El Segundo’s recently selected poet laureate for 2022 and 2023, Hope Anita Smith, brings her talent, enthusiasm, and creativity to the role.
By Maureen Kingsley
Like many writers, Hope Anita Smith, El Segundo’s first-ever poet laureate, has been an avid reader from a very early age. “I began reading at four years old,” she says of her love of books, with John D. Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain adventure series and Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy stories figuring prominently in her childhood.
By age eight, Hope was writing poetry and had developed a reverence for words and verse, encouraged by her supportive Aunt Earlene and a nurturing school environment, where, she explains, she was assigned poetry to memorize and recite, including “The Creation” by Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson.
“Memorizing poetry is wonderful,” Hope explains, “because once it is committed to memory, you can focus on delivering it. You can draw the listener in as you recite it. You can interact with your audience.” Poetry’s gift is two-fold, Hope says. “It gives you a gift when you read it, and it gives others a gift when you recite it.” Her favorite poets in childhood included Nikki Giovanni, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Maya Angelou. As an adult and published author, Hope admires and is still inspired by poets, including one of her favorites, Billy Collins, who served as the poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and with whom she has studied; as well as Mary Oliver; Valerie Worth; Elizabeth Acevedo; and Pablo Neruda.
As poet laureate of El Segundo, Hope is eager to increase awareness of and appreciation for poetry within the community. “I want poetry to take up residency here in the city,” she says. Her plans for engagement with the community include a fun, interactive project she calls “The Amazing Poet,” inspired by the television program The Amazing Race, which would introduce participants to poems and poets from around the world, then have them emulate some of what they’ve learned in their own poetic creations.
Hope would like to partner with ESMoA, the art and cultural center on Main Street in Downtown El Segundo, where she and ESMoA’s visitors can write poetry related to the artworks there. She will also draw on her experience working in schools, with both students and teachers, and avail herself to El Segundo’s own school communities.
“I feel like I have a treasure and I can’t wait to share it,” Hope explains. “I am excited for community members of all ages here in El Segundo to have a relationship with poetry. If you don’t know poetry, I’m excited to have you make its acquaintance. If you already have a connection with poetry, I want to rekindle that fire, remind you why you took to it. But, know that no matter which side of the coin you fall on, I’m ready to share my love of poetry with the residents of El Segundo.”
Having sold her first written work as a seventh-grader, encouraged by an extraordinary teacher, Mr. Senuta, Hope is now a veteran published author of several works, including Mother Poems, an autobiographical book of poems inspired by her relationship with her mother; My Daddy Rules the World: Poems About Dads; Keeping the Night Watch; and The Way a Door Closes. Her awards include The Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, The Myra Cohn Livingston Award for Distinguished Work of Poetry, and The Bank Street College Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry. Her latest work, It Rained Warm Bread, a collaboration with Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet, details Moshe Moskowitz’s recounting of a terrible period in history—the Holocaust. Hope spent Sundays with Mr. Moskowitz and his daughter, Gloria, discussing his account over bagels and tea. Hope then translated those conversations and his daughter’s historical research into poems. “It was an amazing partnership with Gloria and Lea Lyon, the illustrator of the book,” Hope says. She felt a tremendous responsibility to its subject, Michael Moskowitz, and his family. While Hope is not Jewish, she says she related to Michael’s story from the perspective of someone who belongs to a historically marginalized and oppressed culture.
Hope has found each of her books rewarding in their own way, but she is most proud of Mother Poems, which is full of memories of her own mother, whom Hope lost at age 12. Choosing a “favorite” book she’s published, however, is a bit like choosing a favorite child—virtually impossible, as each was written with intention. My Daddy Rules the World, for instance, is a collection of poems honoring all kinds of fathers: warm, supportive, biological, and those who stand in the gap to show love unconditionally and support to children. Hope believes these men are long overdue celebration. She notes that The Way a Door Closes and Keeping the Night Watch also honor and empower fathers.
Hope has plans to reprint Mother Poems and is currently working on a novel that is scheduled to be published next year. Writing a novel “is like climbing a mountain,” Hope says. “And I’ve never thought of myself as a mountain-climber. Except…I actually am!” She credits a supportive network of friends and family who encourage her. “It takes a village to raise a writer,” she adds, “and I have a phenomenal village.”
El Segundo’s poet laureate is also an artist who creates collages and illustrations from torn paper (including the work featured on this issue’s cover and in this story). She credits her book editor Christy Ottaviano, who urged her to make book illustrations using her love of paper: “My editor has challenged me to try new things. Her belief in my abilities, sight unseen, says a lot about her faith in me. She opens doors and I keep walking through them. I owe her a debt of gratitude.” These extraordinary artworks appear in Mother Poems and My Daddy Rules the World, and they were born from Hope’s desire to challenge her own perfectionism. “Tearing the paper made perfectionism take a back seat,” she says. “I wanted imperfect lines and curves. It was liberating. And I absolutely fell in love with it.”
The faces in Hope’s illustrations are without features. Hope explains that each faceless portrait acts as a mirror allowing readers to insert themselves, thus creating an intimate connection with each image.
Hope has enjoyed working with paper as a medium for many years—she makes an annual tradition of creating 100 original valentines and gives them out to strangers every Valentine’s Day, and gives her flight attendants homemade paper gifts that she makes by hand whenever she travels.
Now that her tenure as El Segundo’s poet laureate is underway, Hope looks forward to “turning poetry on its ear,” and helping citizens of all ages find a deep and abiding appreciation for it. “Poetry has incredible value,” she asserts. “It can help you understand yourself. It can help you understand the world around you. It can function as a historian for information, a balm for pain, or an entertainer for pure joy. Poetry is boundless.”
This story appears in the February 2022 issue of The El Segundo Scene.