Ask Darryl Lorenzo Wellington if he grew up around religion, and he laughs and rolls his eyes. He seems to think the answer is a foregone conclusion. “Well, yes, I’m Black and I’m from the South.”
He grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and moved to Charleston, South Carolina, as a young adult. “It’s a very religious place,” he says with distinct Southern accent. “That’s just the way it is. But I was raised only by my mother, and she wasn’t overbearingly religious.”
He’s been dealing with his loss or lack of faith in his writing for many years, but he doesn’t think God or religion make many appearances in his first full-length book of poetry, Psalms at the Present Time, to be released in November from Flowstone Press. The first poem is titled “God and Death,” and begins “God is a front porch dweller. God is a long-time neighbor who you used to imagine could become a closer friend — someone that you have become accustomed to judging at a distance.”
Santa Fe’s newest poet laureate soon acknowledges that God is, in fact, all over this book. He laughs again. In fact, he laughs often. A great many things seem to strike him as humorous, although he doesn’t always share the joke.
“I just assume that everyone knows what growing up in Georgia is like. Most Black writers will have some citing of religion for that reason.” He pauses. “Protestant religion, gospel music. It’s very important to the culture, whether you’re a believer or not.” He laughs again, shakes his head. “It’s such a big and complicated subject. James Baldwin was a preacher when he was young. Ministers are so important. All of this sounds a bit cliché, and it’s less true now than it was in the ‘70s when I was coming up, but they still hold a certain power.”
During his two-year stint as the city’s sixth poet laureate, Wellington, 54, will be responsible for coordinating and hosting literary events, including readings and writing workshops, to highlight the importance of poetry in society. It’s a continuation of what he’s been doing since he moved to Santa Fe from Charleston a decade ago. He teaches, performs, writes for rent money — and writes for himself. He spends most of his time alone, pursuing these objectives. He says the major adjustment to being Santa Fe’s poet laureate in the semi-post-pandemic era will be leaving his house to participate in public events. Although he never expected to be chosen for this honor, it seems like an apropos achievement for a man who has arranged his life around the need to be creative above all else.
“A big part of my personality is wanting to be independent or trying to be, as much as I can. That’s just sort of my rais-un dee’etre,” he says, stumbling through the French pronunciation of raison d’être or “reason for being.” In the mid-1990s, he lived in Paris for a year and hung out with old-school surrealists. He came back to the States when he ran out of places to stay — and realized that to really live in France, he would have to learn the language. “I never learned. I was never going to learn.”
As a young man, Wellington paid his rent as a parking lot attendant in Savannah and then in Charleston. In his spare time, he wrote poems and stories and short articles for local papers. It was the early days of the internet, and a man he knew online asked him to write an entry on the poet Sterling A. Brown for Encyclopedia Britannica.
“You can look him up if you don’t know him. He’s quite an amazing early 20th-century poet,” Wellington says. “An editor named Jabari Asim saw this article, and he called me up on the telephone. He wanted to know some stuff about me and if I would be interested in writing for The Washington Post. He does this a lot, I think, especially with Black writers. I said, ‘Of course.’”
Asim says, “Darryl’s comments on Sterling Brown were knowledgeable indeed, but his comments about Langston Hughes in that same entry caught my attention. Many African American critics, myself included, tend to fall into a state of worshipfulness when writing about Hughes. Darryl was respectful but rigorous. He’s a fearless critic.”
Soon, Wellington was writing for several publications and earning enough to quit his job at the parking lot. “You’re not going to get super wealthy [as a magazine writer], but it was paying my rent. It was a preferable activity, and there was more self-esteem in it.”
Wellington claims no fixed aesthetic or affinity for a particular school of poetry. Nor is he exclusively a poet. He does spoken-word and performance art, has ventured into stand-up comedy, publishes short stories and book reviews, and writes a monthly column about race for the Santa Fe Reporter. He also has a strong journalism background. He writes several pieces a month on important social issues for the Center for Community Change, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
Poetry is closest to his heart, however. In his eclectic collection, he mixes heightened, lyric language with much more down-to-Earth diction. He’s often funny, and he can be outright crude. Sometimes he writes in persona, and sometimes the poems are anchored to his life, but he doesn’t consider them autobiographical. Or it doesn’t matter. Readers can make of it all what they will. He says that anything he could explain about the content of his poems takes a backseat to whether or not they’re “pretty.”
He laughs, because it’s such a subjective — even simplistic — concept. “If I can make it beautiful enough, that will justify the emotion, or even the incoherence. If it’s pretty enough, if it’s eloquent enough, then that satisfies me on a puerile level.”
In his book, Wellington riffs on God, the pleasure of rhymes, the slow waking to write early in the morning, and the Devil playing cards before settling into a sequence of psalms. He wrote most of them during the Trump era, 2016 to 2020, although Wellington says they are not all in direct response to the threat he felt from that administration. The psalms are honed, focused prayers that center on sleep and rest, although that theme isn’t always explicit.
“Peace of mind will scurry, like fire ants scattering,/a flight of frightened and submissive flags,/a Northbound/Southbound/ shirking and directionless migration,” he writes in “Psalm I: Peace of Mind.” In “Psalm II, The Remembered Past,” he writes “and the finest/hours that you/have enjoyed this year/come with strings attached,/like frills hanging from kites.”
“Psalm III: Dwellings” is a prose poem that departs from the short-lined pieces before it. Wellington adapted it from a monologue he included in a play years earlier. In it, a woman in a stale, possibly violent marriage prepares to make a change. The syntax stops and starts, fitfully, like an idea forming and taking hold.
Wellington’s closest friend in Santa Fe is John Paul Granillo, co-founder of the Alas de Agua Art Collective. They met during a live art event three or four years ago (neither can remember), at which poets read from their work while Granillo painted. He kept his back to the writers, so that he could focus on his contribution. “But the minute Darryl read his piece on time — the importance of time, the marks that time leaves on you, the impressions it leaves inside your soul — I turned right around just to see who it was.”
Granillo says they talk several times a week, about art and their lives. But at first, Wellington was hard to get to know. “He’s super private in some areas and super friendly in other areas. I think it’s a Southern defense mechanism. But you get past those barriers by showing authenticity and genuineness to him. He divulges more a lot faster and easier.”
At least half the time, Wellington says, he’s just trying to make people laugh. He really wants to pursue stand-up comedy when it’s safe to be in crowds again. Racism is one of the only subjects about which he gets instantly serious, but he also thinks it’s legitimate fodder for his stand-up act. When he’s tried it out, often in comedic monologues that also teach important history, “people are riveted, but they don’t laugh.”
His seriousness about racism is one of the reasons he writes the column for the Reporter, in which he uses his life experiences and perspective to educate. If the column sometimes reads like “Introduction to Black People,” it’s because Santa Fe is a bit of a bubble, he says, where some people think that race issues that tear other cities apart have already been solved or don’t exist here. He figures it’s important to shatter this false Utopia, a kind of willful naiveté about the outside world.
“I taught a class about poetry and protest,” he says. “There was a woman who said she took every poetry class she could. And I know this is just one person, but I was talking about Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, and she asked me who they were. It wasn’t a joke. She’d never heard of them!” He hits the table a few times, practically screaming with laughter. “This was definitely an ‘only in Santa Fe’ moment. But I thought, that is just great, because now the only thing you’re going to know about who those people are is what I’m going to tell you.”
You don’t fall asleep in any one place.
You shunt several places, states, saturnalia
and balance them. And walk suspension
no less than the mischievous showcase
chasing the bright red rubber balls,
Several cityscapes, lines. This way the
worst of it
breaks inside you along
-side the best of it. The final judgement
is no less random than critiquing a hotel
in an Arctic zone.
Whether this was good sleep, bad sleep,
good sleep, bad sleep: too many factors
in increments readjust the room
temperature to the body.
— From Psalms for the Present Time