Hot Springs Poet Receives Governor’s Arts Award

Elmer Beard will be honored during a virtual ceremony Saturday night.

Poet Elmer Beard on a chair
Photo courtesy of Elmer Beard.

Arkansas native Elmer Beard has spent a lifetime studying, writing and performing poetry. The 83-year-old will be recognized for his dedication to the art form when he is honored as one of eight Governor’s Arts Awards recipients this weekend. 

“I feel honored and I feel humbled for being honored with the work that I’m doing,” Beard says. 

Established in 1991, the annual Governor’s Arts Awards program recognizes Arkansas artists, businesses and arts patrons, educators and organizations for their contributions to the arts community. 

Beard is a “lifelong freedom fighter” who challenged local businesses and government agencies to hire Black employees in the 1960s. He later served eight, two-year terms on the Hot Springs City Council where he helped secure funding to build infrastructure throughout the African American community.

The retired educator studied poetry at both the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin. In addition to teaching in primary and secondary schools for years, he also taught at National Park College and his alma mater Arkansas Baptist College. 

Beard is also known as the Octo Griot, which he describes as “a person who is eight decades old and has been telling stories for generations.” During trips with his family to Africa, Beard observed older men sitting on benches surrounded by a group of young people with whom they shared stories. In West African culture, griots are storytellers and entertainers who pass on the oral histories of their people.

“Stories need to be told. If we don’t tell them, no one will know,” Beard says.

In 2020, Beard published his first book of poetry, Let Reason Roll: Race, Religion & Reflections. In the 83 poems contained within the book, the southern storyteller reminisces about rural life and his childhood, and offers his reflections on racial issues. Proceeds from the book go to the Arkansas Baptist College National Alumni Association in support of a $10,000 endowment being created in honor of his late wife, Dorothy.

Although Beard has only recently published his poetry for public consumption, he has been a regular performer at Wednesday Night Poetry for more than 30 years. The open mic event has been in 14 different venues since launching on Feb. 1, 1989 and its current home is Kollective Coffee+Tea in Hot Springs, though it has incorporated virtual performances during the pandemic.

What makes the weekly event so special is its comfortableness; it’s like going to church, Beard says. 

“It’s an opportunity for you to be open and honest and testify and confess and seek help if you need it, and people find help from others there,” he says. “They feel more at home there many times than they do say at a Sunday morning service.”

Beard says he needs Wednesday Night Poetry and while he doesn’t attend, he’s always writing. 

“Writing and performing poetry together have provided me an opportunity to develop into a comfortable person with myself,” he says. “I don’t live as many lives as I otherwise would be living if I didn’t do this writing. This writing reveals some truth about me.”

Poet Elmer Beard will be honored with the Judges Recognition Award during a virtual ceremony that begins at 7 p.m. Mar. 27. The Arkansas Arts Council will stream the event on Facebook Live and on its YouTube channel. 

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.