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Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.

Elgin Poet Laureate Pens Fellowship With National Organization

James Harvey
Elgin Poet Laureate Chasity Gunn.

A national poetry organization announced the names of 23 poet laureate fellows last week.

The Academy of American Poets offered a combined total of $1.1 million to select poet laureates across the nation. Each poet will receive $50,000 or $25,000 if the position is shared in the state. Illinois Poet Laureate Angela Jacksonis one of the 2021 poet laureate fellows. This list also includes a northern Illinois writer.   

Chasity Gunn is the first poet laureate of the City of Elgin, an English professor at Elgin Community College and most recently, a 2021 fellow of the Academy of American Poets. 

Gunn mentioned that her mentor, Adrian Matejka, was a recipient of the fellowship a few years back. She said she was impressed by how much he was able to accomplish during his time with it.

Gunn said there are so many more things she wants to do in her laureate position, and this program gives her a running start. 

“The first thing that appealed to me was the resources that are provided with the fellowship,” she explained. “They provide $15,000 to do a civic project. And so that was a big draw because there are ideas that I had but didn't necessarily have the resources to make those ideas come into fruition.” 

Gunn’s civic project is called Sanctuary Poets. It’s intended to create a safe space for poets. The concept isn’t about a physical area but rather focuses on the freedom of expression. She said some Black and Brown poets aren’t comfortable opening up in certain environments, which silences their voices. 

“Because of that, I think that writers are not able to really explore their art, they're not really able to tell their story, things of that nature, they're very inhibited,” Gunn said.

She said she envisions a place where people of all backgrounds and writing levels can help each other grow in their crafts.

Gunn mentioned that Sanctuary Poets is inspired by “Poetry for the People.” This concept was developed by poet June Jordans and was meant to foster community through art and activism. Gunn said Jordan wanted to take poetry out of the classroom and make it accessible to everyday people.

“What I loved about doing Jordan’s program is that it's for people, it's for everyone,” she said. “And I thought that that fit really well with the sanctuary because the sanctuary is a space for everyone.” 

Gunn solicited two other poetry groups to help with the vision.   

“Poets don't live in vacuums, and especially trying to do community work, you can't do it by yourself,” she added. “And so, I have worked with Hamilton Wings, and Atrocious Poets with projects that they've done, and I just was very impressed and honored to work with them.” 

Both groups will add a unique flavor to the seminars. Hamilton Wings is an in-resident ensemble at Elgin Community College. Gunn pointed out that the group’s performance background could help participants become more comfortable with doing readings -- a requirement for Sanctuary Poets.   

“Also, Hamilton Wings works with youth. And so that's also a way to partner with youth visual artists, and maybe even young writers,” she said. 

Gunn took part in an Atrocious Poets art exhibit that combined words with visual art last year called “As It Happens.”

“And I was just blown away at what was created, how well organized that it was,” she said. “And I want them to help me with that portion of the project. But also they have experience creating and releasing chap books.” 

Readings, poetry being displayed and public places, an audiobook and a chapbook are the elements that will be produced from the program.

Gunn is not a parent. But she said she understands the obstacles many parents face when it comes to their own extracurricular activities. So the program will offer child-care services during the sessions.

"Also it's a great opportunity to give internships. And so the individuals who will be providing the child-care will be students in our early childhood education, hopefully, from ECC," Gunn explains.

Gunn’s time as Elgin poet laureate was set to expire after two years, but the pandemic ate a huge chunk of her term. She offered to serve an additional year pro bono. She said she wants to ensure that the upcoming poet laureate has a structure in place.    

Gunn is working on a couple of books. She shared that, even after her term as a fellow, she hopes to continue to offer the Sanctuary Poets program to the community. 

There are two sessions for this civic project. The first session starts in September and continues through October. The second begins in November and goes into December. Actual dates and times are listed on Gunn’sSanctuary Poets blog.  

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.

Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.