Personality: Douglas Powell aka ‘Roscoe Burnems’
Spotlight on Richmond’s first poet laureate
2/4/2021, 6 p.m.
Douglas Powell is many things — a poet, author and spoken word artist who performs under the alias Roscoe Burnems.
He is a National Poetry Slam champion, a former TEDx speaker, a husband, father and teacher who has contributed to a number of creative endeavors in Richmond.
And now, Mr. Powell has been selected to serve as the city’s first poet laureate.
In his new role, announced by Richmond officials on Jan. 13 and running through 2023, Mr. Powell will lead easy-to-access writing and performance workshops throughout Richmond, create art projects grounded in building literacy and speak at various city events.
Right now, Mr. Powell plans to hold a series of workshops focused on poetry as a tool for advocacy, agency and activism. He also wants to revive “Poetry in the Park” once the weather warms up and create new programs centered around poetry as a performance art.
For Mr. Powell, the role of poet laureate is a chance to show Richmond youths the life-changing and world-changing power of poetry, as well as to renew interest in literacy and performance art in the city. Richmond, he says, has been a great inspiration and muse for his goals, as it has shaped his own endeavors and artistic career.
“Richmond has been an eclectic blend of obstacles and progressive thought,” Mr. Powell says. “It has been this buffet of cultures, clashes and continuous growth that has inspired me to be an agent of change through art.”
That change has manifested in a number of ways throughout Mr. Powell’s life and work, from donating his time with organizations such as the St. Joseph’s Villa Alternative Education Program, ART 180 to the University of Richmond’s Partners in the Arts. It also has drawn him to lead poetry workshops at several Richmond middle and high schools and to found the Writer’s Den Art Collective in 2014.
Richmond’s influence on Mr. Powell’s poetry was discussed during his public debut as the city’s poet laureate during the Poe Museum’s virtual Birthday Bash last month celebrating Edgar Allan Poe’s 212th birthday.
Reflecting the realities of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, the new poet laureate similarly will host workshops and events online as he starts, but hopes to launch in-person programs throughout Richmond.
People can learn about up- coming events and programs on rvapoetlaureate.org or @roscoeburnems on Instagram, he says.
“It is an honor to have my work and my contributions recognized by the city that made me who I am,” Mr. Powell says. “It is an opportunity to use poetry as a voice for this city to inspire hope, creativity and unity among all Richmonders.”
Meet Richmond’s newest creative force and this week’s Personality, Douglas “Roscoe Burnems” Powell:
No. 1 honor: Richmond’s first poet laureate.
Date and place of birth: Born in Richmond’s South Side and raised in North Henrico.
Where I live now: North Chesterfield.
Occupation: Teaching artist. Education: Graduated from Henrico High School and attended Virginia State University for about a year.
Family: I have a wife and two children, a 14-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.
What being named first poet laureate for Richmond means: It is an honor to have my work and my contributions recognized by the city that made me who I am. Being the first poet laureate is a position I hope to use to bring a renewed love of literary and performance art to Richmond. It is an opportunity to use poetry as a voice for this city to inspire hope, creativity and unity among all Richmonders.
How I learned about the honor: I applied in October 2020 when the announcement about the program was made and was on pins and needles until I got the call in January that confirmed that I had been selected. I cried immediately! I was so excited and couldn’t wait to call my Mama — after telling my wife, of course.
How I was selected: I was selected by a committee of city officials and literary organizations in Richmond.
Length of tenure: I will be the poet laureate from 2021 to 2023.
Role of poet laureate of Richmond: My tasks will be to conduct accessible writing and performance workshops throughout the city, create literary-based art projects and speak at commencements and other city events. On a personal note, I want to show youths that these things are attainable and poetry can be a life-changing/world-changing art form.
How Richmond shapes my poetry: Richmond has been an eclectic blend of obstacles and progressive thought. It has been this buffet of cultures, clashes and continuous growth that has inspired me to be an agent of change through art.
How my role will engage our community: I plan to host a series of poetry workshops centered around using poetry as a form of advocacy, agency and activism. During the warmer months, I would like to revive “Poetry in the Park” and create programs centered around poetry as a performance art.
Poetry is: Poetry is healing, therapeutic, necessary and shifting. Poetry is a fluid art form that changes in its approach but has always been a symbol of the human experience.
First poem written and why: I do not remember the first poem I wrote, it was so long ago. My early writings started off very much about my experiences. I talked candidly about mental health, religion and relationships. That was most important to me at the time.
Who or what is the main inspiration behind my work: My inspirations have grown and shifted as I’ve journeyed in my career. Music drove me through much of my youth. Groups like OutKast and artists like Prince pushed me to take risks and be unapologetically honest in my writing. After that, a number of older poets and a lot of my contemporaries have inspired me to push my writing and tackle more subjects.
Themes covered in my poetry: My poetry has covered mental health and stigma in minority communities, education, religion, family, fatherhood, racial injustice, relationships and more.
How poetry can help people during difficult times: Poetry has been the most vulnerable form of storytelling over time. I think people need poetry now more than ever because we feel so divided as a country. I think through writing about our experiences, we can break the stigmatization of certain cultures, find common ground and, through that, work together to achieve real equity and equality in our society.
The poetry of Amanda Gorman at inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris: Her poem was powerful. I think she is wise well beyond her years.
Who I hope to inspire: I hope to inspire all, but I really cater to the young people. I think the rising generation of young adults has the ability to make this city better than it has ever been.
How I start the day: Slow! I start the day SLOW! Honestly, every day is different. I try to start the day with gratitude. Every day I wake up is a win. I won today and I hope to win tomorrow.
A perfect day for me: A day of craziness with my wife and kids, then a night of performing in front of a crowd.
Something I love to do that most people would never imagine: I love watching UFC fights. I watch them religiously and used to do MMA as a young adult.
A quote that I am inspired by: “We are just spirits doing human time” — Angelique Palmer and “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth” — Muhammad Ali.
My friends describe me as: Sarcastic, funny, informed and selfless.
Best late-night snack: I love popcorn. Popcorn is my go-to.
Best thing my parents ever taught me: My father was completely absent. It was through his negligence that I learned the power of parenthood and vowed to be a good dad for my children. My mother worked until she couldn’t. I get my work ethic from her.
Favorite poet and why: Artistically, a poet by the name of 13 of Nazareth has had the largest influence on me. His approach to writing and life changed my perspective on what poetry could be and finding peace in art and life.
Book that influenced me the most: Books like “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne, “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle and authors like Deepak Chopra, and Neale Donald Walsch.
What I’m reading now: I was able to see an early copy of “Also Dark” by Angelique Palmer. It is a vulnerable, grueling, passionate, coming-of-age collection of poetry.
Next goal: I want to further the knowledge and passion of poetry slams and performance poetry as a whole.