Pearl Cleage named Atlanta’s first poet laureate

Pearl Cleage was named the city of Atlanta’s first poet laureate. Jason Getz/AJC FILE
Pearl Cleage was named the city of Atlanta’s first poet laureate. Jason Getz/AJC FILE

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

The Spelman grad and longtime Atlantan’s career spans five decades

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms named playwright, author and poet Pearl Cleage the city of Atlanta’s first poet laureate March 31.

The mayor made the announcement during her State of the City address, calling Cleage’s appointment to the post as the city’s top ambassador for poetry and the arts a “commitment to the arts and investment in our creative community.”

Cleage, 72, built her writing career in Atlanta, first as a speechwriter for Mayor Maynard Jackson. But in the evenings and weekends, she immersed herself in her own personal writing. Those stories and essays started a career that would include nine novels, 17 plays, three essay collections and three poetry volumes. Her novel “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day,” was an early Oprah Book Club pick and became a New York Times bestseller. Winfrey was so impressed with Cleage’s prose and poetry that she tapped Cleage to be the poet for Winfrey’s “Legends” galas, which honored leading Black women in the arts, politics and civil rights.

Pearl Cleage takes the stage to thank everyone as she is presented with the Gene-Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award.
Pearl Cleage takes the stage to thank everyone as she is presented with the Gene-Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award.

Credit: MIKKI K. HARRIS / mkharris@ajc.com

Credit: MIKKI K. HARRIS / mkharris@ajc.com

Many of Cleage’s novels and plays are set in Atlanta’s West End, a neighborhood Cleage has called home for decades with her husband, Zaron Bennett, Jr. A Spelman College graduate, Cleage also taught writing at Spelman. It was there that she encouraged a young student, named Tayari Jones, to become a writer. Jones, also went on to become a celebrated novelist whose work also centers the lives of Black Atlantans.

“Pearl is Atlanta,” said Camille Russell Love, executive director of the Mayor’s Office for Cultural Affairs, which administers the poet laureate post. “There isn’t a more deserving writer in the city of Atlanta to be our poet laureate.”

Love’s office has commissioned Cleage to write a poem dedicated to the victims of the 1979-1981 missing and murdered children cases. The poem will be part of an upcoming exhibition honoring those killed in one of the city’s most infamous crimes.

For the last several years, Cleage has also been the playwright-in-residence at the Alliance Theatre, creating original work that centers the lives of Black women and families. A hallmark of her work has long been looking at Black life through a lens of hope and optimism.

Love said that in Cleage’s new role she’s hopeful the writer will serve “through her work and presence,” as an inspiration for young people in Atlanta to “find their voices.”

Playwright Pearl Cleage and Alliance Theatre Director Susan V. Booth talk during a rehearsal of Cleage’s new play “Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous”.
Playwright Pearl Cleage and Alliance Theatre Director Susan V. Booth talk during a rehearsal of Cleage’s new play “Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous”.

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