Oakland’s unconventional third Youth Poet Laureate finds her voice
on October 9, 2014
Warning: This article contains strong language.
I can no longer sit back
and watch my generation crumble
like the apartments in West Oakland that are being torn down,
like my neighborhood’s monthly gentrification.
My peers take intelligence for granted.
So begins “Antique,” a poem by 17-year-old Sophie Elkin, who was named the third Oakland Youth Poet Laureate in August. The piece, which Elkin read aloud this week with conviction and a little embarrassment (“Once I write poems, I kind of move past them”) during a recent interview at the Oakland Public Library, is typical of her work. It is raw, full of vivid imagery, and peppered with references to the landscapes with which she is familiar— the grit and grandeur of Oakland’s people and places; the less tangible but no less real world of adolescence.
I sit on A/C transit day after day observing my people.
Drowning in this concrete amusement park, a woman dusted in track marks sits beside me with arms all too familiar, from vein to sweaty creases.
She hits me too close to home
Elkin was reading in a library office with a view of Lake Meritt, and she swayed slightly to the rhythm of her words, pausing once to adjust her knit black Raiders cap over short, bleached-blonde hair. Later:
I’m not ashamed to admit that I grew up too fast
opportunity was never a simple hand out.
A passionate kid with a face far from symmetrical
weird looking walk more like a waddle
guess you can say my vibrations were always off beat
because I seem to attract the kids who’d rather sell drugs than buy drugs to eat.
Many of Elkin’s poems touch on her difficult childhood, but her delivery was confident on this September afternoon— the verses of the last poem almost tumbling out of her mouth, her arms tucked defensively close to her sides so that only the tips of her tattoos peeked around her forearms.
Pictures of girls with their legs wide open go hand in hand with captions like
#nofatherfriday and #bitchesbelike
as if growing up without a father and sexual exploitation of the female body is something to laugh about.
Please, elaborate brother: what do bitches be like?
The only insults I hear these days are “faggot” and “bitch,”
all of which are things that I am—a woman and a homosexual.
—this last line reaching a crescendo, each word vocally underlined, her eyebrows (the left one boasts a metal spike through it) arching to highlight the weight of her words.
“I’d like to write like a 17 year old, I really would,” said Juan Felipe Herrera, California Poet Laureate, who served as judge for this year’s Youth Laureate competition. “There’s beauty; amazing, complex lines. And they hit hard.” Young poets like Elkin, he said, “talk about real things that are taking place in the most passionate manner in the most innovative writing style.”
A slouchy, tattooed kid on an unconventional path may not be the most common image associated with the word “laureate,” but the Youth Poet Laureate program exists precisely to shed light on the potential of young Oaklanders like Elkin and their inevitably varied experiences. “We think of it as a spider web across our community,” said Lana Adlawan, Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library. “We each do our part to help youth in Oakland, but this brings it together.”
The Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program (which by many accounts was the first youth laureate program in the state) is run by the library, in conjunction with local organizations Youth Speaks and Pro Arts. After a lengthy application process, winners receive a $5000 scholarship earmarked for college, as well as acclaim and public recognition. The scholarship is provided by the John diTargiani Fund at Youth Speaks and the Friends of the Oakland Public Library; Scholarmatch oversees the scholarship and provides academic support once the Youth Laureate starts college.
Elkin is the third Youth Poet Laureate to be named; in return for the title, she is expected to participate in five or more events during the year, from school visits to public readings. Since it began in 2012, the program has flourished, receiving widespread attention and inspiring similar contests throughout California. “We saw a need to highlight our youth voice,” Adlawan said. “What better way to do that than citywide?”
Elkin’s is a voice ripe for highlighting. Long before those tattoos, she began writing songs at age 5, she said, and performed them for the first time at the Starry Plough in south Berkeley at age 9. (Sample lyrics: “Kangaroos are really tight/they can hop and they can fight.”) Songs turned into poems around the time that Elkin began a turbulent adolescence made more difficult as she came to terms with her sexuality. She identifies as lesbian and said her first poems were “total darkness,” although they ultimately were helpful in her coming-out process. In the midst of her struggles, she began working with Youth Speaks, the Youth Poet Laureate co-sponsor, which is devoted to development of intellectual and artistic expression for youth in the Bay Area.
It proved to be the fresh start Elkin needed. Within months she was encouraged to join Spokes, the organization’s advisory board. Then, Youth Speaks Program Director Michelle Lee suggested that Elkin enter the Laureate contest. Obasi Davis, named Youth Poet Laureate in 2013, is a friend of Elkin’s, and he urged her to apply, as well.
After a long and agonizing summer of waiting, convinced her application had been rejected, Elkin was finally invited to the August 16 finalists’ luncheon at the African American Museum. There, each of the nine finalists—chosen from among applicants from Bentley, Head-Royce, Met West and Oakland School for the Arts—read a poem; 2012 Youth Poet Laureate Stephanie Yun also read. After a speech from Mayor Jean Quan, Elkin was named the winner.
“She said my name, and everything started happening,” Elkin said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this year is about to be the best year of my life. … I never won anything, so it was just overwhelming.”
Elkin has already made her first Youth Poet Laureate appearance at the Dear Summer hip-hop festival on September 13 at the Arroyo Viejo Recreation Center. This week she’ll read at the hip-hop-and-poetry-focused Life is Living festival in DeFremery Park on October 11 and at the 20th Annual Arts Exhibition for Emeryville on October 12.
Elkin will graduate from high school in January, having completed an independent study program affiliated with Santa Cruz High School this fall. Then she can begin to think about how to use her scholarship money. Former Youth Poet Laureate Davis is studying at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Elkin is considering attending, as well. She is attracted to First Wave, the school’s cutting-edge poetry/theater/hip-hop program.
Before that, Elkin is looking to make a difference closer to home. “Something better for Oakland is what I’m focused on,” she said. “We have so much good here, so much art and so much love and so many programs and amazing things and opportunities for people who go through what people go through in Oakland.”
Elkin draws much of her inspiration from her grandmother, a traveling photographer whose work focuses on women. Like her grandmother, “I want women to use their voices more,” she said. “That’s what started my poetry, to be a girl who can use her voice and have it be respected and heard.”
As an example, Elkin told a story about a recent unsettling experience in Oakland. “I was walking with my friend, and this guy’s like, ‘Your boyfriend looks like a fucking lesbian!’” she said, her eyes hardening over an angry smirk, voice deepening in mocking disdain. “And I was like, ‘Bruh, I am a lesbian!’”
Elkin identifies as genderqueer, a catch-all term that refers to someone who identifies outside the traditional male-female gender binary, and the world’s reaction to her appearance often surfaces in her work. That afternoon, she said, she bit back her feelings in front of the man who had decided it was within his rights to ruin a stranger’s day and went home to work her anger out on paper. “I wrote about how obviously homeboy had something going on, and obviously he’s just not educated,” she said. “I just wish idiots like that would come to events like Life is Living and open mics… That’s what I want to do, educate people.”
Elkin said she writes to raise consciousness and provoke discourse. “My poetry is kind of a conversation, to engage people,” she said. “That’s what I always loved about open mics. I would read something that I wrote that day, that I was feeling crazy about, and people afterwards would be like, ‘What does that mean? What are you talking about?’ And I’d be able to talk to them about it.”
As Elkin finds her identity as a poet and gets comfortable in her new role, Herrera offered some advice: being a Laureate is “not just an idea,” he said. “It’s a set of actions, and it’s a way of seeing and a way of speaking and a way of thinking and a way of living. All this happens to you at a high speed and a profound level… it [requires] a big mind, a big kindness, a big listening, and a big thank you.”
Elkin seems poised to take that advice. Although she admitted to a tendency toward pre-performance jitters, things have a way of smoothing out once she gets on stage. “I read my words, and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is exactly what I meant,’” she said. “This is exactly what I wanted to say. This is what I wanted people to hear.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story named ProEarth as one of the co-sponsors of the Youth Poet Laureate program. The organization is called Pro Arts. O.N. regrets the error.
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