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Swampscott names 2 new poets laureate

Harper Merritt.
(Owen O'Rourke)

SWAMPSCOTT — The town’s two new poets laureate struck a chord with the competition’s judges.  

Shelli Jankowski-Smith and Harper Merritt have been selected as Swampscott’s adult and young student poets laureate respectively.

The town started selecting the poetry representatives about five years ago.

Sami Lawler, a former fourth-grade teacher at Stanley Elementary School and the organizer of the competition, proposed the idea to a former selectman, who brought it before the Board of Selectmen to be approved.

Those striving to be selected for the designation were required to submit three original poems, with the winners recently named.

Jankowski-Smith will serve a three-year term — the longer term is meant to enable the chosen poet to work to encourage and support poetry experiences in town. Merritt will serve a one-year term.

“I was kind of floored,” said Jankowski-Smith. “I was both surprised and really excited. I’m just kind of thrilled for this opportunity. I put out my application kind of on a whim.”

Shelli Jankowski-Smith.

Shelli Jankowski-Smith. (Courtesy image)

Jankowski-Smith, 61, said she didn’t know Swampscott had a poet laureate before she saw the notice for the competition.

“It’s a great honor,” she said. “I’m just looking forward to doing what I can to help bring poetry more into the everyday life of Swampscott.”

Merritt, 9, a third-grader at Clarke Elementary School, said she was surprised at being chosen. She jumped up and down and did a victory dance.

Merritt wrote her three poems about snow days, how she is not good at waiting for things, and another one was a rhyming poem called “Rhyme Time.”

Alycia Merritt, Harper’s mother, said she didn’t realize her daughter was writing poetry.

“When she brought them out and I read them, I was really impressed with her writing,” she said. “I was extremely proud that she got picked.”

The three poems Jankowski-Smith wrote were “When God is a Woman Again,” which is based on envisioning God in today’s time as a female figure and what that would mean; “What Winter Leaves Behind,” which is about longing for spring to come and what winter has left behind, or in a broader sense, not taking things we love for granted; and “Land Dwellers,” which is about Swampscott, the North Shore and what it’s like to live by the ocean, and is focused on how someone could live on land, but still feel a connection to the sea.

Jankowski-Smith said she started writing poetry as a kid, left it behind for a few years, and by the time she turned 30, she fell in love with the man who became her husband.

“Something about that falling in love process stirred up the poetry writing process again,” she said. “(I have) been writing ever since pretty regularly.”

She started taking classes with the Boston Center for Adult Education and later received her master’s degree in creative writing from Boston University. She spent about 25 years as the director of spiritual life for two different universities in Boston, before opening her own business, Sunflower Reiki and Wellness, six years ago, which she runs out of her Swampscott home.

An Indiana transplant, Jankowski-Smith moved to Boston when she was 25 years old. Going down to the ocean and looking out to the water is the closest thing she can find to being back in Indiana and looking out at flat, open land.

She said her love of nature and music informed her desire to write poetry. Her husband of 30 years is a musician and they’ve collaborated in the past with him setting some of her text to music.

“Music is this thread that’s always run through my life and poetry is my way of expressing it,” Jankowski-Smith said. “I really feel that poetry is ultimately about expression — the joy of expression — about feeling and music.”

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