Tempe street poet William “Wonderful” Jenkins wore a lot of hats. He’s being remembered by local creatives in the aftermath of his recent death – as a poet, jazz aficionado, and caring community member.
“I’m not sure anyone could personify Tempe, at least the Tempe that used to be, more than William,” a friend named Matthew Reveles posted online after learning of Jenkins' death.
Jenkins spent a lot of his time in the Maple-Ash neighborhood in Tempe. A video filmed a few years ago shows him gently approaching passersby, eager to sell his self-published chapbooks filled with poems. The area sits just west of ASU Art Museum and ASU Gammage.
“William was a fixture on Ash Avenue,” according to Drew Sullivan, who owns Ash Avenue Comics & Books. Sullivan shared news of Jenkins’ death on Facebook, noting that “the poet of Ash Ave has passed away from a short-term aggressive cancer on Tuesday, August 27.”
The post also detailed a bit of Jenkins’ bio, including military service during the Vietnam War and time spent teaching at ASU.
In the video, Jenkins dons a hat, plus blue jeans and a button-down shirt. He carries a box filled with his poetry collections, priced at $5 or $10. Their titles include Soul Food, On the Outskirts, and My Embarrassed Heart.
“Everything I write has a purpose,” he says, “and generally the purpose is to inspire someone who, for whatever reason, is missing the mark.”
The video includes Jenkins' explanation of why he goes by “Wonderful,” a moniker that's rooted in his Christian faith. “Wonderful" refers to the coming savior in Isaiah, he says, referring to a book from the Old Testament he’d read while pondering possible pseudonyms.
Jenkins met people all around downtown Tempe – across from the U.S. Post Office on Mill Avenue, near Tempe City Hall on Fifth Street, or in Mitchell Park near Beth Tom’s mural of a rabbit and theater program that sometimes served as a backdrop for the poet’s spontaneous readings.
Reveles recalls having long conversations with Jenkin, while Reveles was working at Zia Records. “We talked about music, poetry, and often just life in general,” he posted online following Jenkins’ death. “There wasn’t a person around back then that didn’t have at least one of his poems in their possession.”
Jenkins also performed spoken-word poetry around town, at venues including Cartel Coffee Lab and The Nash.
Julie Kent owned a space called Here on the Corner, which has since closed. Kent recalls Jenkins performing frequently from about 2010 to 2015. “He was just a really nice man,” she says. “His voice, and how he looked, reminded people of Morgan Freeman.”
Dozens of people weighed in after seeing news of Jenkins’ death posted online, including several who remember him having a perpetual smile. “He was a kind and peaceful member of the community,” says Amy Silberschlag, founder of Cartel Coffee Lab.
JJ Horner praises Jenkins' quick wit and his easygoing ways. “It was a treat watching him hustling his poems and interact with people,” Horner told Phoenix New Times in an August 29 email. “He had a really nice way of getting people to come out of their shells, off their phones, and actually engage with someone face to face.”
The last time Horner saw Jenkins, it had been a couple of months since their last encounter. “We joked about how people in the neighborhood had thought he was dead,” Horner says. Then Jenkins showed him a new poem called Not dead yet. “I bought it for a dollar,” Horner recalls.
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Now, people are thinking about ways to honor the beloved street poet.
Sullivan says he’ll post details for a memorial service once they come together. And Leah Marche, who recalls Jenkins performing during the first Jazz Meets Poetry event BlackPoet Ventures presented at The Nash, back in June 2017, plans to honor Jenkins during a National Black Poetry Day celebration happening on Thursday, October 17, at Tempe Center for the Arts.
For Reveles, Jenkins’ death is a blow to the entire Tempe community.
“The whole city has suffered a tremendous loss, the loss of a true original,” he says.