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A poet's perspective

Tampa's poet laureate says poems should be personal and universal.

By LaRita Jacobs, Times Staff Writer
Published February 20, 2008


The ninth annual Florida African American Heritage Celebration is Saturday at Heritage Village in Largo. James Tokley, Tampa's poet laureate of nearly 12 years will once again recite poetry at the event. Tokley took time this week to answer a few questions about being a poet and the African-American experience in Tampa Bay.

What is the best thing about your experience as Tampa's poet laureate?

I have been able to become the people's poet. I write poems as things open, when they close, when things change. I wrote a poem for Gov. Charlie Crist's inauguration. I wrote a poem for the Belleview Biltmore Hotel that helped save it. I write poems for retirements, birthdays - all kinds of things.

I am a griot. That's an African word that means poet, historian, singer and folklorist.

What draws you to the African American Heritage Festival each year?

This is an opportunity to step back in time. I might do Langston Hughes or Paul Laurence Dunbar as well as my own poems. I look for poems with impact, insight and imagery. I also look for simpatico - the ability of the poem to be personal and universal.

How has the experience of being African-American changed in Tampa Bay over the years?

We're coming out of the nautilus shell. In 1978, I took a young lady to Clearwater Beach. We were walking on the fishing pier and she began to weep. She said, 'I've been here all my life and this is the first time I have ever seen the Gulf of Mexico.' We are no longer to be found only at fish fries and back door parties. We get out and go everywhere.

My father used to say 'as African-Americans, our struggle is not to prove that we are equal, but that we are human.' We are getting there in Tampa Bay.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing African-Americans today?

Our biggest obstacle is to accept the future. The past is still with us, but the future is what we make of it. We need to convince ourselves that we have what it takes to do what we want to do. Who knows what we will be in the by and by? Whatever it is, it will be magnificent!

What do you most want to convey in your presentations on Saturday?

I want to convey the reality of the African-American experience. I want people to be excited about what they hear, to be exhilarated, to be challenged. I want people to say, 'That was poetry? That was black poetry? I like it.'

That's what I would truly like to convey.

IF YOU GO:

Florida African American Heritage Festival

Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Heritage Village, 11909 125th St. N

The event is free and will feature storytelling, music, dance performances and lots of food.