When 22-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman took to the podium on Jan. 20, her words rang out to an entire nation that, in a single year, witnessed the economic and mortal toll of a pandemic, confronted their racist past and watched rioters storm the Capitol. It was a lot to communicate. Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” eloquently packaged difficult and messy national conversations.
Her words created a sobering emotional reflection of the U.S. Kenya Burton, a poet and community organizer from Salinas, says that this is precisely where the power of poetry lies.
“Poetry for me has always been a way to say things that we’re not allowed to say,” Burton says.
She would know. As a domestic abuse survivor, she began writing poetry as a way to express the hurt and anguish she was expected to keep silent from adults. “It’s amazing what poetry can do for that quiet little Black girl who was so scared to speak up. With poetry, I’m allowed to scream. I can be loud.”
Burton is being pitched by her old boss, Andrew Sandoval, as Salinas’ poet laureate after he watched Gorman’s performance and was reminded of Burton’s talent. In an email sent on Inauguration Day to City Council, Sandoval wrote: “Her poetry has touched the hearts and minds of all who hear her poetry.”
There’s a precedent for a Salinas poet laureate. In 2014, James B. Golden was Salinas’ first poet laureate, writing the poem “Wave to Salinas.” Miguél Angel Frias became Salinas’ first Youth Poet Laureate in 2013.
Mayor Kimbley Craig is open to reviving the position. “Quality of life is a significant part of the happiness of residents. Art, history and culture play a huge role in that, so encouraging that kind of atmosphere within the community is important,” Craig says.
They’re in the early stages of studying the request. Although she’s heard Burton’s work, Craig says there will likely be a process for choosing a poet laureate rather than appointing Burton. “We just want to make sure it’s fair,” she says.
Burton is happy to make it a process, even a competition. The seasoned poet recognizes there is an abundance of local talent. She’s witnessed it, sometimes from her audience members, including a girl who approached her after one performance: “She had a stutter and was scared of performing, but she looked at me and said, ‘You make hard stuff sound pretty.’”
Burton has won many poetry competitions, even winning the New York Silver Key Scholastic Writing Award. Whether or not it’s her, she believes Salinas’ consideration for reviving the position is telling. “I’ve seen the impact of what introducing a narrative does for people. Politicians and leaders have their way of saying things, but poetry allows us to say the right things for the time,” Burton says.