Jillian Hanesworth started writing songs as a child hoping that her mother would sing them, but when she got into hip-hop, it inspired her in a new direction.
“I wanted to try to use that kind of style with my style of writing, and the best way to do that was spoken word poetry,” Hanesworth said. “Most of my favorite poets are rappers.” Hanesworth said she started writing poems at around 9 years old, and “just never stopped writing.”
Now, Hanesworth is the first-ever poet laureate of Buffalo, New York. She’ll speak at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, as a part of Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme “Literature and Meaning Making,” and almost a year after her first scheduled appearance at Chautauqua, on Aug. 12, 2022, which was canceled following the attack on Salman Rushdie.
While there is a poet laureate of New York State, Hanesworth said she felt that Buffalo needed one of its own.
“It can be hard for somebody who lives in New York City to create art that reflects the day-to-day life of somebody who lives in Western New York,” Hanesworth said.
She spent about two years trying to get the Buffalo Common Council to vote on a resolution to create the role, coming up with a description and writing resolutions.
“I didn’t think I was going to be the first one,” Hanesworth said. “But then, they determined, ‘Everything that we want our poet laureate to do on paper, you’re already doing.’”
In Buffalo, Hanesworth said, the poet laureate is supposed to “create poetry that reflects the needs, struggles, desires of the people,” perform at all city events, and go into schools to talk to students about art.
“For me specifically, I talked to students about using art for the sake of community organizing and moving people to action.” Hanesworth said.
Hanesworth also oversees the Buffalo Books program, which provides books to residents of Buffalo’s East side, “into neighborhoods where Black and brown kids live, with main characters that look like them,” Hanesworth said, and focusing on themes that are not always reinforced in school.
“Some of the authors that we use for Buffalo Books are from Buffalo, so in some cases it’s finding an author that might have grown up around the corner from you,” she said. “We don’t just put any book in our library; we are very intentional about making sure that these books reflect the population that the library box is placed in.”
The program provides these books through pop-up bookstores where people shop for free, and through little library boxes, which are either built or donated.
“By the end of this summer, we’ll have over 30 of them placed around the East Side,” Hanesworth said. “Right now, I’m working on getting eight placed on the front lawns of Buffalo public schools.”
Today, she said she will be discussing some of the writers and books who have influenced her style of writing and her way of thinking.
“I’m going to talk about what led me to pick up a pen and start writing,” Hanesworth said. “I’m going to try to take the listeners through a journey of what I read that inspired me to write, when I started writing, when I did write, the good and the bad, and how that’s gotten me to the point today, where I am a professional writer.”
Hanesworth said she hopes that Chautauquans hear about authors they may never have heard of before, and that the talk will make them want to pick up a book.
“Even more than that, I want them to leave and try to write something,” Hanesworth said. “I’m hoping that people will hear my journey and my story, laugh at some of it, and when they leave, they’ll be inspired — or they’ll inspire their children or their grandchildren to not only read stories, but write your own story, because you have one that’s worth telling.”