On Jan. 19, the Tompkins County Legislature announced Dr. Christine Kitano as the county’s next poet laureate, the 10th in county history.
Tompkins County Poet Laureate began in 2001 when it was established by the Tompkins County Legislature. Each poet laureate is honored for their local outstanding poetry. The role of the poet laureate is to help integrate poetry into the Ithaca community, enhance education of young people and strengthen the county's position as a culture center.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Kitano now resides in Brooktondale, right outside of Ithaca. Kitano is the author of “Birds of Paradise” and “Sky Country.”
Kitano is also an assistant professor at Ithaca College, where she teaches poetry and Asian American Literature, while offering classes such as creative writing. Over the summers, she teaches at a low residency Masters of Fine Arts and Creative Writing program, as well.
In her new role, Kitano wants to begin a monthly book or poetry club which will help blend poetry into the Ithaca community. She does not have a set plan yet, with there being obstacles of people not having the money to pay for books, but Kitano has an idea of how the club would operate and meet. She said the club would be virtual to begin with, but whenever weather becomes warmer she would like to have outdoor club meetings.
A monthly poetry club would help involve the entire Ithaca community and not solely students.
“I see this as a way to take poetry outside of the colleges, outside of the classrooms, and bring them to people that are no longer in school,” Kitano said.
Kitano values the pillars of equity, inclusion and antiracism in her poetry because it gives her poetry a deeper meaning if she feels her work is impacting people and touching them.
“One of the things that I try to do in my work is I try to either reflect and critique the world that we all live in or imagine alternate structures that we can all live in,” Kitano said. “I’m hoping that my poems also speak to, not just the world that we live in as it is, but what an ideal or better world might look like.”
These pillars are important to Kitano because she believes literature can make a positive impact if it were integrated into people’s daily lifestyle.
“I think it is important to look at literature as not separate from everyday life,” Kitano said. “Poetry is a reflection of our lived experiences. Poetry speaks to the connections that we have as people that we don’t always get to see or talk about. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we all want to live in an equitable world, a just world. So I’m always looking for how my work as a poet can connect with those larger goals.”
Poetry is not expressed enough to younger people, according to Kitano, and she believes it is because of standardized rules that they feel must be followed, such as the stereotype that all poetry must rhyme. She believes that negative stigmas surrounding poetry can cause some people to grow apart from it.
“When people come to poetry, they love it. And then something happens and they don’t love it anymore.”
Kitano emphasized how poetry can be free and not so uptight as people think it is.
“People sort of lose interest because they go to poetry for freedom and creativity, so I wanted to show people that the rules they have in mind... don’t necessarily need to be followed. They can be followed, but they don't need to be followed. I want to help people to reconnect with the initial sense of poetry being about freedom in some ways.”
Kitano has noticed how impactful poetry is on young adults while teaching at Ithaca College.
“I think that teaching at IC has really helped me see how important poetry can be for students,” Kitano said. “Especially students who are not necessarily writing majors or who are not poets themselves, or don’t consider themselves poets. I’m always looking to learn how to make poetry still meaningful for people who don’t have the goal of perhaps becoming a poet or going to graduate school in poetry.”
She gets a different experience working with graduate students that have a passion for poetry and making a career out of it compared to those who want to be involved, whether it be for fun or just out of curiosity.
“And getting to move between those two spheres, I think, has helped me envision a larger audience for poetry which will hopefully translate to bringing it to Tompkins County community.”
Kitano said that the most important message of poetry that she would want people to know is while poetry is a social cause, it is also pleasure.
“I think one of the stereotypes mainly about poetry is that either it’s just sounds or it's just images and has nothing to do with the real world,” Kitano said. “Or on the other hand that poetry is just for people who have learned to read poetry, that it’s just for people who have gone to school for poetry or somehow divorced from the real world. And I think both of those are stereotypes I want to work against. So there is absolute just fun and pleasure in poetry. You don’t have to have studied it to understand it, you don’t have to study it to enjoy it, but also poetry is not just for fun. It does speak to larger social structures and social movements. So it’s not just one or the other.”