Poetry for the People: ASU professor appointed Phoenix’s first poet laureate

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Rosemarie Dombrowski’s contemporaries refer to her as the Allen Ginsberg of Phoenix’s poetry community, a title that she embraces with humility.

However, being compared to the prolific poet who bolstered the careers of Beat writers in the ‘60s isn’t the only title Dombrowski is committed to maintaining.

She is a senior lecturer at ASU’s downtown campus, where she teaches poetry workshops and classes such as Women in Literature and Cultural Storytelling. She co-founded the Phoenix Poetry Series and serves as the editor in chief of Rinky Dink Press, which publishes micropoetry zines. She is also the editor in chief of ASU’s undergraduate writing journal, Write On, Downtown. She is an active member and staunch supporter of the creative community in downtown Phoenix.

Dombrowski now has another title to add to her lofty literary resume, and it may just be the pinnacle of her poetic career. She was recently appointed as Phoenix’s inaugural poet laureate.

Though Dombrowski admits it has been a dream of hers for years, she believes the position is as much of a triumph for the city of Phoenix as it is a personal milestone.  

“For me, poetry has never just been about writing,” she says. “It’s always been about building the community.”

Dombrowski’s approach to her new role is not unlike her approach to writing—humble, vulnerable and determined. Though she admits she’s not Arizona’s preeminent poet, she strives to champion the medium and grow its visibility and relevance in the community.

“I don’t need to be the best poet; that’s never been my objective,” she explains. “I want to be the glue that holds the community together. I want to be the person that promotes poetry as a medium for political action, resistance, healing, empowerment and self-expression. I want to be the person who convinces the community that poetry is the best vehicle for achieving those goals.”

Dombrowski’s passion is palpable when she says her biggest goal is to “make people believe in poetry again.” That’s not to say she hasn’t also set her own personal goals.  

“I might become a better poet by default,” she laughs.

Dombrowski believes now is a pivotal time to consolidate the crusade for a stronger presence of arts in institutions and communities.

We need advocates in the arts more than we ever have,” she asserts. “If there aren’t people in these sorts of positions in major cities across America, then I don’t know who’s going to go into the schools and continue to advocate for the arts. It’s a necessary thing.”

Dombrowski also contends that part of the problem is the lack of resources and staff who are willing to engage and inspire students. She says implementing hands-on projects like poetry slams, workshops, student-run publications and mentor programs would help instill inspiration in the school system and beyond.

“I wouldn’t say I know more about classroom pedagogy, but I have worked in the community, not just the classroom, to bolster the arts and create community programs, and I’ve always done it on a budget of zero because it’s what I love to do,” she adds. “I’m hoping that if I can make that more of a reality, then the poet laureates of other major cities will also make that a reality in their cities and their communities.”

An inherent need for self-expression

Dombrowski sits in her tidy, dimly lit office on the third floor of the University Center building in downtown Phoenix. Past issues of her publications line the bookshelves.

She says she did not always think of herself as “a practitioner of poetry.”

“I spent my whole life wanting to be a dancer,” she admits.

After she graduated from high school, Dombrowski attended ASU with a major in anthropology and a minor in dance, a decision she says was “terribly unrealistic.”

After taking several introductory classes, she quickly found she wasn’t getting what she was yearning for—the reading and discussion of literature. She decided to add an English major during her sophomore year.  

Dombrowski’s insatiable love for learning and literature ultimately led her to pursue her master’s degree and become a teaching assistant. She was teaching her own lit classes independently within a year. Pretty soon, she was applying for a PhD.

“I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to be a professor someday,’ or ‘I’m going to be a poet,’” she recalls. “I was just treading water, but doing what I loved.”

It was during her doctorate that she was invited to teach English at the writing center at ASU’s downtown campus. Dombrowski claims this experience sparked her love for the downtown student community.  

“Downtown Phoenix is a melting pot and I think it always has been, but…the faction that was missing was the student faction,” she explains. “Now that they’re here, they’re not only being exposed to the culture, ideologies and people that have made up downtown Phoenix for years, they’re becoming a part of those communities and those cultures and subcultures.”

Dombrowski reaches for a copy of one of Rinky Dink’s microzines, a series of 20 to 40-word poems written by a female hip hop poet from Cleveland, Ohio.

“This is what I’m talking about,” she says, as she flips through the pamphlet’s tiny pages. “Not just appealing packages like zines and microzines, but poets who are representing different types of communities, not just the 55 and older established poetic community. There’s nothing wrong with that… but I want to bring 20 and 30-somethings that no one’s heard of into the fold and into the contemporary canon. Age doesn’t have that much to do with it. It’s about strength of voice. It’s about vision. It’s about mission. It’s about artistry. It’s about stuff that comes from your gut.”

Dombrowski posits that being a good writer is “a labor of love.” It requires an investment of time and passion, and a relentless desire to improve.

“If you think you’ve reached a point where you are as good as you’re going to get, you’re delusional or you’re dead,” she quips.

THE HUMAN CONDITION

Dombrowski says the biggest challenge as a writer is not necessarily finding a new story, but seeking a new way to recreate the stories that have already been told.

“I’m not going to be writing something new; I’m going be writing about the human condition,” she says. “It’s about the way that you package that, it’s about the language that you use and the language that you don’t use. It’s about the way that final product sounds when someone reads it, the way it sounds when you give it life orally at a reading, when it comes to life in a room and people are captivated by it.”

Dombrowski has noticed a resurgence of sociopolitical motifs in contemporary poetry, a movement she hopes will bridge the divide between communities and their subjective experiences.

She is very confident that her new role as Phoenix’s first poet laureate will give her the means to cultivate a fighting spirit among the community, using poetry as a vehicle to promote self-expression and social justice.  

“I kind of like that I have to represent the fighting faction,” she grins. “I think the fighting spirit is alive and well in a lot of people, and a lot of young people, and that’s really all I need to make it a success.”

Dombrowski suggests poetry is as much an art form as it is a form of protest.

“I think policy should be made by the people, just like poetry should be made by the people,” she says. “That’s our history, of American protest poetry, and I think this is a great time to resurrect that with a vengeance.”

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