.Santa Cruz Poet Laureate David Sullivan’s ‘Agents of Change’

The all-inclusive amalgamation of the arts showcases a diverse pool of artists working in a vast array of mediums at the Downtown Santa Cruz Library

Two years ago, Cabrillo College literature and film instructor David Sullivan was named the poet laureate of Santa Cruz.

Poet laureates are appointed to represent and engage with their communities, writing original poems and performing them at schools, city council meetings and more. Sullivan says it has been “a great honor” to be Santa Cruz’s poet laureate, despite the fact it has been during the pandemic.

“It’s been interesting to do this right now—a lot more Zoom time,” he says. “But it’s been so nice connecting with everyone. I feel lucky to live in a place so diverse with creative talent.”

When he received the honor, Sullivan was already looking for ways to connect different creative groups in his community. He started up his new art and poetry project, Agents of Change, to do just that.

“I wanted to do something positive and inclusive,” he says. “I wanted to create Agents of Change as a way to make connections between different artistic fields.”

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Last week, an Agents of Change exhibition opened at the Downtown Public Library in Santa Cruz. The show features a variety of work, including many different artistic mediums (painting, photography, lithographs and more) and poems. 

Calls for artists and poets were sent out early this year, asking participants to create pieces that represented the subject of change. The broad theme resulted in a diverse pool of work, Sullivan says. 

“It’s been great to see the kind of response and the variety of subjects people have tackled,” he says. “From the wildfires to the pandemic, women’s issues, Black Lives Matter … I really think we are in a tumultuous time, a reassessment of what we value and how we connect in this world.”

Many noted local artists will be showing work, including photographer Shmuel Thaler, Watsonville poet laureate Bob Gomez and Cabrillo College instructor and Hive Poetry Collective member Nikia Chaney. Sullivan says a number of artists and poets have teamed up to create pieces together.

“That was unexpected, but wonderful,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to having people coming by the library this summer and seeing these incredible works.”

Sullivan is a writer himself, with a number of books under his belt, and his English 1B at Cabrillo class puts together the Porter Gulch Review, a literary and arts publication, every year. 

His latest book, Black Butterflies Over Baghdad, was released last year. The book of poetry highlights Iraqi artists, with translations of Iraqi poets. Sullivan says the book grew out of another he wrote a decade ago, Every Seed of the Pomegranate.

“That book was half in the voices of U.S. soldiers and citizens and half in the voice of Iraqi soldiers and citizens,” he says. “This book is all about listening to the Iraqis in their own voices. It tries to listen and understand a different culture, and give a voice to the people.”

Sullivan worked directly with the poets and artists to put Butterflies together.

“They all have tremendous hospitality—every time I meet the Iraqis it’s just been incredible,” he says. “They have such a dark, black humor about them. Which helps them survive through everything. It’s been very moving, their openness and willingness to talk and teach me has been amazing. I feel very privileged.”

Sullivan says he hopes that the Agents of Change show will inspire people to expand their worldview and be more understanding to others.

“We are in a situation where we are so disconnected, not listening to each other,” he says. “Both art and poetry emphasize passionate connection and understanding to those who are different from us. They are vital tools to open us up and make us think outside the box. I would hope something would get stirred in people by some of the pieces. That they investigate and reach out to others that they maybe didn’t talk to before. We must begin to lead with kindness and compassion.”

Agents of Change will run through early September at the Downtown Library, 224 Church St., Santa Cruz. On Saturday, June 18, there will be an Agents of Change poetry workshop from 11am-noon, and an art show and poetry reading from noon-1pm; free. For information, visit bit.ly/3tsOMbM.

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