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Austin's first youth poet laureate to young writers: Your work has value and deserves to be heard

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Patricia Lim
/
KUT
Ireland Griffin describes herself as a "literary-oriented kid" who would take books with her on playdates when she was younger and then read instead of play. The 17-year-old brings her love of books and creative writing to her role as the first-ever Austin Youth Poet Laureate.

Austin has its first-ever youth poet laureate.

Seventeen-year-old Ireland Griffin says she'll do readings, workshops and other events to encourage young people to get involved in creative writing and civic engagement.

The Austin Youth Poet Laureate Program was created through a partnership between the Library Foundation and the National Youth Poet Laureate Program. (KUT was also a program partner.) You might remember the first national youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, who in January became the youngest person to ever deliver a poem at a U.S. presidential inauguration when she recited her original poem "The Hill We Climb" at Joe Biden's swearing-in.

Griffin says she believes young people can always benefit from having an outlet for expression like poetry, but it might be a more pressing need these days.

"I feel like especially with the pandemic and just all the things that have been on our consciousness," she says, "the idea of having a safe space to explore creative outlets and to explore your own mental health and to just kind of process everything that happens in the world is so important."

Griffin says she gravitates toward reading poets who don't necessarily adhere to conventional forms of formatting or writing. For her, that's part of the appeal.

"When I read poetry, I want to be unsettled," she says. "I want to read something that is going to shake up the way I view the world or the way I view myself."

Griffin admits that she has struggled with her writing at times and has questioned the value of her work. She hopes to steer other young writers off of that path of doubt.

Her main piece of advice to that group? "Remember that your work deserves to be heard and deserves to exist," she says. "And even if you don't feel like it's perfect that's OK because the emotion and the time and the work that you put into creating it is more than enough; it can stand on its own."

Five other young people were chosen as finalists to become youth poet laureate. They are:

  • Caroline Boyle, 13 (Lamar Fine Arts Academy)
  • Elijah Kleinman, 18 (The University of Texas at Austin)
  • Keana Saberi, 17 (Westwood High School)
  • Zachary Suri, 16 (LASA High School)
  • Ren Koppel Torres, 17 (Westlake High School)

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to find out more about what Griffin and the other finalists will be doing, and to hear Griffin recite her original poem "kiss the moon goodnight."

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: What has attracted you to poetry?

Austin Youth Poet Laureate Ireland Griffin: When I read poetry, I want to be unsettled, like I want to read something that is going to shake up the way I view the world or the way I view myself. And when I read something, I want to be left with a strong emotional impact.

I think the joy of poetry for me is some of my favorite poets are poets who are very much not traditional poets in the sense of formatting and the way they write; a lot of it could be more considered like purple prose. I think that what's so amazing about it is it's such a limitless form and style of writing. Because of that, I think there's a lot of opportunities to really emotionally touch people.

I know you have some of your original work to share with us. Please let us know the title before you read it.

This piece is called “kiss the moon goodnight.” I was able to read it at the Austin Youth Poet Laureate commencement ceremony.

you are sitting.

by the edge of the dock, soft waves of moonlight making trails down your cheeks. a fishing rod is clutched, in your gnarled hand. held the way one would hold a lover.

the salt from the air has seemingly made itself into a new man inside of the constraints of your skin.

for why else would your top lip catch the edge

of soft drops of water as they splatter down the dock.

the sallowed lines of your face illuminated by the sky, your bones curving in. to fit the model of a man that you had never intended to be. but often it is hard to turn your head away, when someone is clutching your cheek and whispering the wrong life into you.

you look up, and the figure in the sky above, who paints you in yellow every night, who’s the subject of every sad song you’ve ever tried to write.

you wish that you could be something bigger than this, someone who is not rooted to the same dock, to the same sky, to the same earth, staring up at the moon

that gets wider, and wider and wider every day.

but your dear, it is everything that you wish to be. and your hollow body starts to feel warmth when it is near

and maybe it's thoughtless to say but its soft light cradles your fragile disposition in between its teeth.

and so here on this dock you remain.

That is really powerful. Can you talk a little bit about where the idea for that poem came from and how you came to create it?

This is actually kind of why I like this poem a little bit is — when I write normally, it's very, very kind of fluid, and I don't really describe setting a lot. I was trying to challenge myself and give myself something that I don't normally write, which is how I came up with the fisherman on the dock. And ironically enough, I had been watching a DreamWorks movie, and they have the little logo of the boy fishing on the Moon. And for some reason that image of the boy fishing on the Moon was so vivid in my mind, I was like — Oh, a fisherman.

I think the first lines that came to me were the part about clutching a fishing rod in your hand, the way you would hold the lover. And I think after that came to me, I just kind of pondered what would a person who has been sitting at the same dock in order to fish like every day for his entire life — how would that feel like? What if he's not fulfilled with fishing all the time?

And even though it's kind of silly, I think at least for me, when I was writing it, I was trying to speak to some deeper themes about the life we choose versus the life that was given to us.

Can you talk a little bit about what you will be doing as Austin's youth poet laureate?

I'm so excited. This is fulfilling some never-achieved dream of mine to teach people about writing. Myself and also some of the other finalists are going to be doing workshops around Austin and just basically encouraging youth to get involved in creative writing [and] to get involved in poetry, which I feel like is super important. I feel like especially with the pandemic and just all the things that have been on our consciousness, the idea of having a safe space to explore creative outlets and to explore your own mental health and to just kind of process everything that happens in the world is so important.

And I feel like a lot of times the narrative is like "creative writing is only for school. I only do this because my teacher is going to grade me and I need to get an A."

What advice do you have for aspiring poets or writers of any kind?

I would say the first thing — and I know I struggled with this and still struggle with this — is your work has intrinsic value just on the merit of you creating it, and your work deserves to exist and it deserves to be heard in the world. And even if you don't think it's that amazing or you're really frustrated with, ultimately, at the end of the day, it served its purpose either to express your emotions or to help you learn more about the specific skill.

If you continue trying to perfect either one piece or perfect your poetry style or whatever it is and you spend all this time thinking — I can't show anyone else this thing until it's amazing and worthy and equal to everyone else's — you're just going to be stuck in the cycle of never ultimately sharing your work, because imposter syndrome is very real.

I felt that when I found out that I was chosen. I was like, I don't deserve to be here; my work cannot compare to anyone else's. And so that's my biggest piece of advice is just to remember that your work deserves to be heard and deserves to exist. And even if you don't feel like it's perfect, that's OK because the emotion and the time and the work that you put into creating it is more than enough; it can stand on its own.

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