Poet Laureate Makes Strides in Dutchess
Bettina Wilkerson, better known as Poet Gold, was appointed Dutchess Poet Laureate in 2017 and re-appointed in 2018, both times by Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro. Having grown up as a songwriter and lyricist, she’s been writing, in one way or another, for the better part of her life. Despite this, Wilkerson never believed that Dutchess Poet Laureate would be a part of her trajectory in life.
“The task is to take poetry and expose it to as many people as you possibly can; expose it to places it hasn’t been,” Wilkerson said. “Take poetry where poetry is not. Open that market further.”
Through both spoken word and written poetry, she has been effective in doing just that. This past April, Poughkeepsie’s first ever poetry festival was held, with over 500 people attending. This was an event that Wilkerson had been determined to establish for a long time.
At the festival, cleverly named PoughETRY Fest, other poets and poet laureates from the area joined together to speak, as various open mics were held throughout the day. In addition to the traditional open mic, other categories included youth poetry and LGBTQ open mics. Due to the success of the first event, a second festival will be held again in April, which also happens to be Poetry Month.
“It raises the bar in the area for literacy,” Wilkerson said. “Tapping into the youth and exposing them to some of the beautiful poets both of our time and in the past. It allows you to ‘backdoor’ literacy. If you attach something to [a message in life], and you attach it with things that are a bit more contemporary, then you can ‘backdoor.’”
The importance of community is not only at the core of being Dutchess Poet Laureate, but it is also a part of life that Wilkerson holds close, especially within poetry. She puts a large emphasis on the honesty of the art: how everything is right there, ready for interpretation; the same line of poetry can hold a different meaning for each individual.
“It provokes us to explore our humanity; to question things around us beyond face value,” Wilkerson said. “I’ve found that poetry can serve to heal; perhaps rebuild that which may be broken. Poetry is honest. Whether you’re writing about yourself or someone else’s story — it’s honest.”
Wilkerson defines herself as a teaching artist, and at the Sundog Theatre in Staten Island, she works to teach students about the importance of expression through writing, poetry, and spoken word, especially in speaking about violence. Students are able to write about their own feelings toward violence and create solutions for the issue. The success of their latest event, “Art Heals, Violence Hurts,” has launched the program into being implemented into the curriculum at various schools in the area.
“I want people to be happy in their spirit. If we’re more honest with who we wish to be and do the things we want to do in life, we would have a better society,” Wilkerson said. “It could simply be taking a walk when we want to take a walk. It’s to get people to be a conduit and get to that space for themselves, to open that portal through words and poetry; to encourage that we get there.”
The ability to connect, either to a person or a concept, is an important part of both poetry as a whole and Wilkerson’s drive as a poet.
“Someone may share with me a story and within their eyes, their soul is speaking to me and I connect with that and surrender to that process, which I didn’t always do; I fought that for a long time,” Wilkerson said. “I decided to surrender to poetry and let it take me where I’m supposed to be.”
It’s plain to see that Wilkerson’s main goal in her position as Dutchess Poet Laureate is simply to spread a positive outlook on life through spoken word. She made the point that we, as people, are a constant work in progress.
“The phrase ‘grow up’ always frustrates me,” Wilkerson said. “At which point do we stop growing? I’ve seen people at their last breath discover something new at that moment.”