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U of I dean Ruby Mendenhall is preparing to share a lifetime of writing as Urbana’s poet laureate

Ruby Mendenhall, the 2024 Urbana poet laureate

Editor’s note: this post was updated on March 31, 2024 with corrected text from the author.

URBANA – Ruby Mendenhall is a force. She is a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign in sociology and African American Studies. She is also an associate dean at the CARLE Illinois College of Medicine.
And for the next 12 months, Mendenhall will reign as the city of Urbana’s poet laureate. IPM’s Reginald Hardwick talked with Mendenhall about her family, and her gift and she shared one of her poems.

On Friday, March 15, 6:00-8:00 p.m., there will be a celebration for Mendenhall’s poet laureate post at the Gallery Art Bar in Urbana.

Here is a transcript of Hardwick’s interview with Urbana poet laureate Ruby Mendenhall.

RM: My family is here in Champaign, but we’re also from Chicago. Actually, my parents migrated from the south always kind of put that, in my introduction, my father from Alabama and my mind for Mississippi. So, there’s a very Southern way about me, I’d like to think.

RH: Congratulations! You were named the poet laureate for the city of Urbana. How did you find out?

RM: I received an email. And I was telling someone, it’s funny, because the email, it’s almost like, you know, the ones that you get, well, you know, thank you, there was so many, and you’re like, oh, okay, but then at the end, it was like, and you were selected. I was like, Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing. And so I was jumping in and running through the house, just super excited. So that’s how I found out,

RH: I understand that you’ve brought some poetry to share with us. And one of them does relate to some of your work in the Chicago area.

RM: Yes. So, I’ll start with the first one. And it’s part of a documentary that we’re doing called ‘What’s left behind.’ Me and my team, we talked to about 100 mothers, some of them lost their children to gun violence. And so, Lisa Butler, who was working with me at the time, she’s a licensed clinical social worker. She wanted to go deeper, and to talk with mothers who did lose their children to understand after the funeral, after the media kind of packs up, what’s left behind. And so that’s the name of the documentary. That’s what we’re trying to explore. And so, we’re hoping to finish it, around April-May be made. And so, I’m going through and listening to some of the stories again, and it was so hard and, and so I write poems a lot of times when I’m very happy, or very sad. And so this poem, was just me trying to process the emotions that I was filling, I’m listening to one of the moms and many of them who talked about kind of some of the hard parts of kind of losing their child. So, the title of the poem is ‘The Hardest Part.’

©Ruby Mendenhall March 2024

(Dedicated to Mothers Who Have Lost Children to Gun Violence)

The hardest part was to lower you into eternity, as I remain mortal

To watch you slip away from me into the Forever portal.

My heart torn into strips of black and blue blood, as part of it went with you.

I cannot breathe, I cannot eat because I am your mother, without you.

I carried you in my womb for nine months, protecting you through the seasons.

Now, I must select the vessel to carry you beyond my reach, beyond rhyme, beyond reason.

Your journey is beneath my feet, beneath this ground, and into the realm of the ancestors.

So now, where do I belong in this world? My soul aches and needs to sequester.


RH: Thank you for sharing. How long have you been writing poetry?

RM: The earliest memory I have is like when I was in second grade. And the teacher put my poem on the board. And I remember kind of sitting down having to lift my head to see like my poem and she was talking about it. And then in fourth grade, I wrote a poem about Dr. King. And my teacher talked about that. And then when I was in 12th grade, my two English professors Miss Sharp and Miss Hansberry… if they’re out there, thank you, thank you. They really liked my poetry and they hit me go from room to room to read, which two of the poems that I will read that axle, the NAACP competition.  I have hundreds and hundreds of poems. Some people hear music, and some people see things and I kind of see poems and I write poems. 

Reginald Hardwick

Reginald Hardwick

Reginald Hardwick is the News & Public Affairs Director for the Illinois Newsroom. He started at WILL in October of 2019 after serving as News Director for WKAR in East Lansing, Michigan. Previously, he was a news producer and manager at the NBC station in Dallas, where he won 7 Emmy awards. Born in Vietnam, Reginald is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado. Email: rh14@illinois.edu Twitter: @RNewsWILL

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