Ten years ago, when I was still in high school, I received a National Portfolio Gold Medal from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for a chaotic clump of self-reflective poems I’d cobbled together and hoped would say something about who I was and who I hoped to be. I still remember the events that followed, although they’re hazy and hot and filmed over with the steam rising from cement on a New York afternoon in June: a start-of-summer, end-of-high-school blur that now revolves mainly around the numerous hors d’oeuvres I ate and how sore my feet were at the end of it all.
At that time, there was no National Student Poets Program—the program itself is only in its third year. Now, having returned, year after year, to volunteer during the National Events for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and editing The Best Teen Writing twice I’m the coordinator for the program.
My initial reaction to learning about the program was one of great, green envy. It’s an opportunity to live, breathe, consume, and reciprocate poetry as a student ambassador on the national level—one I would have done anything to be a part of when I was still an eligible age. (Because I have to remind my twenty-seven-year-old self constantly that I’m not still one of the gang—that the student poets I’ve met are actually a decade younger than I am, despite how powerful and moving their voices are.) How incredible it would have been to be at first overwhelmed and intimidated by the responsibilities of my appointment, before learning and growing and metamorphosing as the classes of 2012 and 2013 have done.
Actually, given the muddled chaos of my teenage world, I don’t know if I would have been prepared for those responsibilities or the possibilities. It’s a huge deal; I may have buckled under the pressure and hid under my covers in the darkness.
But the poets in the Class of 2012 and 2013 didn’t do that—a testament to their maturity, which even now, far from my own teenagerhood, I’m a little in awe of. I think about what I was doing in my final years of high school and compare that to Sojourner Ahebee, Class of 2013, who collaborated this past year with patients with Alzheimer’s to create lasting works of poetry, transforming lost memories into rhythm and meter and remembrance. It makes me feel small, but the good kind of small: knowing there are great things happening, and you’re in the presence of those great things.
My understanding of the program—which I’m still developing, in my new capacity as its coordinator—is that it broadens the definitions of what it means to be a poet and what it means to be a student. The National Student Poets Program carves out a place for poetry where otherwise it would be shadowed, muted, forgotten. Louis Lafair, Class of 2013, draws parallels between texting and poetics, citing the mutation and evolution of language. There is poetry in communication, iambs and metaphors. Poetry thrives and thirsts and thrusts ever forward—now, toward the Class of 2014, who are soon to be revealed. (September 19th, 2014! And I, for one, can’t wait until their names are made public; to see what National Poetry Month next April brings; what choices they make for their community service projects; how their poetry changes and, perhaps most importantly, how it doesn’t change.)
Ultimately, I can’t stop thinking about how this is important stuff. Young poets are treated like rock stars, like actors, like athletes—like poetry is significant and vital, which it is, and that we can get out of it as much as we put into it, which we can. It changes lives; it touches and teaches; and, when it’s recognized, it recognizes itself in others, and stretches, and strives, beyond its beginnings.
I can’t wait to find out where I’m—where we’re—going.
The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers partner to present the National Student Poets Program (NSPP), the country’s highest honor for youth poets presenting original work. Five outstanding high school poets whose work exhibits exceptional creativity, dedication to craft, and promise are selected annually for a year of service as national poetry ambassadors.