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Life & Arts

Stage, Slam, Spoken Word And More: Austin Youth Poet Laureate Program Embraces Broad Definition Of Poetry

An illustration of young people with thought bubbles that include musical notes and paint palettes.
Lauren Ibanez for KUT

Amanda Gorman was named the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017. Four years later, she became familiar to many Americans after her performance of her original poem "The Hill We Climb" at the presidential inauguration.

That performance garnered a lot of attention for Gorman, but also for the art of poetry and how young people impact it.

Austin Public Library, the Library Foundation and the National Youth Poet Laureate Program led by Urban Word are working together to give young people in Austin the opportunity to dig deeply into the craft of poetry through the Austin Youth Poet Laureate Program.

First, a few details about the program:

  • Any person aged 13-18 who lives in Austin can apply for free.
  • A winner and five finalists will be chosen.
  • The citywide winner will go on to compete regionally and nationally.
  • Applications open July 1.
  • Click here for more information and the application process.

Library Foundation Program Manager Kate Kelly, a poet herself, says the program embraces a wide definition of poetry.

"We know poetry can exist on the page, but it can also exist on the stage," she says. "It can also exist within visual art. ... There's a very active slam poetry and spoken word scene here in Austin. There's also a more academic side of poetry."

Kelly admits writing poetry can feel intimidating. But she says the most powerful poetry is actually already inside us.

"One good place to start is by checking in with yourself," she suggests. "Writing 'I am. I am. I am' at the beginning of each line and writing out all the ways that you are in this world."

Kelly says applicants do not have to submit poetry on any particular topic.

"One of the core tenants of this program is believing in the right of our young people to speak out about what they think is important," she says.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear from Kelly about the Austin Youth Poet Laureate Program and the impact she says poetry can have on the creator and the consumer.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: What kind of poetry are we talking about here? How is “poetry” being defined?

Library Foundation Programs Manager Kate Kelly: I think we all have a lot of complicated definitions of poetry in our normal lives as adults, right? Poetry feels like this very abstract idea. Within this program, we're evaluating poetry that speaks to the community and the quality of that poetry, right? Is the poem that the poet’s presenting to us in the application fulfilling its own expectations?

We're looking for a poet who has a vision and their poems are translating that vision. Now, I think that's going to look different for every single applicant. So we know poetry can exist on the page, but it can also exist on the stage. It can also exist within visual art. It can also exist in a variety of different forms. There's a very active slam poetry and spoken word scene here in Austin. There's also a more academic side of poetry.

And we're embracing all of those definitions — the plurality of those definitions — through this program. And we're also looking for youth to bring their own innovations and their own interpretations of what poetry means to the program.

I find poetry a little bit intimidating to write myself. Can you talk about how young people who are interested in entering might think about approaching writing some poetry, especially if it's the first time they're doing it?

I think poetry can be intimidating, and I'm a poet, so I hear you, Jennifer. If you're a young person and you also feel like poetry is intimidating, one good place to start is by checking in with yourself. Writing “I am. I am. I am” at the beginning of each line and writing out all the ways that you are in this world. That in and of itself can kind of take on a level of poetry — just to repeat and to repeat and to repeat the same beginning line. But seeing that beginning line change as it reflects maybe the different ways that you are.

And I hope that by checking in with yourself, which is what poetry can provide for you — I know that's what it has provided for me — you can begin to see the ways that you are in your community and the ways that you have a vision for your community and the ways that you are more broadly outside of your community.

The winner of this will go on to be seen on a regional stage and potentially seen on a national stage. And I know that's intimidating, but maybe if we start with a line “I am.” Tell me who you are. That's what I'm most eager to learn through this program.

For young people who are interested in entering and submitting poetry, it doesn't have to be about a particular topic. So, for example, it doesn't have to be about social justice issues or civic engagement. It can really be about anything?

It absolutely can. The social justice and civic engagement components of the application will be featured on the CV. You can also think of it like a resume or a brag sheet where you get to talk about work that you're doing.

Maybe that work exists outside of your poetry and that's totally fine. The poems are what the poets choose, as it should be, and they can engage with any level of topics that they find interesting. One of the core tenants of this program is believing in the right of our young people to speak out about what they think is important. So those topics are entirely dictated by those young people, by our applicants.

Can you talk a little bit about what the process of writing poetry is like for you? I'm sure it's very individual for each person, but I thought it would be interesting to hear from a practitioner about what that experience is like.

If you're listening to this and your ears are perked, then you are a poet. There's something inside of you that's echoing, that's reverberating with this energy here. And I think that poetry can feel like an energy at times. When you sit down to write, maybe you have a hesitation, maybe you don't. Every day can feel different, and that is fine.

But when we are engaging in the act of writing poetry, sometimes we feel as though we're channeling something outside of ourselves. We can feel like we're connecting to something. We can feel like we're seeing the world in a way that we don't typically see it in our waking life. And what I love is the more that we come to the page or maybe the stage or maybe your canvas or your notebook, whatever that is for you, the more that we do that, the more that our life outside of poetry changes, too.

And you can write a poem as you walk down the street; and you can write a poem while you're playing basketball; and you can write a poem while you're walking your dog. The more that we engage in this mode of thinking and tapping into that energy, the more that we see it in the world.

And I think that's a lot of what this program is about for me and why I want to support this and champion this. It's because I believe that poetry can be a force for change and a force for energy in our world outside of poetry. And I believe the world influences our poetry, too.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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