April is National Poetry Month: Here’s a look at Sacramento’s poet laureate
Andru Defeye shouldn’t be here.
Sacramento’s current poet laureate, a 38-year-old Oak Park resident, was selected for his title in February 2020 with little published poetry. Born without stomach muscles, which led to serious childhood health issues, he tells people his first poem, at age 13, was a suicide note. He moved to Sacramento in 2009 after a hip hop career in the Bay Area led to substance abuse.
But Defeye, who was born Andrew Bell and grew up in Manteca, has never been one to sit idly, instead working diligently to grow Sacramento’s poetry community and make it more inclusive.
“We’ve been making history out here for the last 12-plus years,” Defeye told The Bee, in an interview weeks ahead of April’s National Poetry Month. Locally, Defeye is organizing Sunday events at McKinley Park that he’s called the First Church of Poetry.
Defeye doesn’t live on poetry alone, with the poet laureateship paying $3,000 per year. For his day job, he works as a communications consultant. Still, he manages to stay highly active in local poetry, both as poet laureate and in his years in Sacramento before.
“One of my favorite things about Andru is just his community orientation,” said Megan Van Voorhis, who became the city’s director of convention and cultural services in December and was previously its creative economy manager.
Defeye became communications director in April 2009 for Sol Collective, a nonprofit center of arts and culture located just south of Broadway on 21st Street, serving in the role until April 2020, according to his LinkedIn profile. In 2014, Defeye founded the artist collective Zero Forbidden Goals, whose members have included hip hop artists Hobo Johnson and The Philharmonik.
Following a shooting near a Nipsey Hussle concert at Ace of Spades in 2015, when the city began to crack down on hip hop, Defeye began to help lead what he terms “guerrilla art flash mobs” at venues like Broadway Pizzeria and Jimmy’s Barber Garage. The goal was to show hip hop as beneficial, non-violent and positive.
“We really shifted the culture of the city in Sacramento and that’s how I got to be poet laureate,” Defeye said.
Earning the laureateship didn’t come without challenges, though. After being one of four initial applicants, Defeye ultimately won out over finalist and friend Patrice Hill, program director of educational nonprofit Sacramento Area Youth Speaks.
Defeye is the youngest poet laureate in city history. Hill, who said she “probably will” apply for the position again next year, would have been the first Black woman to hold the title.
“It was definitely hard having Andru as my quote-unquote competition but I felt like because it was between us, it was already a major shift in my eye,” Hill said.
Sacramento has had five past poets laureate, with tenures that have ranged from 2-4 years according to a city website. Defeye’s immediate predecessor Indigo Moor, who held the title from 2017-19, was the first Black man to do so.
Among the panel that selected Defeye as poet laureate was one of his mentors, Tama Brisbane, who has been poet laureate of Stockton since 2015.
Defeye’s non-traditional path as a poet helped him with the panel. Brisbane called it “one of the things that made it apparent that he was the voice and energy that Sacramento was going to need to break through some of the fossilization.”
Being poet laureate
Shutdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic began shortly after Defeye became poet laureate. With his self-described “special edition immune system,” he was largely homebound for a couple of years. But he stayed connected to the world with frequent livestreams, mostly about topics like pandemic news and mental health.
In general, he’s remained busy, with his biography on poets.org noting that Sacramento Magazine named him one of 100 business leaders for the city in 2021.
Defeye also earned an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship in 2022, using the $50,000 award from it to reactivate a dormant city event launched in the 1980s, Sacramento Poetry Day, which is on Oct. 26. “I found out and I was like, ‘There’s a Sacramento Poetry Day? Like, how do I not know about this?’” Defeye said.
Having worked as a journalist for the Manteca Bulletin many years ago, Defeye wrote about the day for The Bee in 2021.
At Defeye’s urging, Sacramento City Council unanimously agreed to a resolution last year declaring its city the poetry capital of California and helping turn Sacramento Poetry Day into an annual event that includes paid appearances by local poets and educational curriculum for students citywide.
Defeye has since been approaching council members like Katie Valenzuela, whose office has agreed to be among the sponsors for this year’s event.
“I think he is bringing a really important voice to a whole group of people,” Valenzuela said. “I don’t think he’s using the poet laureateship to amplify himself so much as as a platform that he can also help amplify others.”
Much of Defeye’s work this time of year is about promoting the upcoming National Poetry Month. To kick off the month, Defeye, Brisbane, and recently-appointed California Poet Laureate Lee Herrick will appear at a free event at the Sacramento Poetry Center on April 1.
Defeye worked heavily with the center to change it from “an old white institution and not really a welcoming place or safe space for young poets of color.” The center, he noted, now has a new code of conduct and board.
For Defeye, a lot of his motivation is about making sure poetry includes historically-marginalized groups, be them people of color or the LGBTQIA community.
“I hesitate to call myself an activist, because there’s a lot that gets tied into that,” Defeye said. “But it’s really just about love and loving the people and making space for everybody to express.”
If you go
What: Sacramento Poet Laureate Andru Defeye and others celebrating National Poetry Month
Where: Sacramento Poetry Center, 1719 25th St.
When: 2-5 p.m. April 1