresight.
In January, Stanley Richardson, 58, became Alachua County’s first poet laureate. He’s also founder of a nonprofit that encourages people to express themselves through the spoken word.
“Because of her, I was able to call myself an artist,” he said.
The poet laureate position has a two-year term and pays $2,000 a year, Richardson’s wife said.
One of his first tasks in the role was to offer poetry at the county’s lynching victim memorial in February. He recited “An Elegy for Black Bodies” and “Century Oak: A Conversation with a Tree.”
County Commission Chair Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson first suggested to his colleagues that the county should have a poet laureate. The council developed the criteria and sought applicants.
“We wanted somebody who could really reach the youth, engage them in the general concerns that he shares,” Hutchinson said. “Concerns about social justice and racial equity and the environment and truth and power and all those things that he speaks so well about.”
Richardson was the ideal person for the job, his wife said.
“It was just perfect that it was him, especially in the context of Black Lives Matter and the context of the pandemic,” she said. “He’s such a social activist poet anyway.”
Though he still doubts himself from time to time, Richardson is honored to hold the position.
“I have a wonderful wife who encourages me and says, ‘You belong there, you deserve this,’” he said.
Richardson will continue his poet laureate duties this week as part of the “Achebe | Baldwin @ 40” workshop hosted virtually by the University of Florida’s Department of African Studies.
The event will honor the first meeting of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and African American author James Baldwin in Gainesville 40 years ago. Richardson will contribute by reading from his own poetry and from the work of the other esteemed writers.
In November, he is also scheduled to share poetry in “Poetry in the Key of Movement” as part of a webinar event hosted by the Matheson History Museum.
Richardson said his goal as poet laureate is to offer the community through the spoken word an outlet through these historic times: a pandemic and a national reckoning on race.
“So much is happening out in the world and it can be overwhelming, especially with deaths,” he said. “You want to write about butterflies and sunsets, but that’s not what’s stirring in me.”
Richardson said he draws inspiration for his work from the sound of John Coltrane’s saxophone in the background. Indeed, he likes to say his muse hides inside Coltrane’s horn.
Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” inspired “Make Me Wanna Holler,” a poem Richardson shared at the county commission’s meeting in September.
“Music is definitely a part of my poetry,” he said. “Whenever I’m writing, there’s jazz in my head.”
Diane Dimperio, chair of the health care action team for the League of Women Voters of Florida, asked Richardson in July to write the poem as a call for Medicaid expansion.
“The cost of your child’s next meal / weighed against / the price of a / pill / to have to choose / is / horror,” Stanley recited.
The league has been working on a statewide campaign to expand Medicaid, said Dimperio, 74, of Gainesville. A poem was one way to humanize the effort in a way data alone could not.
“He really captured the multidimensional aspects of it,” she said. “I was impressed. Not only was it emotionally powerful, but it was quite nuanced.”
Hutchinson agreed, saying “During that meeting, he probably encapsulated the issues that we’re facing more in his five minutes or less of poetry than we did during the subsequent six or eight hours of meeting.”
Richardson relied on speaking engagements to support himself prior to the pandemic. He worked as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau between June and Oct. 15.
In 2012, he founded his nonprofit, ARTSPEAKS. Before then, he said, the poetry community in the county was fragmented and cliquish. His group holds two annual programs: One is “Courageous Young Voices,” a youth event in March; the adult event, “Bringing Poetry & People Together,” happens in August but was canceled this year due to the pandemic.
Brittany Coleman, 31, of Gainesville, first met Richardson two years ago when she performed at the adult ARTSPEAKS event.
“He truly believes that art can be used for healing and it can be used for activism,” Coleman said.
Patrick Grigsby, 50 of Gainesville, is a lecturer in art education at UF’s School of Art + Art History. Grigsby invited Richardson to speak during his online graduate class in July, Grigsby said. Richardson spoke about Confederate monuments and shared a poem dedicated to U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), who died the first week of the class in July.
Grigsby said they plan to host other workshops for young poets and artists.
“Artists seldom have answers,” he said. “But we have a lot of questions.”
Lauren Cohen, 17, a 11th grader at Oak Hall School in Gainesville, spoke about gun violence during an ARTSPEAKS event in 2018 and considers Richardson a mentor.
“I remember standing up on that stage and feeling so alive with those words,” Cohen said. “It was so powerful to be there with everyone.”
Taylor Hill-Miles, 17, and Aarti Kalamangalam, 16, are seniors at Eastside High School in Gainesville. The duo jointly shared a joint poem about identity and female solidarity at “Courageous Young Voices” in March.
“We both had commonalities where people didn’t see us for who we were but as what their stereotypes were,” Hill-Miles said.
Kalamangalam came away feeling more assured that poetry can be a form of empowerment.
“It gave me a lot of confidence in what I have to say,” she said.
Hill-Miles also commended Richardson’s ability to lead by example.
“He organizes, he gives teens a platform, but he also does the work,” Hill-Miles said. “He walks the walk. It’s inspiring how he gives back to the community.”
For Richardson, it’s been quite a journey since the days when all of his work was in those boxes.
“I love language and words and writing and poetry,” he said. “What I love most is I get to provide a platform for other people.”