Interview With Literary Ambassadors of the National Student Poets Program

Authors: Luisa Banchoff, Miles Hewitt, Claire Lee, Natalie Richardson and Lylla Younes

Tell us a little bit about how you first got involved in poetry. What inspired you to want to pursue writing?

Picture of Luisa Banchoff

Luisa Banchoff

Luisa Banchoff: I’ve had stories in my head since I read my first chapter book. I was raised by two academics who instilled an intellectual curiosity that always had me asking questions about my experiences. It was not until the eighth grade that I started answering these questions with poetry. My high school years have given me the courage to share those poems and have affirmed that I am not only pursuing creative answers but also asking the right kinds of questions.

Miles Hewitt: I’ve been writing since I began to read: first fiction of varying lengths, including several attempts at novels; later, in the form of songwriting. I began to write songs in my freshman year of high school and in the three years since then, I’ve probably completed about 120 songs. I got into poetry more recently. I think the tools I learned in writing songs—especially regarding the sounds of words and ways to combine them into phrases—lend themselves to poetry. I turned to poetry because there aren’t any rules for how to do it; in composing a song, there’s a rhyme scheme, a number of syllables per line and most likely a section or sections that repeat. When writing a poem, all that gets thrown out. It’s free creative expression.

Claire Lee: My first introduction to poetry was when my uncle gifted me a box set of Shel Silverstein’s poetry eleven years ago, and I have been writing ever since. But my immersion in poetry didn’t start until the beginning of high school. High school is when my poetry really started to “pour out,”—I think that my poetry is largely influenced by my experiences in school and with friends.

What I especially love about poetry is that the possibilities are endless. There are no limitations placed on imagination and creativity, and the cathartic process of the outflow of words onto the page.

Natalie Richardson: Poetry has provided me with an amazing, collaborative community in which I have the courage to speak the truths that I observe and experience in my own life. The ability to transform such “ugly” truths into beautiful pieces has inspired me to continue writing. I think that there is nothing more fulfilling.

Lylla Younes: My father is the first person who really introduced me to poetry. He was raised in Damascus, Syria and always had a fascination with the English language, which is what brought him to America in his early twenties. When my brother and I were younger, he would sit us in the living room and have us read and discuss poems from Best Loved Poems of the American People. So from a young age I was engaged with the art and, as a natural consequence, writing became my favorite outlets for expression.

Picture of Miles Hewitt

Miles Hewitt

Who was the first writer whose work made you gasp/cry/smile? What about his/her poetry took your breath away?

Luisa Banchoff: I remember being awed by “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. Sitting there in a middle school classroom, I could feel the rage and despair of Thomas’s dying men. That poem taught me the emotional power poetry can transmit to the most unsuspecting reader.

Miles Hewitt: I began to consciously seek out poetry to read as a sophomore, and I think the first poet I read in any sort of depth was Allen Ginsberg—stuff like his “Kaddish” is so moving and just fascinating to read. That was when I began to realize just how liberating poetry is. My favorite poem is probably “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot. It’s a poem of great depth. There’s a lot going on in it, a lot to chew on. I think that my favorite thing about it—other than the language, the slow surrealism—is the tone of voice. The speaker feels very refined, which only serves to make his story that much more distant.

Claire Lee: I don’t remember the very first writer, but a writer whose work has made impacted me greatly is William Earnest Henley and his poem “Invictus.” Reading this poem, I am always struck and in awe of how much I can relate to it and the amount of comfort it provides. Whenever I am down, “Invictus” never fails to uplift my spirit and reminds me that I am not alone in feeling this way.

Natalie Richardson: Sharon Olds. Her poetry speaks to the deepest part of my soul, verbalizing those things that to me are unsayable.

Lylla Younes: I will never forget the day I first read Arthur Chapman’s “Out Where The West Begins.” It sent my mind reeling, dreaming about the old America, where folks were still heading out west to start over again. As a first generation American, I was very touched by the poem’s theme, its refrain. In a lot of ways, my family had also headed out west to start a clean slate in the land of opportunity.

Picture of Claire Lee

Claire Lee

How did you get involved with this project? What will you be doing in your role as literary ambassadors?

Luisa Banchoff: My selection as a National Student Poet began with three poems I submitted to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards this past January, followed by four additional poems I submitted upon being told that I was a semifinalist. The overarching goal of the program is to promote the reading, writing, and sharing of poetry among young people across the country. Each of us five national student poets is going to lead our own service project this fall and next spring to celebrate poetry in our communities. If it’s one thing I can go on and on about, it’s poetry, so I am really excited to see where the year will take me!

Miles Hewitt: I’d never submitted to a poetry contest before this. My Literary Arts teacher of the last two years, Jennifer Hockhalter, encouraged my class to submit to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, an annual competition run by the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. I submitted a poetry portfolio consisting of two poems, some of the first poems I’d ever written—“To Lorraine” and “Prelude.” Much to my surprise, the portfolio won first a Gold Key at the regional level and then a Silver Medal at the national level, which then put me in the running for the National Student Poet honor. I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the five. And now here I am!

(To any young writer who’s out there, unsure about submitting work to competitions: do it. You never know what might happen. I’m living proof.)

The year ahead is going to be incredible. I’ve already attended two events as a National Student Poet: the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., where the five of us met an incredible array of writers, including outgoing U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, and the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, NJ. (I’m actually writing this on the flight home from Newark.) Both events were simultaneously inspiring and humbling.

Each National Student Poet is planning a community service project planned for April, which is National Poetry Month. I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to be doing for mine yet, but I’m thinking about some poetry slams in Portland (I live in Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River) and hopefully elsewhere.

Claire Lee: I became involved with this project through my submission to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. As a literary ambassador, I will be involved in my community to spread awareness and the influence of literature and poetry amongst my peers. As a National Student Poet, I will also have many opportunities to share my work with my community and peers and advocate poetry.

Natalie Richardson: My coaches entered me into this competition and I never expected to make it this far! My role as a literary ambassador will be to advocate for the reading and writing of poetry in my region, as well as act as a role model for other aspiring young writers in the Midwest.

Lylla Younes: I got involved with NSP through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. After I submitted to the Awards this year, they contacted me, telling me about the program and asking me to apply. As a literary ambassador I will be working with different programs and people in the Southwest and trying to spread the art of writing poetry to the youth in that region.

Picture of Lylla Younes

Lylla Younes

To people who don’t know much about literature, can you give some explanation about why poetry is important? Why does poetry matter?

Luisa Banchoff: For me, poetry is fundamentally about bringing people together. Poetry unites reader and writer in an indirect but powerful way. I may sit down at my desk and write a poem about something I saw during my day, and someday, somewhere hundreds of miles away, someone may feel my words speak to their own experiences. Whatever interpretation I may have put into the poem might not be the same as the one the reader draws from it, but that is not necessarily the point. Reading poetry is about allowing yourself that certain vulnerability that comes with reaching into someone else’s thoughts and finding peace in what you find there.

Miles Hewitt:  I’ve been asked this question several times already this year, and I’m still working on my answer, but here’s very basically what I think: Poetry is a medium that is all about expressing yourself, putting yourself out there. We live in the Twitter Age, the Facebook Age, and we’re constantly writing status messages, updating our blogs, and putting our personas on the internet. Self-expression is at an all-time premium. I see a clear connection between saying something on Facebook and writing a poem. We’re all poets! Grab a pen and pad, or, if that’s too old-fashioned for you, your smartphone, and get writing. (I’ve written many a poem and song via text message.) Anything is fair game—write about how you’re feeling, write about playing basketball, write about the cute girl in your English class. Don’t worry about line breaks or rhyming or anything about form. Just get the words flowing; you’ll be surprised at what comes out. Poetry is the ultimate status message.

Claire Lee: In the world of poetry, the possibilities are endless, the choices unlimited. Poetry doesn’t adhere to any “rules,”—it can be whatever you want it to be. Poetry doesn’t have to make sense or be understandable to everyone; it can make sense to just the writer. Poetry is an important part of education because it fosters creativity and imagination. I have actually learned so many things both about others and myself through writing poetry. Poetry offers me a quiet moment of self-reflection and solace in times when I need it most. Poetry matters, because it speaks on different levels to different people, and reminds us that we are not alone.

Natalie Richardson: Poetry is important because it is the purest form of expression. There is nothing more true or raw than words. There is nothing more awe inspiring than being touched by language itself. Because words are such an essential part of human life, I believe that poetry is an elevation of human communication. A sort of beautiful, soul-touching language that inspires readers and listeners to rethink the way we use our words.

Lylla Younes: The amazing thing about poetry is that a poem can make you see something ordinary in a completely different light. Some of my favorite poems describe simple universal images, but they do so in a way that makes you see past the ordinary, into the root of artistic truth.

Natalie Richardson

Natalie Richardson

What are you most looking forward to in your role as a literary ambassador? What would you most like people to know about your project?

Luisa Banchoff: I’m most excited to hear what other young writers are creating in my region. No matter what form my project may take, I want my peers to know that poetry is something anyone can participate in—there is no such thing as the archetypal poet. A lot of people tell me they don’t have the understanding required to appreciate poetry when the truth is that someone from any background with any variety of interests can find meaning in a poem.

Miles Hewitt: I’ve loved hanging out with other poets, both my fellow National Student Poets and professionals like Andrea Gibson and Terrance Hayes. I’m really looking forward to sharing the joy of the written word with my generation. We’ve got a lot to say to the world.

I’d like anyone reading this article to keep writing and know that you should always take a risk and put your words out there. There is no problem we can’t solve if we choose to communicate openly.

Claire Lee: As a National Student Poet, I hope to spread the influence of literature and introduce my peers to the world of poetry.

I would definitely encourage people to learn more about NSPP (National Student Poets Program) and the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. When I first submitted my poetry collection, I had no idea that I would be chosen for this great honor in representing the northeast region of the country. So please, submit to the Art & Writing Awards, because hey, you never know!

Natalie Richardson:  I am most excited to continue my community service projects. The extremely supportive network that has received me as a National Student Poet is an incredible one, and one that will hopefully allow me to continue to urge others to write and share their own stories. This, after all, is my favorite part about writing. I hope that my project will provide a comforting and inspiring network for aspiring writers to experiment with their craft. I hope that my project will shed light on how much fun writing can be!

Lylla Younes: I’m really looking forward to traveling and meeting new people in order to engage students my age in poetry. I’m also excited to see the other four national student poets from time to time because we really hit it off in D.C. What people should know about the project is that it is not meant to put the national student poets on a pedestal. More than award winners, we are ambassadors, and our goal is to give kids our age the chance to engage in the art that is such an integral part of our lives and of many other peoples’ lives around the world.

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