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Black History Tribute I

John Warner Smith: state’s first African American male poet laureate

By Tevyn Wade
On February 20, 2020

Smith

The month of February is Black History Month, a month that is celebrated all over the country and reminds the American people about the important roles African Americans played is creating the United States. There are many notable African Americans poets you can think of when it comes to black history, such as Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni. 

One not as well-known is John Warner Smith. But perhaps after March 16, Grambling State students will have learned much about his history and journey to becoming a poet, when he will speak in the Performing Arts Center Recital Hall at 11 a.m. 

Smith has a nontraditional background for a poet. Born in Morgan City, Louisiana, on December 22, 1952, he obtained an M.F.A. and M.B.A. from University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Smith also has B.S. degrees in accounting and in psychology from McNeese State University in Lake Charles. 

He began writing poetry while working as a public administrator and a banker, ending his career as a public official as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Labor under Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

“Poetry found me long before I realized that I was a poet, even as I pursued other career interests,” Smith has said.

Smith’s poetry is world renowned and his poems have been featured in literary journals across the country, including Ploughshares, Antioch Review, Callaloo, Transition, River Styx, and Quiddity. Smith’s poems have also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Sundress Best of the Net Anthology. 

His most recent achievement came in 2019, when Smith was appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards to serve as the state’s poet laureate, the first African American male to serve in the position, a post that means Smith is the literary ambassador for the state.

Smith makes appearances to encourage the state’s residents to explore and engage with poetry because it changed his life. In November of 2019, Smith memorialized a violent racial incident in the state’s history by appearing at a symposium and showcasing a new poem about the events that transpired. 

He is now an English professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

Smith’s March 16 visit to GSU is sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

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