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San Diego’s new poet laureate sees poetry as a tool of empowerment

Black and white headshot of 2023-2024 San Diego poet laureate, Jason Magabo Perez
Blake Schilling/For CSUSM

Jason Magabo Perez was named San Diego’s second poet laureate in January. He succeeds Ron Salisbury, who was appointed for a two-year term in 2020.

Perez is the author of two books, “Phenomenology of Superhero” and “This is for the Mostless,” which includes poetry, personal essays, fiction and oral history. He is a graduate of UC San Diego and is director of the ethnic studies program at California State University, San Marcos.

“I think I’m here to share what I’ve learned over the years as a community organizer — as a poet, as an educator, as a scholar, hoping to demystify poetry a little bit,” Perez said.


Perez spoke with KPBS Midday Edition about poetry and how family history and community inform his work.

Perez made his debut as poet laureate at San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s State of the City address on Jan. 11 with his poem, “We Draft Work Songs for This City.” The poem is printed below with permission:

We Draft Work Songs for This City

by Jason Magabo Perez

whenever we stretch grammars of worry past the Pacific
whenever another blackout gifts us much needed stillness


whenever the surrender of this quiet is typhoon enough we
draft work songs for this city mighty we of rough draft

futures mighty we in river-mouth of rush hour traffic we
of protest chant & scrapyard syntax we draft on the corner

of Black Mountain & Mira Mesa here on a sidewalk of torn
shoelaces & lost grocery lists we draft blueprints for survival

we survive on the smell of beef broth the smell of basil of
turmeric of cilantro of carne asada of freshly cooked rice

of steamed bok choy of freshwater fish of deep-fried rice
paper we work song at this bus stop for students we work

song at this bus stop for tech workers this bus stop for lolas
y abuelitas we work song in tin drum glottal syllables of

distant motherlands we draft litanies at every streetlight
altar we draft verse on napkins & reused plastic grocery

bags wherever there are elders playing chess & waxing
geographic outside the donut shop whenever much needed

stillness promises a new hour whenever the Pacific knows
to rupture the shoreline whenever typhoon is fractal hum in

chest we draft work songs for this city we raw material
literatures we distillation of afterdreams we swapmeet

philosophers we draft work songs on the corner of Genesee
& Clairemont Mesa we draft of gutters scattered with pink

boba straws & dried palm leaves we draft for mothers & children
hustling bouquets of carnations from the bicycle lane we draft

for parolees in orange vests selling local tribunes from the center
island we draft on Murray Ridge where a family sells roses &

chocolate from a white bucket whenever the small hour calls
collect whenever ruptures in the line set us free whenever hum

in chest arrives as ghost in throat we draft work songs we whose
hands wash sky we who grow gardens & gardens against worry

we whose mighty ache remakes history we draft work songs here
in the alley off University behind 49th we draft of a perfectly

reusable red plastic slide of a car full of birthday balloons of a
small hill of middle grade paperbacks a gold purse full of fresh

broccoli & rubber gloves a black tote bag stuffed with wet lettuce
& white surgical masks we draft at the backyard family parties

& block-wide barbecues we work song where it smells of fresh
tires & flour tortillas where dried lemon rinds stick to pavement

work song of cleaned chicken bone wrapped in foil work song of
rainsoaked boxsprings work song for the infamous hot cheetos

burrito brushfire fabulous work song work song on the graveyard
shift survivor song song of the parking lot nail salon work song

of the underfuture heavenly pho outside between two buildings
work song we draft as patrol cars cram the alley we draft as protest

medics cram the alley we draft as Muslim cabbies double-park their
Priuses outside the mosque outside the taqueria work song of a child

chasing mosquitos with a hammer wherever a community of uncles
gathers in the shared parking lot of the banh mi shop & Somali

restaurant wherever we feel that lived intensity of interior traffic here
sings the lettuce-picker here sings the strawberry-picker here sings

the bellhop the postal worker the custodian the hotel maid grounds-
keeper landscaper gardener construction worker nurse teacher waiter

dishwasher bus driver grocer labor organizer mechanic therapist here
sings the nanny here sings the refugee here sings the Native here sings

the migrant O, what work! O, what song! O, what city! when our utterance
is archive when there is historical reckoning when we demand nothing

short of collective joy & here we are on Native land we draft work songs for
this city we draft work songs for this city we draft work songs for this city