What the world needs now is words

Five student poets, chosen as the nation’s best, find poetry can heal wounds and unravel a tangled existence

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This year\'s National Student Poets.
Courtesy of National Student Poets Program

Sandy Hook, Conn., high school student Ashley Gong writes poetry to process thoughts and emotions, give herself a space for reflection and exploration.

“It’s a great way to search for the truth,” she says.

This year, as a literary ambassador, she’d like to take the craft of poetry to places around her town where it could help with the healing that’s still ongoing from the elementary school shooting that took place there two years ago.

Madeleine LeCesne, from New Orleans, La., says, “Every poem that I write is a kind of wish to be understood by someone. I just want someone to look into my mind and say, ‘I get it, I understand you.’ And to kind of, in a way, feel needed. I needed to read that poem because it made me understand something about myself that I didn’t know before.”

LeCesne has used verses to write her life story, beginning at age 6 when she started writing lines of poetry on the wood frame of her antique bed.

Boulder County’s own Julia Falkner, of Louisville, has used the poems she’s written to explore gender and sexuality.

“It definitely helped me understand myself better,” she says, turning through the pages of her notebook where her poems begin in exploded form, like bubble charts spread out over the page, ignoring the lines altogether.

Poems are a bridge across time, from a past self to the present one or from person to person in a way that cuts through centuries of dust to express a shared human experience. It alleviates the feeling of being singular and alone in the discovery of ourselves. Poetry helps.

That’s the message that comes time and again from the five high school students chosen as National Student Poets this year, the third class in a program run by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers that selects five poets as leaders in their region for writing poetry. In September, they went to the White House and met with First Lady Michelle Obama, honorary chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, who congratulated them on their literary achievements. In the course of the year, they will speak at various literary events, including the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, N.J., in October and other events during National Poetry Month in April.

In addition to the recognition, they will spend the year on call to reading events and conducting community service projects as literary ambassadors that will take them to communities and institutions where the idea of writing poetry might not immediately come to mind as the appropriate tool to use to address the problems unique to each place. Previous student poets from the program have visited Alzheimer’s patients, non-native English speakers and incarcerated women. This year, these poets, too, want to use poetry among the people as a way to increase understanding, healing and compassion. The tool the world needs, they say, is as close as a hand putting pen to paper.

“The thing I like about [poetry] is the fact that it’s a great space for reflection and exploration. It’s a great medium for processing thoughts, emotions and opinions and it’s a way to search for the truth,” Gong says. Gong, 15, is the daughter of first generation Chinese immigrants who read Chinese poems to her as a toddler. For years, she was a prose writer, then as a freshman, she took a sudden interest in poetry.

“Beyond a single individual, it’s also a great connecting tool between people of different ages, backgrounds and life experiences,” she says. “I believe that today, even with the rise of social media and technology, poetry is still a great way for people to connect with each other. For example, it can be a great bridge between people, especially when you read someone’s poem and you feel such a strong human bond with them, even though you’ve never even met the poet before. And it can invoke a sense of universality in the human experience, and it can also connect people through time by reading the poems of people who have lived in the past and being able to relate to that and draw from what they’ve written.”

Of the role as a literary ambassador, Gong says, to her, it means spreading an appreciation of poetry and breaking down stereotypes about the art form.

“I think mainly just showing people that there’s a poet inside of everyone and it’s just a matter of unlocking that voice,” she says.

“I think there are artists and potential artists everywhere. I know if I lived somewhere where poetry wasn’t introduced to me or taught to me, I definitely wouldn’t have grown up the same way, and I think that opportunity was really important to me,” says the 17-year-old Falkner.

She didn’t start off as a poet, but after finishing a novel for National Novel Writing Month, she was looking for a project that would take daily work without requiring as much time.

“I thought that poetry seemed easy — it turned out that, not always,” she says. “I found that poetry was a much bigger world than I originally anticipated. … I think it definitely helped me understand myself better though writing poems, because I think no matter what you’re writing about, your voice and yourself come through in what you’re writing, so poetry just helped me kind of establish a sense of self and come to terms with myself.”

New Orleans’ LeCesne, 18, began writing poetry when she was 6 years old. Her affinity for verse began with what her parents read to her: As a child, the first books read to her were Ovid’s epic poems.

“I think there’s that desire when you’re really young, and even now, to just hold on to everything because you can feel it slipping away, so when I was young I had that desire to record my thoughts, record my day, but I didn’t have the attention span to keep a journal,” LeCesne says. “So I had an antique bed and I would go behind that bed every night and just write one line about my day. And then over time those lines accumulated and I could see patterns within the lines, and they turned into poems.”

She wrote first in pencil, and then if she liked it, would go back over it in marker or crayon. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, LeCesne was living near one of the levees that broke. Her family lost everything, not just because six feet of water filled their home, but because before they could get back home — and they were one of the first families to return to New Orleans, she says — their house was looted, and her headboard was stolen.

“I think about it a lot. I would kill to have that headboard back just so I could see my mind working, because the entire reason why I generated those lines on that headboard was so that I could remember them and hold onto those feelings forever, so to have it just taken — it was an investment that was lost,” LeCesne says.

The poetry she writes now correlates in form with who she is — she’s Creole, or a little bit of everything, and describes her poetry as jumbled and associative: “I’m a load of things, and I’m jumbled and I haven’t quite ordered them out yet, but I’m learning,” she says. “Every time I write, it’s definitely kind of just a wish to be understood, because I firmly believe that poetry exists because there are gaps in language. If there was a word to describe the taste of peppermint, if there was just one word that meant the taste of peppermint and the feeling of tasting peppermint, then we wouldn’t need poetry. So poetry exists because there are certain things that can’t be said. There are certain barriers that the English language and language in general has, so poetry kind of pokes holes.”

When she tells people she’s a national student poet, their first response is often to declare she’ll be able to get into any college she wants, she says.

“That’s a little disappointing because I want to just show this is not about something to put on your resume, this is an actual program that’s changing the game for young poets and I don’t just see it as something to put on my resume,” she says. “It’s definitely a program that I owe my writing to because without it, I probably wouldn’t have as much faith in my writing as I do now.”

LeCesne will graduate in the spring, and says she’s not as far along with her college applications in part because of this award.

“This program is definitely taking all of my attention and that’s not because of the expectations, that’s just me in general. It’s just become what I want to spend my senior year doing,” she says.

The program’s components that call for her to work as literary ambassador and teach poetry workshops stand a chance to demystify poetry for her peers, who often respond to the idea of her writing poetry by calling it pretentious.

“I think that people associate pretension with just the idea of things they don’t understand,” LeCesne says. And while not everyone may relate to prominent and classic poets like Louise Gluck or Alfred Lord Tennyson, when you see five high school students writing poetry and talking about it and teaching poetry — the verb she uses for what that has the potential to do is “ignite.”

Poetry has a place in this world, particularly because of social media, technology and globalization — all of which enable worldwide conversations.

“I’m a fighter against globalization but still there’s a certain idea that because the world in a sense is becoming smaller, people are better able to communicate with each other, and so when you have more communication taking place, people are going to want to push the boundaries. They’re going to want to push the limits, and that’s where poetry comes in,” LeCesne says.

“What poetry does is it taps into that collectiveness of human emotion,” says Weston Clark, 16, from Indianapolis, Ind. “It kind of creates a connection between people from all walks of life. A poem means a different thing to everyone who reads it, so everyone is affected by the poem in some way.”

Clark personally had what he refers to as a “poetry dark ages” — a period in his life when he stopped writing the poems he’d been writing since third grade. It overlaps with middle school years spent at a school he describes as being governed by “primitive survival rules,” where he felt teachers were focused on getting students to pass tests — to the point that they were telling children the answers.

“Something about that environment just really discouraged or diverted all of my energy from writing and put it all towards not wanting to fall into that kind of system,” he says. “In middle school I stopped writing poetry, but I never stopped being a poet. I would interpret events that were happening around me and everything I thought was unjust and everything I thought was beautiful, and I would store it somewhere in my mind, unconsciously.”

Then he changed schools, and at his new school joined the drama department and creative writing club and began editing a creative publication. His poetry writing, in particular, was nurtured by teachers who encouraged him and his classmates to enter in the Scholastic writing competitions, a gateway to consideration for the National Student Poets Program. But his first year in the contest saw modest returns.

“For me, that was a bit discouraging, and I thought maybe regardless of how much I enjoy the craft, maybe poetry isn’t something that I’m going to be good at, or something that I should pursue farther, and so I was on the verge of another dark age,” he says.

Then his eighth grade English teacher took him aside.

“She said she saw potential in the poetry that I was writing and she talked me into sticking with poetry, but maybe trying out a few different styles of poetry. And so next, I started experimenting with free verse,” he says. The third poem he wrote in free verse is one that he submitted to Scholastic that earned him his place as a national student poet.

Poetry taps straight into feelings in a way that few other media do, he says — no offense to fiction, of course, he writes that too, he just sees poetry’s nature as working better to evoke feelings than the concrete characters who appear in fiction.

But he sees a lot of American youth scared off by the art form, rather than understanding it as a good outlet for emotion.

The trouble with poetry starts with how it’s taught, Clark says.

“Kids will read the poem, and figure out what the poem means to them, and then have a teacher tell them that this is actually what the poem actually means, and they become intimidated because they think all the images and metaphors and similes and everything that goes into the poem are less to evoke emotions in them and to help them find meaning in the poem, but act more as variables that you plug into equations and the outcome of that equation is what the poem should mean,” Clark says.

“I think there’s a huge emphasis on device — I think almost that poetry is a way for teachers to teach literary devices. Devices are definitely important and they’re awesome to recognize, but if I was teaching poetry I don’t think it’s the jumping point I would use to get in,” Falkner says. “I think devices are almost something I started noticing after I had cultivated a taste and a love and a voice for poetry, and like the emotion came first and then I started noticing things like the use of assonance or use of meter. So I think in order to actually engage students with poetry you have to
approach it from an emotional perspective, rather than something
formulaic.”

Falkner was first baited to try poetry through the free-form, spoken word performances of slam poetry and by reading other young adult writers.

“Over the Internet I got to meet a lot of kids who are really involved in literary journals or writing blogs that are really into poetry and seeing those young people express themselves definitely drew me in to the poetry world more than reading Emily Dickinson, for instance. Emily’s great, but my jumping point was other teenagers instead of what I was learning in class,” she says.

Like Falkner and Gong, poetry wasn’t the first place Cameron Messinides, 17, from Greenville, self expression or S.C., turned to for as a student at the creative outlet, but South Carolina Governor’s School for Arts and Humanities in the creative writing program, he was required to take a class in each genre — fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

“I was kind of bummed about the poetry class, I didn’t really want to take it,” he says. Once there, immersed in reading poems, essays about the craft of poetry and writing some of his own, he found himself enjoying it. writing for me. When I’m writing “It’s the most surprising genre of prose, there’s a lot of planning or out lining or things like that, but when it comes to poetry, sometimes it’s like pick up a dictionary and then pick a word at random, then flip through a couple pages and pick another word at random, put them together and just see what happens,” he says.

He’d like his own writing to serve as a sort of cultural ambassador for the South, exploring and explaining some of the cultural aspects he’s grown up with — from the food to the bluegrass to the horse races — but didn’t understand were unique until his role in the National Student Poets Program increased his travel opportunities and created chances for him to speak with people from around the country. Among his early stops is a reading for teenagers in town, and he says he’s excited to have the opportunity to talk to other teenagers about poetry.

“I really want to get across to people that poetry is not just like rhyming couplets or Shakespearean sonnets, or things like that. There’s a lot of different things, and there’s something for everyone, I think,” he says. “I’ve had that mindset where I dismiss poetry and I kind of ignored it. I just want to make sure if I talk to someone, I at least want to show them that there’s an opportunity to at least try it, and it might not be for them, but just because you don’t think it’s for you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it and see what you can find. Because that’s what I was doing. I didn’t think I liked poetry, so I just stopped being curious about it. So what I want to tell them is try to be curious — not just about poetry but since I am a poetry ambassador — try to be curious, try to be open-minded and see what comes to you and see what really impacts you.”

Among his ideas for a specific group to take poetry to, he says, is the thought of working with students at a boys’ school.

“The opinions I’ve heard is that poetry is sometimes treated as kind of a feminine thing, and boys especially don’t think they can write poetry because of that,” he says. “As a boy and someone who likes poetry, I’d like to say that’s not the case. It can be valid for anyone.”

None of the community service projects these students will undertake have been finalized yet. They’re all still in early stages of brainstorming — but each of them has an idea for where they’d like to take poetry.

Gong is giving some thought to working with organizations in Sandy Hook to introduce poetry as a method of healing.

“I think in regards to Sandy Hook, I think the message that’s important to remember here is really that poetry can be for anyone a great space to process thoughts or emotions in confusing times, no matter the scale or magnitude,” she says. “I have used poetry for my own healing after the event, but I choose to keep those poems private.”

The particular group of people Clark says he’d like to work with is the Native American population in the Dakotas.

“I feel that their voice would be a very interesting voice if they were to start writing poetry — the feelings and the emotions and just anything that they want to say, that they feel like they need to communicate with other people,” Clark says. Bringing more Native Americans to poetry, he says, would bring more Americans to understand Native culture.

Falkner is considering using her literary ambassador role to take poetry to Gay-Straight Alliance groups.

“I think a lot of my initial attraction to poetry and then how I developed as a writer had a lot to do with my identity, my sexual orientation and the way I felt about gender, about a lot of different things that the GSAs are concerned with,” she says. “It’s an interesting group to reach out to just because of how much I think poetry is related to identity and I think groups with a strong sense of identity are really good artists.”

LeCesne says she hopes to go to Tornado Alley in the Midwestern states.

“After Katrina, there was a lot of talk from people saying, ‘Why would you go back to New Orleans if this kind of thing happens?’ and when I was watching the news and reading blogs about the tornadoes that were happening in Oklahoma, there was a lot of the same response, people commenting, ‘Well, why would anyone go back? Why would anyone live there?’” she says. “You’re staying here because it’s home — what makes it home? What makes a place home? What makes you want to live in this area that everyone else in the country thinks that you’re crazy for living in? … I think exploring that idea could help with the healing process.”

Clark says if he could choose literary ambassador as a career option, he would, out of love for teaching people and love for poetry, and a hope that he can work to reduce the intimidation that surrounds poetry.

“If I can eliminate that and help people see poetry for what it really is, then not only will I be educating children in how to write a poem and creating great future creative writers, I feel like that also is connecting society,” he says. “It forms a connection between us because it’s something that we all share, so the more people I can teach to appreciate poetry, the more connected our people, our society, can be.”

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