Poet Laureate Program

Pittsburgh has long been a home for poetry, and with our project All Pittsburghers are Poets, City of Asylum continues this tradition by establishing the first Poet Laureate Program for Allegheny County. Inspired by the Laureate Fellowships at the Academy of American Poets, City of Asylum will collaborate with four Poets Laureate to create free poetry programming during their terms of service. Click on the award titles below to see where our Laureates are performing.

Youth Poet Laureate of Allegheny County, 2020-21
Vincent Folkes

Vincent Folkes is a 19-year-old creative, entrepreneur, and college sophomore studying Business at the Community College of Allegheny County. He began writing songs and later transitioned into writing poetry, creating beats, mixing, and mastering music. He is a member of his school’s Black Student Union. He has participated in and facilitated anti-racist trainings as well as given presentations about prejudice versus racism and oppression in the Black community.

Read Vincent’s poem “The People.”

American Sign Language Poet Laureate of Allegheny County, 2020-21
Maryjean (Mj) Shahen

Maryjean (Mj) Shahen worked for years as a counselor and trainer for deafblind and deaf individuals with multiple intellectual disabilities. In this work, she utilized various technologies and visual cues for instruction and visual/tactual communication. Through the Peace Corps Program, Mj lived in Kenya and worked as a Special Education teacher for deaf children with disabilities. Mj has a Bachelor of Science from Gallaudet University in Recreation/Leisure Counseling and a Master of Science from Hofstra University in Education with a specialty in Rehabilitation Counseling. Mj was previously a Communication Assessor for Helen Keller National Center for the Deafblind and Temple University. She has worked as an ASL Instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. Mj is presently a Communication Support Specialist/Trainer for C.E.M. Communication Services, LLC and is an ASL Coordinator and Adjunct Instructor at the Community College of Allegheny County.

View Mj’s ASL poem “Deaf Child of Hearing Parents.”

Emerging Poet Laureate of Allegheny County, 2020-21
Paloma Sierra

Paloma Sierra is a Puerto Rican poet, playwright, and translator based in Pittsburgh. A writer with poetic and musical roots, Paloma has had her work developed by Poetic Theater Productions, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama. Her verse dramas, poetry, and translations are published in Bridge: The Bluffton University Journal, Persephone’s Daughters, and Sampsonia Way. Paloma holds a BHA in Creative Writing and Drama from Carnegie Mellon and is currently pursuing an MFA in Dramatic Writing from the same institution.

Read Paloma’s poem “BuT yOuR eNgLiSh Is So GoOd!

City of Asylum Poet Laureate of Allegheny County, 2020-22
Celeste Gainey

Celeste Gainey is the author of the poetry collection, the GAFFER, (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press), cited by O, The Oprah Magazine as one of “8 New Books of Poetry to Savor.” Her chapbook, In the land of speculation & seismography (Seven Kitchens Press), was runner-up for the prestigious Robin Becker Prize. She has been a Hedgebrook Writer in Residence as well as a presenting poet at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Graduating with a BFA in Film & Television from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, as well as earning an MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Carlow University, Gainey was the first woman to be admitted to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees as a gaffer, and has spent many years working with light in film and architecture. 

Read Celeste’s poem “in the early days of polyester.”

On behalf of the RAD board and staff, sincere congratulations to Celeste Gainey, Vincent Folkes, Maryjean (Mj) Shahen, and Paloma Sierra as City of Asylum’s inaugural Poet Laureates. We are proud to support this program with a RADical ImPAct grant, which celebrates RAD’s 25-year history and shines light on the people and projects that will inspire our region for the next 25 years. We are delighted to have our own Poet Laureates right here in Allegheny County to engage our imaginations and our empathy, and to inspire us with their words. Now more than ever, we value the vital connection to community that the arts provide. Thank you for your work and we look forward to seeing and hearing more throughout the year.

-RAD Board Chair Dusty Elias Kirk

Poets Laureate in the Press

We are grateful to the following judges for their contributions and guidance in the inaugural year of this program:

Tj Hurt, Bekezela Mguni, Jess Gold, Farooq Al-Said, Youth Poet Judges
 Greg Mendenhall, ASL Poet Laureate Judge
Stephen Motika, Emerging Poet Laureate Judge
Jill Bialosky, City of Asylum Poet Laureate Judge

City of Asylum thanks the following partners for their support:

This project received a RADical ImPAct Grant from the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD).
Sampsonia Way Magazine is a publication of City of Asylum in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh.

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