Northern Nevada’s literary community is one full of passionate and intelligent individuals. More importantly, it’s spearheaded by Jesse James Ziegler, Reno’s new poet laureate. He will hold the position from now to December 2025.
It was cold the day I met Ziegler. He walked into Old World (fabulous coffee), shook my hand, and de-bundled himself. Once the scarf and gloves were off, we started talking immediately. Ziegler has a lot to say. His poetic cadence carries over into everyday conversation; with a lilting voice that draws in crowds, it’s hard not to listen.
As previously mentioned, Ziegler now holds the role of Reno’s Poet Laureate, an honorary position. He’ll hold the position until December of 2025 and will perform at 3-4 events a year (6-8 total). This could be anything from a city event to a new artistic installation. His first event will be on April 20th, where he’ll be performing celestial-themed poetry for kids at an astronomy-themed event. The event is ran by Tahoe Star Tours, a tour group based out of Tahoe.
It’s not just civic engagement in poetry that Ziegler specializes in. He also hosts Monday Night Poetry, the only weekly open-mic event in Northern Nevada. Weekly meetings are held at Shim’s Surplus. Unfortunately, Shim’s is a speakeasy, so Monday Night Poetry is a 21-and-up event. However, in 2024, Ziegler is looking to expand and organize an all-ages poetry night.
“For the last 8 1/2 to 9 years of my life, I’ve been trying to accumulate a portfolio where I would feel okay even applying for [Poet Laureate],” Ziegler says. “I just want to do even more in the next two years than I have done in any two-year period.”
Ziegler was raised in Northern California; this is where he first discovered his love for poetry. Ziegler began writing (and winning awards) in 3rd grade, and he has yet to stop.
Ziegler moved from Virginia to Reno in 2014 and has been settled here for almost 10 years. In that time, he’s made quite the dent in Reno’s poetry scene. He first started working with Brüka Theater, a small arts theater in Reno’s Riverwalk District. Brüka was doing well pre-Covid, but during the pandemic lockdown, his artistic capabilities were severely limited. Ziegler performed poetry over Zoom during this time– even when the physical theater was boarded up.
“If it wasn’t for the poetry collective here, I would probably feel more detached from this area,” Ziegler said. “I feel very connected to the art scene here.”
Ziegler was Poet in Residence for Brüka for three seasons, then published his first poetry collection, titled FIVE with them in 2019. He’s done more than just Reno work, though; when Ziegler lived in Virginia, he hosted an open mic group called Poets of the Caribbean. Caribbean literature was read, and Caribbean food was served. Ziegler has a soft spot for literature from the Caribbean. Most of it, he says, focuses on nature, connection to the sea, and social issues (e.g. Haitian poets writing about France).
Also while in Virginia, Ziegler worked as a teacher and vocational therapist at a private school for special needs children. He found that sharing verse inspired the kids and helped them catch on to language faster. He remembers this time period fondly; not only could he appreciate poetry more, but he could also help special needs children learn.
“It made me fall in love with the art form on an even deeper level,” Ziegler says. “I realized that using rhyming poetry was actually a way to help speed up the learning process in neurodivergent children.”
One future endeavor Ziegler would like to take on is the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an annual poetry convention held in Elko, Nevada. It focuses more on Western-inspired poetry, often written by actual cowboys or ranchers. Ziegler’s first love was poetry, he says, but a deep love for the West helped kindle that flame.
“I love cowboy poetry,” Ziegler says. “It’s more epic poetry. It’s longer form, usually rhymes, and it’s an old-fashioned approach [to poetry].”
With his love of the West in mind, it’s no surprise to learn Ziegler loves the outdoors. Part of what he loves about Reno is its accessibility to all things nature. Nevada’s other city, Las Vegas, doesn’t have that convenience. It helps that Reno has four distinct separate seasons as well. Much of Ziegler’s poetry centers around nature; he enjoys taking his dogs on hikes and letting the creativity flow from there.
“When you grow up with a name like Jesse James, it’s hard not to fall in love with all things western,” Ziegler says with a chuckle.
At the end of the day, Ziegler is nothing if not busy. From collegiate poetry nights (shameless Brushfire plug, by the way– come to Laughing Planet at 7 pm on the first Tuesday of each month) to volunteer work to poetry for the City of Reno, Ziegler keeps a jam-packed schedule. The best part for him is community, though. Reno needs a lyrical leader, and that comes in the form of Jesse James Ziegler.
You can find Jesse at Shim’s Monday Night Poetry, which he hosts. The next Monday Night Poetry will be held on February 5th. He also hosts a monthly poetry book club (Collective Breath), which meets on the first Monday of each month.
Jesse James Ziegler can be found on Instagram @mondaynightpoetrynv and @sidewayseightprojects