Rafael González speaks into a microphone during the Lights of Liberty rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Berkeley in 2019. The crowd holds up various posters in the background in protest of poor conditions at migrant detention centers.
Rafael González presents his poem “I am asked as Poet” at the Lights of Liberty rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Berkeley in July 2019. Credit: Guillermo Ortiz

In September 2017, Rafael González was appointed as Berkeley’s first poet laureate. 

He hadn’t applied for the job. It was an unpaid honorific — a two-year term with no officially required duties or formal structure. The title was awarded in a nine-word “ceremonial” item on a City Council agenda. It’s unclear how he was chosen. 

It was left to González, a bilingual poet who moved to Berkeley 50 years ago and taught creative writing and literature at Laney College from 1968 to 1998, to invent the role for himself. 

He wrote a poem, “On Being Named the 1st Poet Laureate of Berkeley,” in which he accepted “the laurels conferred upon me” while balking at how “laurel crowned” poets have traditionally been expected to use their eloquence to glamorize the state and those in power. He promised “to praise when it serves justice,/to protest when it does not.”

He represented Berkeley during a statewide gathering of poet laureates in 2018. And he presented his poetry at several other events and readings. A highlight was a 2019 rally at Civic Center Park where he presented his piece “I am asked as Poet,” in which he described the harsh conditions migrants face at the southern border. (“I was born on a border [in El Paso, Texas]; I will probably die on one,” he quipped, noting that the Berkeley-Oakland border runs through his home in The Elmwood.)

As 2019 turned to 2020, the city made no effort to replace him as poet laureate. The position seemed to have been forgotten. González, now 87, cut back on work, especially during the pandemic, and last year he decided to renounce his crown so that a “younger person” can take over.

“I am much honored to have been named the first Poet Laureate of Berkeley, but my tenure as such has expired and I would like to relinquish the position to a successor,” he wrote in an email to Mayor Jesse Arreguín last summer.

The city has taken González’s departure as a signal to create a formal structure for Berkeley’s poet laureate program. Applications open next month to be the city’s second-ever poet laureate, now under the aegis of the Berkeley Public Library and the Civic Arts Commission. 

The revised program was modeled after other cities with existing poet laureate programs, including Oakland, and incorporated feedback from an advisory group consisting of 11 mostly Bay Area poets. González was one of them.

The laureate, who must be a Berkeley resident, will be chosen through an official application process and be given a $10,000 honorarium (funding comes from the library). 

Berkeley’s poet laureate will be required to produce at least one original poem inspired by or related to Berkeley, give at least one public reading per year in partnership with the library, and present at least five recitations at city or library events over the course of their two-year term. This time, the term will really last just two years, the city assures.

The poet’s responsibilities will also include mentorship for the city’s Youth Poet Laureate program, which the Berkeley Public Library is in the early stages of developing in partnership with the literary arts organization Urban Word, which named Amanda Gorman as National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017. (A timeline for that program’s launch has yet to be announced.)

Applicants for poet laureate will be asked to answer narrative questions, provide work samples and a resume, and share supporting materials such as news articles or event fliers. They will be evaluated by a panel of four or five judges on their literary and performance skills and should show a meaningful connection to Berkeley. 

Hilary Amnah, a staff member with the city’s Civic Arts Program, said formalizing the poet laureate program is meant to democratize the process so that poets not already on the city’s radar can still be eligible for the opportunity.

“We’re hoping this person will be able to champion Berkeley’s rich poetry and spoken word and literary arts communities, serve as a creative ambassador to the city … and continue Berkeley’s historic tradition of free speech,” Amnah said. 

Bearing a ‘grandiose title’

After more than five years on the Berkeley poetry throne, González is still questioning what it means to be a poet laureate.

“The poet laureate position originally came from a political position where a poet was selected because he — in the patriarchy it’s always a he — was selected with their skill and ability to praise the king and country, then was expected to write occasional poems for occasions, holidays, and coronations,” he said. 

The role has since evolved, and nowadays, most poet laureates fill out an application and are chosen via a competition. But González is no fan of competition, either.

Rafael González gives a reading.
Rafael González photographed while presenting a public reading. Credit: Persis M. Karim

“Art doesn’t have categories or limits,” he said. “To say who’s best, who’s better and so forth … is a very subjective thing. Sometimes you have panels of judges, but it all comes down to a matter of taste.”

He’s never entered a poetry competition, and served as a judge for a poetry competition just once — the Fischer Prize in Colorado — at the urging of a close friend. 

It was also why González was so surprised when he was asked to become Berkeley’s first poet laureate in 2017. He was honored, but he felt there were others who were much more qualified and prominent than him. 

González has long suspected that Susan Felix, who spent 16 years as Berkeley’s arts ambassador and often showed up to his poetry readings, played a role in his nomination. Felix had first suggested the idea for the poet laureate position to Mayor Arreguín. 

González said the designation of “poet laureate” should not be seen as a stepping stone to new career opportunities for emerging poets (that should be the goal of the Youth Poet Laureate program). Rather, he said, “the title should be an honorific one, just a recognition” — ideally for someone who already has established a strong public presence in Berkeley.

He’s not entirely confident having a “grandiose title” has made a tangible difference on his recognizability — perhaps with the exception of one occasion in which a stranger at a jazz festival in New Orleans asked him whether he was “the Berkeley poet” and fist-bumped him.

“Write from the heart,” González said when asked what advice he’d give to those hoping to become the city’s next poet laureate. “Speak from the heart. Speak truth and don’t be afraid to speak truth to power.”

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...