Ricardo Ybarra Chosen as Malibu’s First Poet Laureate

Longtime resident and sixth generation Californian Ricardo Means Ybarra has been confirmed by city council and the cultural arts commission as Malibu’s first poet laureate, following a six-week open call to the community that ended Jan. 11. 

Recreation Manager Amy Crittenden said the Poet Laureate Selection Panel’s decision was unanimous.

“Mr. Ybarra stood out for both his vibrant and detailed poetry and his established commitment to the poetry community,” Crittenden described.

During his upcoming two-year term as poet laureate, which begins March 28, Ybarra will represent the City of Malibu at selected cultural community events, work with the local schools and the public library to promote poetry, and organize an annual poetry invitational, where invited poets read their own and other poets’ works.

In an interview, Ybarra said his involvement with poetry started as a “total fluke.” A couple of years after moving to Paradise Cove from Santa Cruz in 1981, he was working as a tile setter while attending classes at Cal State Northridge to get his teaching credentials. When required to take an elective, he chose a poetry workshop by default. 

“I loved it; it spoke to me,” Ybarra recalled. “The short lines [of poetry] — when you’re awestruck by something that happened — it worked for me.” 

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Ybarra had a natural gift for poetry, and his professor, Benjamin Saltman — a nationally acclaimed published poet — became his mentor. 

He continued writing in his spare time over the years and published several works. In addition to “Beyond the Reef,” his latest book of poems, Ybarra’s books include the children’s books “Scratch,” “Pirates of Paradise Cove” and “Space Aliens” (the last two set in Malibu); novels “The Pink Rosary” and “Brotherhood of Dolphins,” and his first book of poetry, “A Framing Job.” 

“My last book was published by a friend rather than a publisher,” Ybarra said. “I now have three editions, and each time it’s published, I add or change something … Getting poems published is hell and nobody really buys them. I just enjoy having something I can give to people.”

Ybarra said he wrote the “Pirates of Paradise Cove” children’s book for his own son. “My son didn’t like to read, so I wrote a book featuring him and it got picked up,” he said. His son, Rafael, later went on to get a degree in philosophy.

The timing of the poet laureate position was good for Ybarra. “It’s a good thing for me. I have the time, the energy and the desire, and wanted to help celebrate the arts and the artists in Malibu and give back to the community,” he said. 

Ybarra has conducted poetry workshops for students in all grades all over LA County, and hopes to do that here in Malibu. “I hope to meet students in Malibu, including Pepperdine students. Kids love poetry.”

Ybarra said his own poetry is “free verse,” meaning it does not rhyme or have a particular format. “I tend to get riveted by certain things. For a while, I was writing about ants and I’ve done a lot on P-22 [the mountain lion.]” Some of his own favorite poets include Pablo Neruda, Wanda Coleman (from LA) and James Wright. 

Ybarra was chosen as poet laureate by a five-member selection panel consisting of the head of Pepperdine University’s creative writing department, one member of Pepperdine’s Poetry Society, one member of Friends of the Malibu Library and two community members. Each applicant for the job was required to be a Malibu resident or strongly affiliated with Malibu, and asked to submit five poems and a cover letter. 

The idea for a Malibu poet laureate originated with Ann Buxie and Ellen Cohen, longtime Malibu locals who founded “Tales by the Sea” and “Poetry by the Sea.” They then brought in Jacob Wolfe — the Pepperdine student who founded the Pepperdine University Poetry Society. 

“I think the laureate activities will benefit the city because, aside from bringing people together face to face, poetry, or any art form, is the medium that questions, informs, and nourishes community,” Buxie explained. “Like storytelling, those expressions make us understandable to ourselves and others. That increased understanding makes us all vaster beings.”

The City of Malibu is now part of a worldwide trend that began a little over three years ago, with various countries, states, counties, cities and towns appointing a “poet laureate.” The U.S. has one; the State of California has one — as do Ventura County, Los Angeles, Fresno and West Hollywood, among many others.

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