NATIONAL STUDENT POETS PROGRAM – Sojourner Ahebee

Picture of Sojourner AhebeeTell us a little bit about how you first got involved in poetry. What inspired you to want to pursue writing? When did you start thinking about seriously writing poetry?

I think my pursuit of writing as an artistic form really started with my mother. My mother is a poet, so I grew up with the written word all around me. I grew up with the words of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou in place of bedtime stories. But, at the age of seven, my family and I were forced to leave my birth country of Cote d’Ivoire due to the Ivorian civil war. In 2002 we fled to Philadelphia, which is my mother’s original  hometown.  My poetry sprung out of a direct reaction to leaving what I had called home for all of my early childhood. I became obsessed with the act of remembering, and when I look back so some of my early poetry, most of the poems were descriptions of rooms in my home that I loved, or people/memories that I didn’t want to forget.

Even though I’ve been writing all my life, I didn’t really consider myself a “poet” until my sophomore year of high school when I first started attending Interlochen Arts Academy. It is here that I currently study Creative Writing. It is here that my teachers have made me claim my identity as a writer, and I am deeply indebted to them for this.

Do you recall your first definition of poetry, either from a parent, friend or teacher? Has your definition of poetry changed since then? How so?

I never really had any definition of poetry. I just knew I was drawn to images and sound, so when I started writing it just made sense to me that the “poem” was the best form for my writerly pursuits. Most recently I’ve been experimenting with hybrid forms of poetry, like prose poems, but I don’t think this has changed how I see poetry. I think my hybrid phase has just simply shown me the range that poetry has to offer.

Which writer has impacted you greatly? How did his/her writing impact your life and/or your writing style?

I think Langston Hughes, Ai, and Junot Diaz have greatly impacted both my writing and the way in which I process this world. For starters, Hughes was my first introduction to poetry as an art form. But, not only was he my gateway to the utter power and beauty of words, but his work was my first introduction to the African-American struggle in America.

Ai, born to a Japanese father and an African-American mother, is a poet whose words carry the weight of woman who comes from two cultures. Her persona poems, which she is most known for, taught me the importance of perspective and the magic of seeing yourself in someone else’s narrative/experience.

Though he is not a poet, Junot Diaz is a fabulous fiction writer who gave me my love of history and allowed to me to see that this very history is in everything I do, is in everything I encounter.

Much of my work takes on political subject matters, so Diaz’s work has allowed me to consider all the histories and backstories that go into the makings of my poems.

Please explain how you became a National Student Poet. What are you most looking forward to doing in your new role as a literary ambassador?

It all started with the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Last year, around December, I submitted a collection of poems I had been working on. These poems covered a range of topics. Some of the poems were about my experience with the war in Cote d’Ivoire, while other poems were about caring for my Grandmother just before she passed away. Later in the year I was informed that I won a National Gold Medal for these very poems I had worked so hard on. It was very rewarding, but I had no idea for what was to come next. Towards the end of my junior year I was informed that I had become a semifinalist for the National Student Poets Program, and that my award winning work had been reviewed by a group of literary luminaires that had decided on 39 other semi-finalists within the national awards for the Scholastic program. I was simply stupefied. I was then asked to submit some additional work for a second review, so the jurors could decide on five poets to represent different regions of the nation for the next school year. In late August I received the good news that I would be representing the Midwest as a National Student Poet for the 2013-14 year. I could hardly believe it! Towards the end of September I met the other four poets and we attended our appointment ceremony in Washington D.C. to be officially appointed National Student Poets! What a journey!

What do you like writing about specifically? Is there a subject or aesthetic you consistently return to? What provides you with inspiration?

I am really obsessed with the theme of home and diaspora. Because I had to leave my home country of Cote d’Ivoire at such a young age, this topic has been following me all my life. Much of my poetry deals with my direct experience with leaving home and having to figure out where I fit in within this America I now call home. But, I also try to find my own experience in other narratives. For example, I have been working on a collection of poems that covers the Roma (“Gypsy”) population in the United States. This community of people has quite a migratory narrative, so right away their story stuck out to me.

Do you write every day? How frequently do you edit and revise afterwards?

Because I attend an arts school in which I study creative writing, writing every day is simply in my curriculum. If I’m not writing my own poems, I’m giving written feedback to my peers in workshops, and I’m always reading tons of poetry at once. My teacher always says “not a day without a line.” I truly believe that. Also, my revision process is crucial to the function of my poems. I take the feedback of my peers quite seriously. Sometimes things within my poems may make sense to me, but it’s great to have access to a second eye, because it is this second eye that will indicate where my clarity issues lie. Also, it’s important for me to be constantly revising because it is in this state of revision that I can play with language with a more critical eye, and I am able to ensure that all my line breaks and word usage is really doing significant work for the function of the poem itself.

If you could pass along one piece of advice to fellow poets and your peers interested in writing, what would it be?

If I could pass along one piece of advice to young poets and writers in general, I would say to write fearlessly, and to not get too attached to your first drafts. But most importantly, have faith in your story, your ability to tell that story, and don’t be afraid to listen.

What’s the next step for you?

Because I am a National Student Poet, I will be responsible for conducting a year-long community service project in which I interact with a specific community via poetry workshops and such. Right now, I am in the process of writing my service proposal for the year. Because much of my work encompasses the themes of home and memory, my service project is taking on these themes as well, and seeking out communities that have a lot to contribute to the dialogues that these two themes trigger.