.Rhythms of the Streets: Richmond’s poet laureate’s work honors and heals

David Flores’ list of poet inspirations doesn’t include any of the usual Dead White Suspects—no Eliot or Plath, Coleridge or Dickinson, Yeats or Keats. Instead, his lodestars are still alive, and in some cases, local: Saul Williams, Cesar Cruz and Daveed Diggs.

This is natural for Flores, the city of Richmond’s poet laureate through 2023. He began rapping/freestyling while in high school in the early ’90s. Then, in college at age 20, he was part of a tutor/mentor program working with local youth. Part of the program was creating a written word anthology, to which both students and mentors contributed. He wrote a poem for it, and then, as he said, “I didn’t write poetry regularly for years.”

But gradually, alongside his hip hop lyrics, poems began to emerge, and during the past few years, he has been writing many more. Pandemic lockdown meant increased writing time, as well as more to write about, he said. When he was named poet laureate, that also stimulated his process. Poetry has to be worked in alongside his full-time job as a lead trainer for the Mindful Life Project, a nonprofit working with students and teachers in Bay Area schools, which includes a “mindful hip hop” component in one of its sessions.

To write a poem, Flores has to “feel it really strongly. I might write down a few words on a walk,” he said. “Sometimes, the whole poem comes quickly, and other times, it’s piece by piece.” He keeps reading and revising it. Sometimes, he takes a topic and makes a list, which he then incorporates into a poem, such as “We Are Richmond,” a piece saluting the many nonprofit organizations dedicated to bettering the city.

Sometimes, he said, he’ll use his Facebook page to prompt people with a topic, using their responses “like a puzzle” to create poems. Reading them out loud to himself, he channels the rhythm of the words. Many of his poems deal with responses to trauma, partially inspired by the Richmond neighborhood in which he grew up. But they are also about “a healing journey and transformation,” he said.

He wants to write poems that others can relate to, that upon hearing them, someone says, “Yes, I get that.” His poetry enables him to connect with others, and inspires him to do more and be better.

“I want to reach people who haven’t found their voices,” Flores said. “Once I began writing, and got positive feedback from it, my confidence skyrocketed. It lit a fire.”

This is the 10th year Richmond has named a poet laureate, according to the Richmond Arts & Culture Commission, which is responsible for selecting the poet laureates.

The RAAC describes the poet laureate program as aiming to “promote appreciation for poetry, writing and the creative process to the people of Richmond through public poetry, open mic events and programs in participating schools and organizations.”

The poet laureate also presents poetry throughout the year at community events, works with Richmond youth to teach and create poetry, and acts as the spokesperson for the poetry community in Richmond, according to the RAAC.

As part of these duties, Flores will co-host “Health and Wellness in the Black Community,” a free evening of poetry, including an open mic, on April 7. TJ Sykes, Donte Clark and CiCi Jevae are the featured poets.

In reading some of Flores’ poems, it’s possible to trace a longer bloodline, back to the work of the Watts Prophets, the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, and even one of Scott-Heron’s idols, Langston Hughes. 

Here is Flores’ take on the early days of hip hop:

92 Til Infinity

1992

ENDTRODUCING hip hop

BEATS, RHYMES, and LIFE

With a BIG L

ILLMATIC with the mic

Using word play not COMMON

Over beats on and on CHRONIC

No longer an OUTKAST or a stranger

I ENTERED THE 36 CHAMBERS

And discovered a METHOD to their madness

Rhyming like they were READY TO DIE with a passion

MOS DEFinitely by the block taught

With ROOTS of resilience and pure BLACK THOUGHT

Channeling ancestors communicating not in words but HIEROGLYPHICS

Soul deep like the spirit of GURUs and mystics

The original FUNKY HOMOSAPIENS

Mother Earth’s rhythm in their blood and sun kissed skin

Breaking through that impenetrable DIGITAL UNDERGROUND

With 92 BPM’s and the FUNKDOOBIEST soul sounds

As they ENTA DA STAGE ready for the PREMIER of dope lyrics on display

Like ICE CUBEs melting and ready to make it rain

On that PHARCYDE of the city or the summit of that HILL called CYPRESS

Emcees dropping SERMONs like KRS wise and righteous

And beats banging brilliant RETURN OF THE BOOM BAP

With ORGANIZED CONFUSION they fuse it with raps

True MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS spitting bars under a BLACK MOON

The MOBB is DEEP like a GANG, STAR bright like my crew

Better yet TRIBE on a QUEST to be NOTORIOUS, INFAMOUS

With skillz HARD TO EARN, 1992 TIL INFINITE

Flores encourages anyone to try writing poetry, without worrying if it’s “good,” or being too self-critical. “Poetry gives people a powerful opportunity to find their voices and then use them,” he said. “The power of poetry is transformational.”

“Health and Wellness in the Black Community,” poetry event and open mic, Apr. 7, 7-9pm, Richmond City Council Chambers, 440 Civic Circle, Richmond. Free.
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