Nonprofit leader by day, artist by night: Meet Philly’s new poet laureate Trapeta B. Mayson

The Liberian immigrant, social worker, and former Pew Fellow is committed to civic engagement through poetry.

Trapeta B. Mayson is a poet, teacher and social worker based in Germantown. She was named Philadelphia’s new poet laureate Thursday at the Free Library. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Trapeta B. Mayson is a poet, teacher and social worker based in Germantown. She was named Philadelphia’s new poet laureate Thursday at the Free Library. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Free Library of Philadelphia announced poet Trapeta B. Mayson, a native of Liberia and longtime member of the local arts scene will be the city’s next poet laureate.

Mayson will bring some executive chops to the position.

She has led something of a double life for many years. As a social worker and nonprofit leader with an MBA degree, Mayson has been executive director of Historic Germantown and a vice president at the Please Touch Museum. She currently works as chief program officer for a mental health agency in Kensington.

At the same time she has maintained a career as a poet, named a Pew Fellow in 2002 and more recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2016.

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Those in the nonprofit world may not realize Mayson is a respected poet, just as those in her literary circles may not know of her day job in social work.

But to Mayson, the two go hand in hand.

“I always used to say, ‘One day I’m going to quit my full time job and just be a writer.’ I made peace with that in my 30s when I realized one informs the other,” she said.

“I am a clinical social worker. I work in communities dealing with difficult issues. I’m covering a lot of this in my own work: gentrification, immigrant issues, or simply about love and things that are not stated in communities,” Mayson added. “People care about one another. Beautiful things happen.”

Mayson writes about an immigrant father and daughter eating corn flakes around the kitchen table as she translates for him a newspaper headline, “Immigration Raid Likely on Sunday.”

She writes about mothers in Liberia sending their daughters away to another country so that soldiers won’t assault them in school.

Be more than breasts and butt and taut stomach for gluttonous men to rest their wooly heads.
Daughters, we send you off,
Our hearts are heavy like pregnant gut,
like swollen Liberian plums.

She writes about her teenage brother, whom she remembers dragging a Christmas tree home through the streets of North Philadelphia in 1980.

Our 15-year old Wise Man
Holy harbinger,
Concealing a pack of cigarettes,
Whistling into the desolate night.
He is a small, bronze star in North Philly,
Bringing us Christmas.

“I’m the sum of two continents,” said Mayson during the announcement at the Free Library. “Two countries, two sets of powerful people: my birth country of Liberia, and my beloved Philadelphia. I am happily and uniquely a major part of these two places.”

The Free Library’s selection committee was impressed both by Mayson’s literary accomplishments over her long career as a poet, and also by how she straddles borders both nationally and professionally.

“Trapeta has been involved in so many organizations and so many communities over her career in Philadelphia while maintaining a poetic practice. That’s hard to balance,” said Andrew Nurkin, deputy director of enrichment and civic engagement at the Free Library. “It’s a real model for what the poet laureate role can represent and what poets can do.”

The Free Library expects the city poet laureate to create programming to encourage civic engagement. It’s something Mayson is chomping at the bit to do.

“The problem is I want to do so much,” she said. “I’m really focusing on partnerships. Because of my work, I have connections with large social services agencies. I want to leverage those partnerships.”

Mayson is planning to create poetry readings and writing workshops in places that are not typically associated with literary arts.

She wants to do it in a way that will last beyond her two-year tenure as poet laureate, “like giving people a blueprint, so you can replicate it over and over again.”

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