In 2019, Maya Stein visited Belfast to attend the Belfast Poetry Festival. Four years later, she is assuming an honorary city position dedicated entirely to poetry.
Stein and her wife, Amy Tingle, moved to Northport four months after the 2019 visit.
“We just couldn’t believe that this little town had both a poetry festival and this poet laureate position,” Stein said.
Stein was named Belfast’s poet laureate on Tuesday at the Belfast City Council meeting in a unanimous vote. She was also chosen unanimously by the selection committee. She replaces Judy Kaber, who just completed her two year term.
“As poet laureate, I have had the privilege and pleasure of working with a lot of poets in town,” Kaber said, recounting the poetry readings, workshops and other events that had to be held remotely during the early part of her term due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year the Belfast Poetry Festival was held in person for the first time since 2019.
Stein, who last lived in northern New Jersey, wants to bring poetry into the everyday lives of locals.
“I call myself a ninja poet. And what that means is poetry in unexpected places,” Stein said Tuesday.
In an interview Wednesday, she talked about bringing poetry to people.
“I think my focus is to reach people who don’t necessarily look for literary events in their lives,” Stein said.
She’s already dreaming up ways to help people experience poetry in their everyday lives, such as having a poet in residence at an unexpected place like a local grocery store.
“My hope is to really think outside the regular traditional venues where people would experience poetry,” Stein said. “I think it’s really vital in order to really connect with poetry that we experience it in our everyday life.”
Belfast has had an official poet laureate since 2007. But the tradition dates back several years earlier when then-Mayor Mike Hurley, now a city councilor, was approached by poet Bern Porter, who said the city needed one. Hurley told Porter he was it. But when Porter died in 2004, Hurley found the city without a poet laureate and wanted to change that so he named Bob Ryan to succeed him.
“It was very casual in the beginning,” Hurley said.
In 2005, at the city’s first Belfast Poetry Festival, Hurley named Elizabeth Garber as poet laureate. But it wasn’t until 2007 that the position became official. Now, a committee reviews applications before selecting a candidate that the City Council must affirm. The position lasts for two years and is a volunteer.
Hurley is happy with the legacy of poet laureates in the city that began with a rogue move.
“A few years ago, I did a Pecha Kucha [presentation] on being a community arsonist, and the mark of any good arsonist is when you start a fire it keeps going. And I look at the poet thing as wonderful because it was an idea, I started it and it took off on its own,” Hurley said.
As for Stein, Hurley couldn’t say enough things.
“She’s a terrific person. …I’ve known her the whole time she’s lived in Belfast. Just a really impressive human being,” Hurley said.