February 9, 2012
By Heather Darata
A community arts poetry contest at age 10 and a teacher recognizing a student’s talent gave Carla Christopher an interest she could carry no matter the destination.
“I was hooked,” said Christopher, now a York County (Pa.) 9-1-1 dispatcher. “Writing was something that I could take with me anywhere.”
Christopher’s love of poetry bridged the feelings of growing up and provided a creative outlet following a severe automobile accident. The medium has been a way to record her history as an adult—feelings, emotions, and growth—written in cities from New York City, to Washington, D.C., to York. But her poetry isn’t just about her. She enjoys imagining other people’s stories simply by observing their body language and mannerisms.
“I write about myself, family, friends, 9-1-1 callers, and people on the street,” Christopher said.
She published the collection Song with the Columbia University Press and her poetry has appeared on several websites, in magazines/newsletters, and once in a greeting card. Christopher’s received honorable mentions in two categories of the 2010 National Federation of State Poetry Societies and citations in two categories of the 2010 Pennsylvania Poetry Contest.
Christopher’s poetry has also earned her a certain level of prestige in York, a city of more than 100,000 residents in the south central region of the state. She is the city’s poet laureate, an honorary title initiated in 2002 by former Mayor John S. Brenner and bestowed every two years on the person demonstrating excellence in the literary arts.
Landing the gig wasn’t as simple as voicing her interest. Christopher was chosen as one of two applicants to meet with the Poet Laureate Selection Committee: outgoing poet laureate (Carol Clark Williams), a professor/writer from Penn State York, two community poets, and Mindy Lombardo, York Arts program director and coordinator for the poet laureate application process and selection committee.
“She just had a lot of experience under her belt and that really stood out from the others,” Lombardo said.
Both applicants were asked to present a teaching moment using a poem they’d written and one that had inspired them. Christopher asked the committee members to close their eyes, think of a color, visualize it, and describe what they were seeing.
“It was a way to pull a beginner in and not feel intimidated at all,” Lombardo said. “She was really energetic. She can captivate an audience.”
The last step was meeting with Mayor C. Kim Bracey who was searching for someone with goals for the position that matched where she wants to see it go.
“She was just dynamic,” Mayor Bracey said. “She won me over right away. She was excited and willing to work with students. It was a match.”
As an “educator and ambassador of the written word” Christopher will have a full schedule for the next two years—through December 2012—giving readings, coaching students, judging contests, teaching workshops, and writing poetry for specific events such as Mayor Bracey’s state of the city address.
Christopher’s poetry helps her process 9-1-1 calls she takes during the midnight to 8 a.m. shift at the communications center. Stories from callers and coworkers’ emotions stick with her and find a place in the pages of her private poetry where she focuses on the positive aspects of the negative.
“When you’ve handled suicides and cardiac arrests, you’ve got to find a way to deal with that,” she said. “It all comes out with my writing in one way or another.”
Although the poet laureate position leaves little time for personal writing, Christopher squeezes some in during downtime at work and frequently makes time to work with other poets through team teaching and performing in showcases where she can hear other poets’ voices and perspectives. She also sees the bigger picture.
“I have my whole life to do things for myself,” she said. “I’m excited about making myself available for someone else.”
For the most part, the “someone else” comes in plural. Christopher is organizing a performance night featuring several fellow dispatchers and likes spending time during the day helping children discover their voices through poetry. She marvels at the sense of value children can find within themselves by writing down their observations of life and environment.
“It’s such a great experience,” she said. “Working with kids is really where my heart is. These kids have so much talent, energy, and passion.”
Once shy about sharing her work, Christopher now enjoys an audience.
“I love to share with people,” Christopher said. “There’s something really powerful about exposing your inner thoughts.”