16 February 2024

Former Poet Laureate Reflects on Arts, Life in Norfolk

Before Norfolk’s 57-foot long “End of Massive Resistance” wall could be dedicated in April 2023, there was one crucial element missing: a poem to commemorate the day. For that, the city turned to the man arguably best suited for the honor, former Virginia Poet Laureate and longtime Norfolk resident Tim Seibles. 

Seibles, who taught at Old Dominion University until his 2019 retirement, worked with surviving members of the Norfolk 17 to craft the poem, “Seventeen Ways.” In it, he pays homage to the group of students who, in 1959, desegregated the city’s public schools after a protracted and painful battle that went as high as the state’s governor and was splashed across newspaper front pages throughout the nation. 

Getting to tell their story, Seibles says, was both cathartic and humbling, especially because he had grown up in the era of segregated schools and was among the first students to integrate into the Philadelphia city school system in the 1960s. For Seibles, the experience came as an elementary school student, which helped soften the transition.

Contrasting his experience with that of the Norfolk 17, Seibles says, “These kids faced much more animosity than we did in Philly. It was the 1950s and the South, so it was much rougher for them. At the high school level, you’re dealing with attitudes that are hardened.” 

In the poem, Seibles draws on conversations he had with the living members of the Norfolk 17 as well as their white classmates. Safe to say, each remembered the experience in dramatically different ways. 

This led Seibles to pen a standout line in the poem that reads,

Here, now, it’s easy to forget — easy /
to think “it wasn’t so bad.” 

Reflecting on this line, Seibles says, this sort of justification is often used by people as a way to cope with extremely difficult situations. He adds, “If you haven’t had direct experience with a thing, you can say, ‘it wasn’t that bad.’”

Read the entire poem, “Seventeen Ways.”

The "End of Massive Resistance" wall on Charlotte Street in Norfolk. @via_design_architects
The “End of Massive Resistance” wall on Charlotte Street in Norfolk. @via_design_architects

A Distinctive Honor

In conversation, Seibles can switch between levity and seriousness at the drop of a hat, but he never seriously considered that his nomination to be the 18th Poet Laureate of Virginia was more than a kind gesture from a friend. But lo and behold, there he was, on the phone with the governor’s office in July 2016, accepting the honor. 

The chance to share his love of poetry with young students across Virginia was the best part of the title, he says. 

“I think when you talk to middle school or high school students, they’re skeptical about poetry,” Seibles says. “But if you read them a poem and they understand it right away, they relax and become receptive quickly.” 

Seibles stresses that this is important on several levels. 

“I believe poetry in particular and art in general is good for a society and what daily pleasures or hardships shape our lives.”

Indeed, his own work touches on both the personal and the universal, covering topics as specific as being Black in America and as general as being young and in love. He’s chronicled his journey through verse in books such as “Fast Animal,” a 2012 National Book Award finalist, “One Turn Around the Sun” (2017) and “Voodoo Libretto: New & Selected Poems” (2022).

At the core of every poem he writes, Seibles tackles the timeless experiences all people share, regardless of race, age or cultural upbringing. He captures his hope for the future in a line from his poem, “Something Silver White,” that reads: 

After / so many years together / you might think / we would be kinder / because, no matter what / anybody says about / anybody else, we were all born / to this planet suddenly / blinking under the same star / and evening sky and that means the universe / is floating.

This hopefulness in the face of bleak circumstances is a thread that runs through much of Seibles’ work. 

“People get busy and the heart gets shoved into a little corner somewhere inside themselves,” Seibles says. “What I want with my work is to put the heart in the center of things. How we feel about life is how we live.”

A collection of Tim Sebiles' favorite books.
A collection of Tim Sebiels’ favorite books.

Why He Calls Norfolk Home

Seibles’ optimistic outlook extends to his adopted hometown of Norfolk, a place where the arts thrive and creativity is encouraged. 

“I like that because it’s a smaller city, you get to have a sharpened sense of community. I’m really happy about the arts here. Norfolk likes to encourage the idea that creativity and arts are a real contributing factor to the health of a society.” 

Poet Tim Seibles signs a copy of his book, "Voodoo Libretto" in Norfolk
Poet Tim Seibles signs a copy of his book, “Voodoo Libretto” in Norfolk

All of which is to say it makes perfect sense that Seibles would contribute his time and energy to a poem dedicated to the Norfolk 17. 

“The idea that the city funded this monument is amazing,” he says of the monument at 114 West Charlotte Street. “Not every city would do that and I really admire that.” 

Seibles continues to write poetry and even hinted at a collaboration with local musicians in the near future. In the meantime, he can be found spreading the good word about poetry at events across town. 

“I think of myself as an ambassador for poetry,” Seibles says. “I want people to know poetry can be good for their souls. Just sit and think about things for a minute. That is good for everybody.” 

Learn more at timseibles.com.

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