Now that the finalists in Oakland’s first Youth Poet Laureate competition have been announced, the poets have until September to hear the final results after the last panel of judges make their decision. While waiting to find out who will be named the city’s first Youth Poet Laureate, the finalists are preparing for the first group performance at the Art & Soul Festival this summer in Oakland. Some will present work previously submitted for the competition while others plan to create new work for this inaugural performance.
“I am very excited and also nervous about performing at Art & Soul,” said 16-year-old Robin Levy, who attends Saint Joseph Notre Dame in Alameda. She has been writing poetry since the third grade and wrote a new poem just for the event. “It will be my first time performing before a large audience. I am really excited that Oakland has a poet laureate. Alameda has one and now so will Oakland.”
The Oakland Public Library, in conjunction with Youth Speaks, a non-profit organization that supports young people who are interested in written and spoken word development, established a competition for teenagers interested in poetry. This spring applicants between the ages of 13 and 18 provided written or audio submissions for the competition, which was open to young people in the Oakland and San Francisco areas, with each location overseeing separate application and judging processes.
The seven finalists participated in a blind selection process conducted by a panel of 10 judges that included young people, community members and celebrity judges like poets Chinaka Hodge and Kiala Givehand and Amy Cheney, the founder of Write-to-Read at Alameda County Juvenile Hall.
“It’s been a very competitive judging process,” said project coordinator Amy Sonnie, who is the teen outreach librarian at the Oakland Public Library. “We had almost three dozen applications, which is pretty good for our first year.” Submissions came from young people at high schools and colleges, as well as from students who are home-schooled and those in juvenile detention facilities.
Now the finalists will submit additional material and an artist’s statement as well as letters of recommendation to the five-member panel of judges–including California Poet Laureate 2012 Juan Felipe Herrera–which will decide who will be named Oakland’s first Youth Poet Laureate. The winner will receive a $5,000 educational scholarship and he or she will represent their peers for one year through their poetry, with social media and with public appearances.
This year, Brave New Voices Poetry Festival, an event previously held in San Francisco, will bring together performers from around the Bay area on July 21 at the Fox Theater in Oakland where the finalists will receive medals of recognition from Mayor Jean Quan. They will perform at the Art & Soul Festival on August 4. The winner of the competition will be announced in September.
“The only rule in poetry is that you have to use words,” said finalist Jose Saldona, age 18, who is a student at Envision Academy of Arts and Technology in Oakland. The finals will be a rare occasion for him to recite his poem in a public forum, but he said he will dedicate his performance to his new baby, who is due August 31.
Finalist Stephanie Yun, age 18, of Skyline High School, said she became serious about writing her sophomore year in high school. “Typically things in my environment or things that I am dealing with are the type of things that inspire me. I feel so much and I feel compelled to write,” she said.
The idea for the competition came from a collaboration between the Oakland Public Library and Youth Speaks. The organizers wanted to do something more connected to the cities the poets live in and to provide another forum for the poets to showcase their work, Sonnie said.
“For myself, for many people in the arts and for young writers that I know, the thing you hear again and again is that poetry is a truth,” Sonnie said. “It’s honest, it’s raw, it’s powerful. It’s a medium for young people and for people of all ages to explore central issues, issues of identity, to explore and to look and create a window to the world as they see it and give people a window into their own lives.”
Hodari Davis, national program director for Youth Speaks, says that the kids who often shine as spoken word poets are those who perform with a lot of what she describes as “audacity,” something that doesn’t necessarily translate to the pages of a book. “It’s nice to have a competition where a more quiet and reserved kid—who may not be the one to get the accolades in the competitive poetry environment—can still be acknowledged for the incredible work that they are able to put together to express their ideas,” Davis said.
Davis said the competition provides an opportunity for young people and demonstrates talents that sometimes go unnoticed. “This broadens the avenues that young people can be honored for their literacy and also to highlight excellence in their communities,” Davis said.
Soma Mei-Sheng Frazier, director of Institutional Advancement at Oakland School for the Arts, participated in the judging process because she believes competitions can serve as resume-boosters for college applications as well as future jobs, especially for young people living in Oakland. Although she had to recuse herself from reviewing several of the submissions because she recognized the writer, she thought the process was a lot of fun.
“It was hard to choose which poets should advance to the next level,” Frazier said. “We were only permitted to choose between three and seven. I picked seven because there were so many talented voices and they were all so different from one another.”
To balance out all the factors that go into making a poet publication-ready, the judges decided to approach evaluating these young people’s work in a developmentally-appropriate way. The criteria was not based solely on form, grammar or skill, but comprised of those things, Frazier said. “No one type of writer had a better chance of succeeding than another,” Frazier said.
Finalist Kerby Lynch, a 17-year-old student at the Oakland School for the Arts, does not describe her work as traditional. She doesn’t want to write love poems—she wants to write about social justice, she said. Her presentation will be spoken word. “I want to go into politics, so spoken word helps me potentially make my goals and ideals accessible to the general public,” she said.
The inspiration for finalist Tele’jon Quinn’s work are also not traditional stories about love. “I was inspired by poems written by others about life,” said the 17-year-old student from MetWest High School in Oakland. The poems he submitted were about sexism, the Civil Rights Movement and women’s empowerment and how those things’ connect to his mom.
The other finalists in the competition are Euna Bonovich, age 16, from International High School in San Francisco and Victoria Kupu, age 18, of Mills College in Oakland.
The goal of the competition, said Davis, is to provide enough exposure for the person who becomes the Youth Poet Laureate that they can inspire other young people to write. “We are acknowledging the excellence of one individual,” Davis said. “But we are using that as a vehicle to inspire others to perhaps share their stories and be courageous in the way that they present things to the world.”