As anyone reading this may already know: on January 20th, 2021, the role of the inaugural poet returned to the White House for the first time since the Obama Administration. Amanda Gorman, the first Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, read her poem The Hills We Climb for President Elect Joseph Biden and Vice President Elect Kamala Harris’ inauguration. Amanda Gorman wowed us her with poise and eloquence. She inspired us with her spoken word and her message of unity and resilience. In a move most if not all poets would applaud, she offered respect and remembrance to the great Maya Angelou who once was also an inaugural poet. Above all, she motivated an innumerable population of Americans to want to read poetry, to write poetry – the ultimate goal of a poet laureate.
Amanda Gorman became the first National Youth Poet Laureate to be appointed in 2017. She was then followed by National Youth Poet Laureates Patricia Frazier (2018), Kara Jackson (2019), and most recently Meera Dasgupta (2020). The process of appointment for the next is currently underway and I’m excited to know one of the four finalists: Sacramento Youth Poet Laureate Alexandra Huynh who read at my own inauguration as Lake County’s Poet Laureate in August of 2020.
The power of youth and poetry in this moment in time is undoubtedly uplifting. This was easily demonstrated by the recent virtual Lake County Poetry Out Loud competition where three Middletown High School students beautifully recited memorized poems. We poets always want to see more of us, to see poetry continue to exist and evolve. But this movement of poetry among youth also brings me to remembering my own experience as a young poet. This is a difficult topic I have wanted to write about for some time and I feel now is the time to do so. In telling my story publicly, I hope it might inspire other young poets or teens and children in general; and I hope it would even inspire my own nieces and nephews who I love dearly.
Getting right to the point can be painful sometimes so I will get to it. I had a traumatic childhood. It involved domestic violence, abuse, family dysfunction, homelessness, poverty, and bullying. By the time I reached my pre-teen years I was shutting down, I was acting out, and once I started to be bullied, I bullied back in defense. Local school officials saw bullying at the time as a “kids will be kids” situation. Oftentimes I was bullied because of my weight or my skin color and it affected my sense of identify and importance. I didn’t have much protection or support at school. At the time, it felt like punishing truancy and correcting attendance records were more important than how to actually help a child or family survive. I had an extremely difficult time as a teenager and at one point I didn’t think I would survive and make it into adulthood.
I definitely knew I couldn’t survive public school. On site counseling and truancy meetings through the public school system in Lake County at the time were further traumatizing. Of course it’s not the school’s entire responsibility to save the youth but needless to say, the policies and actions of adults in charge in those years created more trauma. After finding a private therapist I felt comfortable with, I was finally able to leave public school and be homeschooled with my therapist’s recommendation. Homeschool was also difficult but I found it better to be away from the fearful and uncomfortable school environment and I learned to find solace in writing alone in my bedroom. Listening to the poetic lyrics of Tori Amos made me want to write everyday. To earn more credits to graduate high school, I enrolled in college and learned about Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf from one of my English instructors. It was no turning back at that point. Sylvia Plath was a confessional poet who poured her pain, depression, and mental illness into her haunting work. I had no idea before then that poetry could do this, that a human could make poetry happen in this way. That’s when I began using my own struggles and depression as keys to continually open new doors in this house of poetry.
As I moved into adulthood, and in fact survived, I always continued writing. I didn’t always share my work but I kept writing. It took many, many years to develop the confidence in even sharing my written work let alone reading my work aloud. I’ve always been shy and introverted and as a teen public speaking literally made my stomach hurt. It’s been around three years now since I broke through this invisible wall I’d been stuck behind for most of my life and began sharing my work with other writers, attending workshops, and reading at open mics. It ultimately came down to the encouragement and support I received from Lake County Poet Laureates like Casey Carney and Richard Schmidt and many other writers in the community who saw potential in my work and gently pushed me to keep sharing.
Fast forward to 2021, I’m going into my second year as Lake County’s eleventh Poet Laureate. Sometimes I can’t even believe I went from a broken down young girl to a thirty-something powerhouse of a woman (yes, I’ve gained self-confidence too) who has lived through a wild amount of other hardships and still live to see the poetry in everything. I still have bouts of depression and anxiety, but there is this ultimate sense of survival in poetry that holds my hand in this life. It’s why I keep writing. To quote my personal film hero John Keating from Dead Poet’s Society (played by the dear Robin Williams), “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are the things we stay alive for”.
I wish we lived in world where hardships and trauma would cease to exist. It breaks my heart to keep seeing reports of bullied or abused children, of domestic violence and poverty, of the battles of the human condition. But I write this to offer some hope in this ever-troubled world. In a time where poet laureates are in the spotlight and poetry is getting more attention, I want to use my platform to be honest and send positive messages. Writing is a tool that can aid in telling the story of your own perseverance. You don’t have to be a scholar or earn degrees to be a poet, you can learn about poetry anytime and anywhere. You can become a poet laureate with hard work and genuine passion. You can be the underdog, the survivor who writes in the privacy of your own bedroom and one day decides to bravely share your words with the world.
Afterword: If you are experiencing abuse, bullying, depression, domestic violence, or any of the difficulties mentioned in this column, please reach out for help. Talk to an adult at school or local law enforcement. Organizations like the Lake Family Resource Center and their 24 hour crisis hotline are here for you as well.