American author Ursula Le Guin famously wrote, “Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” No words have more transformative power than those of a great poem. They may seek to capture a fleeting moment in time, paint a picture with words, or simply express feelings you have no other way to say. Poetry can also be an instrumental civic tool used by writers to make sense of recent events, define the roles we play in society, and inspire citizens to action.
2022 was a year brimming with significant political events, captured by journalists and artists alike. Here are some excerpts from the young writers who have memorialized our times through poetry.
Who she is: This past May, Alyssa Gaines was announced as Urban Word’s 2022 National Youth Poet Laureate. This post, which was previously held by National Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, celebrates both exceptional creative talent and a commitment to civic engagement.
Gaines, who is originally from Indianapolis, shared in an interview with NPR that she viewed her role as an opportunity “to civically engage with [her] nation through poetry and through [her] writing.” Since being named National Youth Poet Laureate, Gaines has performed at prestigious events such as the Earth Prize Innovation Summit and the National Youth Poet Laureate Commencement. According to the Harvard Gazette, she will also be publishing a blog with the Library of Congress.
As described by Nikay Paredes, the director of the Academy of American Poets, Gaines’ poems “express a desire for a just world that young people ought to inherit and make even better.” Whether she’s speaking about climate change or police brutality, this is definitely apparent in Gaines’ work.
One of Gaines’ standout performances this year was of her original poem “Lágrimas Negras” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The performance begins with Gaines singing “an old Cuban bolero” then transitions into Gaines’ reaction to the murder of Breonna Taylor and the healing that followed. As a performer, Gaines is both captivating and impactful, conveying to audiences the connections between community, grief, tradition, and healing.
Lines to Remember: “My hands follow the path of Black hands before me. My feet naked on a floor of dough flakes and watermelon water. I take a Cuban communion of empanadas and jugo in honor of every Black girl who wrote her recipes on water. This bread be her body, this agua de sandía, her sangre.”
Who she is: At just nineteen years old, Alora Young has already starred in a movie, published a book, written songs, poems, and plays, and has been named a Presidential Scholar. As described on her website, “Alora Young is more than ‘just’ a poet. She is the voice of a generation that demands to be heard.”
A Nashville native, Young has performed spoken word at many local events and celebrations including the Nashville Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration, Mayoral Press Conferences, and multiple Ted X performances. Her poetry addresses the rich racial history of her hometown and celebrates the generations of Black women that have had significant impact on her life. Her book, Walking Gentry Home; A Memoir of my Foremothers in Verse, is sold in bookstores nationally. According to her website it is a story which “chronicles nine generations of Black, southern women from slavery through current day. Written in a unique style that mixes poetry with storytelling, Walking Gentry Home is [a] book that promises to endure for as many generations as the women between its covers.” Some of our favorite poems of hers are “Becoming a Citizen” and “If Edgehill Could Talk.”
Lines to Remember: “Black womanhood is being asked to bring gifts to parties you were never invited to. It’s lighting everyone’s candle with the fire alight in you, standing in solidarity with women who didn’t fight for you. Because you know what oppression feels like.”
“What does this flag stand for? Is it the famine and war, is it the pain we ignore, or something different? Through laws and resolutions, have we found real solutions? Maybe making it better is our mission. If Congress is making the rules I’ll be in that room. I’m stepping into the world and out of the classroom.”
Where to read/watch: Young’s website has a collection of spoken word videos as well as information about her book, Walking Gentry Home, which can be found at booksellers across the country.
Who he is: In 2021 18-year-old Kevin Gu was named one of five National Student Poets, an honor given by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers to Scholastic medalists for poetry each year.
While Kevin only began officially writing his own poetry a few years ago, as a child of Chinese immigrants he has said that stories, folktales, and poetry have been part of his life from the beginning. His identity and culture is woven through his poetry, as he explained in an interview with The Takeaway, “I want [my readers] to see my story, stories of my parents’ struggles as immigrants, societal ruptures, the disjoint in the two cultures I exist in, the two languages I communicate.”
Kevin believes in the healing power of poetry and says that it helps him express emotions in a beautiful way.
Lines to remember:
how to pull the noisy 3 pm afternoons of the Chinese market
into my grandmother’s embrace.
I pray I’ll remember the ginseng perfume that loiters
in my nostrils
& the jade necklace that boils deep
in my oolong tea.”
Where to read/watch: Find Kevin’s poems featured in Ember Journal and Rattle, and check out his Scholastic Gold Medal-Winning poem “Red Gold” here. You can also watch him read his poem, “Splinterings.“
Who they are: 19-year-old Sarina Patel currently serves as the Youth Poet Laureate for Washington D.C. Patel, who is a student at American University, has an extensive history with spoken word performance. They have been recognized twice as a Scholastic National Medalist and have spent the past year performing their original pieces at various events and venues in D.C.
Though Patel writes on a variety of different topics, we particularly loved “The Fruit Poem” which she performed at a reading hosted at the American Poetry Museum this past June. At the reading, Patel performed alongside fellow DMV area Youth Poet Laureates Kashvi Ramani and Elana Ernst.
“The Fruit Poem” as introduced by Patel, is a poem about “being a poet and writing about gun violence when everyone wants you to write about something silly, like fruits.” In the piece, Patel masterfully uses fruit imagery and metaphors to explore the conflict between the oft-pretty subjects of poetry and the nation’s ongoing gun violence crisis.
Lines to Remember: “Fruits hate their little labels. Me, I dream of astronauts turning into oranges before they hit the moon. Children bursting into raspberries in the summer sun. A nation stomached by its wounds, wounded by its teeth. Heads rolling like grapes under the freezer. They couldn’t identify the children at Uvalde except for by thin little strings. Meanwhile, the poets tie fruit baskets into dandelions and ask the wind how it lost its cool, how it could blow a flower that beautiful into pieces”
“This nation makes pulp out of its children to evict them. That is not fiction. At least I have the irreparable privilege of aspiring my youth before I rot.”
Where to read/watch: Links to Patel’s performance and writing can be found here. A recording from her performance at the American Poetry Museum where she read “The Fruit Poem” is available on YouTube at this link. The reading of “The Fruit Poem” begins at 1:00:18, though the rest of the video contains equally impactful pieces read by Patel, Ramani, and Ernst.
Who she is: A senior at University School Nashville, Sheerea Yu serves as Nashville’s Youth Poet Laureate. Yu was appointed to the position after entering into a search for the next Youth Poet Laureate hosted by Southern Word.
Though Yu began with written poetry, she developed an affinity for poetry performance during the competition that ultimately earned her her title. In an interview with the Nashville Scene she said, “It’s really important for you to be able to actually present what you write. Because society needs that.”
In the same interview, Yu stated that she primarily writes poetry that comments on ongoing social issues. This theme is especially present in “reading newspaper headlines,” a poem about the recent rise in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans that Yu performed in the Nashville Youth Poet Laureate semifinals.
“reading newspaper headlines” is a thoughtful and powerful piece that certainly aligns with Yu’s goal of using her poetry and her voice to effect change in the world. Reading through Yu’s candid reflections leaves a lasting impression on readers, as she calls on her peers to not be complicit to racism in our country.
Lines to Remember:
“it is better to feel its burn than let racism simmer, kept to
dinner table murmurings.
only with it can we
work, can we
racism, can we turn the heat dial
until the water finally boils.”
Where to read: The body of “reading newspaper headlines” is available in Yu’s interview with the Nashville Scene, which can be read here.
Who she is: This year, Madeline Miller was named Santa Barbara’s first ever youth poet laureate. The Santa Barbara, CA, city mayor presented her with the title over the summer. Miller was born in Mexico City, Mexico, and her latina heritage inspires the poetry she creates. Miller graduated from high school in 2022, where she was the San Marcos Writers Society president as well as Vice President of her school’s choir. Miller has won multiple first place prizes in poetry slams, and continues to compete regularly. Activism is another important part of her life, and her passion for human rights is echoed is her literary works.
Lines to Remember: so much has been said about “save the wilderness”
and “protect the polar ice caps”
but we are not her rescuer
is the way we poke the bear
Where to read: Read about Madeline Miller and her best work here.