When Amanda Gorman recited her poem, The Hill We Climb, during the presidential inauguration, it was the first time most of us heard of a Youth Poet Laureate. Amanda was the first National Youth Poet Laureate.
“Founded in New York City in 2008 by Urban Word NYC, the Youth Poet Laureate program and movement honors and celebrates city’s most exceptional youth poets, who not only have a commitment to writing and literature, but who also have a track record of leadership, civic and community engagement, social justice, youth leadership and extra-curricular participation. We created this platform to honor these young poet-leaders and have committed each city to identifying youth poet laureates who uphold these program values.”
(taken from the National Youth Poet Laureate program)
Two years ago when I was on the Rock Hill Poet Laureate Selection Committee, one of Angelo Geter’s goals, if he was chosen, was to bring the Youth Poet Laureate program to Rock Hill. He was and so he has.
For the last week or so, along with four other poets, I’ve had the honor of reading the applications of thirteen students hoping to be Rock Hill’s first Youth Poet Laureate. They range in age from middle school to almost grads, they represent the spectrum in racial diversity, one or two students were born in other countries, and they live in various family situations from two parents, single-parent, and being raised by another family member. This small group of teens represents the multi-cultural make-up of Rock Hill, and our country. Even at this young age they bring a wealth of life experience that many adults don’t have.
There are two parts to the application. The first is the student’s CV/resume. These students have already demonstrated a passion for bettering their community in areas as important as volunteering as poll workers in the last election, being a political commentator for an online magazine, serving the needy during the pandemic, and building dog houses for a non-profit.
Most are above average students, whether in the public school system or by attending the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. In addition to taking advanced writing classes, they are involved in other forms of the arts – screenwriting, dance, music.
The second part is the poetry itself. Each applicant included five original poems. Their varied backgrounds, heritages, and ethnicities are evident in their poetry – in topic, language, and structure of the poems.
There is humor and some really creative and insightful observations that teens are so good at, but these young poets also cover first love and first heartbreak, hope for the future and the depths of depression and suicide. They write of tough subjects like the sexual assault and racial discrimination they’ve endured. And there is so much forgiveness in these poems.
They write with a maturity and honesty that can sometimes be brutal. I have to admit some of the poems are difficult to read because they make me uncomfortable, not because of offensive language, but through such powerful language and well-chosen words and images I am there when the sexual predator is grooming his victim.
I’m also there when a student struggles and finally succeeds in learning a new language in a new school, in a new country. That hesitant but excited quality of learning English as a second language carries into the language and structure of their work.
In some I hear the cadence and rhyme patterns of spoken word poetry. In others the writing is sparse and the notes more subtle, but not without strong impact. Some of the poems are ready for publication in literary journals – and I hope the students will submit them. There are stellar pieces that will stay with me for a long time.
Reading through the applications of these thirteen students reminds me of the courage, strength, and pure joy teens embody. It’s been a privilege seeing these young poets starting out on a track I hope they continue. Over the weekend of June 4-6 Angelo will host Rock Hill’s first poetry festival, One Word Poetry Festival. Angelo and his committee have put together a weekend packed with workshops, performances by nationally recognized and awarded spoken word poets, an Invitational Poetry Slam, open mics, and a brunch with Pulitzer Prize Award winning poet, Jericho Brown.
And on Saturday evening, Rock Hill’s first Youth Poet Laureate will be announced. I can’t wait to meet him or her. I’ll be sure to let you know.
If you’re anywhere near Rock Hill the first weekend in June, you may want to check this out