Wednesday, June 25, 2014

National Student Poet Interview

Today, you'll find me at TweetSpeak Poetry, where my interview with National Student Poet Sojourner Ahebee is posted.

Sojourner, age 18, is just one of five teens who have served this past year as America's "poetry ambassadors" under the auspices of the National Student Poets Program, an initiative of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. A member of the second annual class of honorees singled out from among national medalists in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards by a jury of literary luminaries and education and arts leaders, including poets Richard Blanco and Terrance Hayes, Sojourner and her peers — Michaela Coplen, Nathan Cummings, Aline Dolinh, and Louis Lafair — each received a $5,000 college scholarship and an opportunity to represent youth poets nationally. The NSPP is our country's highest honor for youth poets.  

My interview comprises two parts. Today, in Part 1, Sojourner discusses being "a girl with two homes", the Cote d'Ivoire, where she was born, and America, where she lives now, and how poetry has become for her "a memory capsule", a means of capturing in words and images all that she had to leave behind when forced by civil war to flee her native country in 2002. In Part 2, which will appear at TweetSpeak next week, Sojourner talks about her year as a National Student Poet and her community service project with nursing home residents suffering from Alzheimer's disease. 

I found Sojourner to be a particularly engaged, enthusiastic, and articulate young woman, who has a gift for writing poetry and a profound sense of responsibility to tell the narrative of Africans like herself and others' stories of loss and longing.

I've included with my interview a link to some of Sojourner's poems (others are below). When you read her words, consider what she told me about her writing:

"I think the themes of home, diaspora, and injustice are quite self-evident in my work. My short time in Cote d'Ivoire has really contributed to my sense of the world, and my ability to empathize with other people, other histories, and other narratives. Most recently, I've noticed that my own work deals a lot with relationships and the way these relationships, or lack of relationships, contribute to daily life. Because my father passed away in Cote d'Ivoire prior to the Ivoirien civil war, much of my work is involved in uncovering relationships between fathers and daughters.

"I like writing in free verse and, most recently, I've been experimenting with hybrid forms of poetry. If I were to describe my work, I would say that my poems are very connected to aspects of the political. Right now I'm working on a series of poems that deals with how my physical environment relates to how I see myself in the context of my gender. I draw from both my short time in Cote d'Ivoire and the plight that women in Ivoirien society face, as well as my time spent in different parts of the United States."

Like her peers in the NSPP, Sojourner speaks to the power of poetry to change lives. 

I asked Sojourner if there is any myth about poetry that she would dispel, and she responded, ". . . the idea that poetry is not reaching young people. For starters, . . . consider the range that the word poetry begins to paint. There is formal poetry, hybrid poetry, slam poetry, surreal poetry, political poetry, prose poetry, and the list could go on. So, to simply say that poetry is not reaching young people is to simply ignore all the avenues that the written word is treading. But what's really interesting about my generation is its relationship to technology and poetry. Prior to this computer age, poets were completely dependent upon "gatekeepers" like big literary magazines and publishing companies and, as a result, a lot of people had their voices limited. But now, everyone has access to a voice. Just take a look at the thriving spoken word community throughout the country, a community of writers that is mainly young people who want their voices heard. Through blogs, Youtube, social networking, and services like Poetry Genius, young people now hold the power to not only make themselves heard but to ensure that their voices have the ability to reach millions. So, when people say poetry is obsolete, I have a hard time believing them. It's time to open our eyes and look at all the unlearned territory poetry is beginning to make sense of."

Sojourner will attend Stanford University this fall.

Sojourner Ahebee's Poems:

"valentine for Sally Hemings" Poem-A-Day, Academy of American Poets, June 2014

"Apparitions and Notes on Apparitions", Winter Tangerine Review, Vol. 2

"Nanny", The Interlochen Review

Sojourner Ahebee, "Listen to Africa", Poster, Syracuse Cultural Workers (Text of Poem on Poster)

Sojourner's poems also can be found in Stone Soup, Teen Ink, and Apiary magazines. She blogs at Sojo's Trumpet: A Culture Blog for Teens. Her collection of poems, Thirteen Ways to Look at Me (June 2011), is available for Nook.

Leigh Anne Tiffany, "Philadelphia Teen Wins National Award for Poetry", NBC 10 Philadelphia, June 15, 2014

I also have interviewed NSP Michaela Coplen. Read Part 1, "Connecting with Poetry", and Part 2, "Advocating for Poetry", at TweetSpeak Poetry.

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