At the urging of two persistent middle schoolers , local artist and University alumna Susan Allison ’85 was recently announced as Middletown’s first Poet Laureate.
The idea of Middletown having a Poet Laureate was proposed by Sasha Zipf and Todd Archer, then-elementary school students at MacDonough School and now 6th graders at Keigwin Middle School. Middletown Mayor Daniel Drew explained how the proposal turned into a reality.
“They wrote me a letter saying they were interested in creating a Poet Laureate for the city of Middletown,” Drew said. “I wrote back to them and told them I thought it was a great idea, and then I sent the letter over to the Commission on the Arts, which is a commission made up of council members and volunteers from the community, and which is staffed by the city’s Arts Coordinator. I asked them to come up with a plan.”
After research on Poet Laureates in other cities, the Commission on the Arts developed a peer review process, along with a rubric to establish criteria for appointment. Later members of the Commission formed a small subcommittee to review all the applications that came in.
“[The committee] went through the applications and scored each applicant based on a variety of peer review factors,” Drew said. “Then they made a recommendation to me for an appointment, and I made an appointment pursuant to their recommendation.”
Once this process was completed, Allison was selected for this honor. According to Drew, she will serve for three years before a new Poet Laureate of Middletown is chosen to fulfill Allison’s current responsibilities.
“She will be responsible for promoting poetry in the community, for writing poems for special occasions, for raising general awareness of poetry, bringing poets together, and making sure that people have greater access to the humanities,” Drew said. “She can help enrich the community from a literary standpoint.”
Despite not having grown up in Middletown, Allison was familiar with the city prior to attending the University.
“I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and first moved to Middletown as a freshman at Wesleyan in 1979,” Allison wrote in an email to The Argus. “I often visited Middletown because we had family here and I still have family here. But in many ways I also grew up in Middletown, at Wesleyan, on Rapallo Avenue, and on Main Street.”
Initially, Allison took a number of writing classes at the University and had plans to major in English. However, it was African drumming and dancing that really inspired her poetry.
“The [African] dances instruct the community of dancers in history, psychology, sociology, spirituality, and for me it was poetry expanded,” Allison wrote. “I left Wesleyan, traveled to Africa, and returned to Wesleyan a couple of years later to declare a major in African Studies—which no longer exists.”
Additionally, Allison attended many poetry readings at the University at Russell House during her time as a student, hearing everything from Richard Wilbur to John Trudell.
“Wesleyan provides incredible resources, opportunities, amazing professors, instruction, creative inspiration, and outlets,” Allison wrote. “I have to admit that if I knew then what I know now I would have taken advantage of more of what Wesleyan offers.”
Allison planted her poetic roots in Middletown soon after she graduated from the University through the Buttonwood Tree. Founded in 1989 as a storefront bookstore and performance space, Buttonwood Tree quickly evolved into a non-profit organization in 1991, which acted as an artistic hub for Middletown.
“The poetry series, which continues today, was begun a week after the opening,” Allison wrote. “The first poetry slam was held at the Daily Café in New Haven, which no longer exists, and the second Poetry Slam and many others were held at The Buttonwood Tree; it even was the host of the International Poetry Slam in 1997. Though I am no longer involved in running The Buttonwood Tree except as a patron and supporter, I think that my early work bringing poetry to Main Street helped as evidence of my involvement and familiarity with poetry in Middletown.”
University President Michael Roth expressed his pride in Allison and the community for recognizing her many contributions.
“I’m delighted to see one of our great alumni recognized in this way,” Roth said. “Susan been a pillar of the Middletown community for many years through her work at The Buttonwood Tree, and a great contributor to this city’s arts scene.”
Allison reflected on her newly awarded title in a positive light.
“I am thrilled, honored, and feel that it is strangely appropriate and timely in a way that makes sense to me,” Allison wrote. “[It’s] one of those things that happens, which makes life a little more clear, when years of hard work, which could have gone unnoticed, instead are recognized. I have read and written poetry my whole life. It is how I interact with the world. I have come to love spoken word, poetic collaboration, and I have just begun writing again after long grief. I love this city.”