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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 with support from RAD (Allegheny Regional Asset District).


Poet Laureate Project

City of Asylum’s first Poet Laureate of Allegheny County Celeste Gainey has developed the project Eco-Justice for All! Poetry Confronts Climate Catastrophe.

We invite you to join us, through reading, writing, and live performance, in the following inquiry:

How can poets use language to reveal, grapple with, even influence the urgent climate crisis and all those it affects? What happens when we explore this intersection in community to make a caring way through the Anthropocene?


Apply to be the next
Youth Poet Laureate of Allegheny County 2021-2022

Applications for the Youth Poet Laureate of Allegheny County 2021-2022 are open!

Eligibility: To apply for the Youth Poet Laureateship, you must be between 13-19 years old and a current resident of Allegheny County.

The winner receives:
– a prize of $500
– local performance opportunities with compensation during their term of service (July 2021 – June 2022)
– entry into the Northeast Regional Youth Poet Laureate Competition organized by Urban Word’s National Youth Poet Laureate Network
– publication in the National Youth Poet Laureate Network anthology

Finalists receive the title Youth Poet Ambassador of Allegheny County and local performance opportunities with compensation.

About the judging process: Applications are judged for content, not grammatical correctness, by a panel of experts in the fields of art, social justice, and civic engagement.

Download the YPL Application 2021-2022 here in .docx format. Submit your completed application via Google form here by June 16, 2021.

The application consists of:
– 1 paragraph about yourself
– writing sample of 5 poems
– 1 table to list your civic engagement activities (ex. formal or informal in schools, communities, or other groups)
– 1 table listing your experience with social justice (ex. political activism, organizing, school participation, volunteering, and art work)


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

All Pittsburghers are Poets in the Press


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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