In Their Own Words
The National Youth Poet Laureates
The National Youth Poet Laureate initiative (YPL) is a program of Urban Word, an award-winning youth literary arts and youth development organization, that strives to elevate the voices of teens while promoting civic engagement and social justice. Through building visible and deep-seated partnerships with city agencies and government, the YPL program situates youth voices in spaces of power and attempts to equip young people with opportunities to creatively respond to the litany of social and political factors that impact their cities and their lives. To be recognized as a city or region's Youth Poet Laureate, young people undergo a comprehensive and rigorous application process that considers not only the artistic merit and subject matter of their writing, but also their commitment to servicing their communities in a number of extracurricular ways. The first and only of its kind in the nation, the NYPL program strives to provide a platform for youth to assume central roles in the cultural and political climates of their communities.
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Nashville Youth Poet Laureate
The City that Never Stops Giving
The city never stops giving
on the corner of 6th and Broadway
where downtown traffic is a harrowing
consistency, when the light turns green,
it doesn't always mean go.
Where Roy Orbison wrote "Oh Pretty Woman,"
emboldened by the femme of mercy
below his apartment balcony
where tourists and the music
leave a warm taste of affinity,
by the Starbucks in the Renaissance
that snags money from teenagers
who rendezvous before school.
They never spell my name right
on the little cups filled with magic.
From this crosswalk, electricity ripples
through the crooked streets of the city.
The paths of headlights mature into veins
of a breathing atmosphere.
The wait is forgiving, and when
we don't like what we see and
all significance is lost, we turn
around softly and walk the other way.
A newfangled story in a blink and a sigh,
blinkers signaling a right turn,
people staring straight ahead,
headlong into the bright eyes
of a symmetrical world. So begins
the journey across the black and white,
when everyone becomes familiar
and nothing feels strange. Every step
falls into the heartbeats of a million
lonely people, and when the crosswalk ends,
so does another chance encounter
with a supreme stranger that you
never would have otherwise met—
a James, a Taylor, a small life changer,
the old love of a never ending family
meets the new love of a never ending home,
and the city never stops giving.
Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate
Broken Bell Jars
this is a window display
in a bell jar
in an overturned fishbowl
like there's only enough oxygen
for some of us
but Elmer's Glue
kind of soft
kind of soft
that dripping kind of soft
dripping into whatever container
is thrust under us
for everyone to see
this is not a window display
just a window
observe the tension
when we're not constantly holding things together
when we're not constantly filling things up
filling up holes
step right on those cracks
you won't break
you won't break your mother's back
because your mother's back
your mother's mother's back
all of your backs
have already been breaking
bending backwards for way too long
like skyscraper foundations
you're climbing to the sun
unfurl your hair
How you're a monument against the wind
how the wind wishes it had your sway
how you are a windbreaker
a wind chime
winning barefoot races
at the brush of your feet
at the nape of your neck
If we're going to break
let's break like that
let's break wide open
in the middle of intersections
on football game kiss cams
let's break out of these chrysalises
erupting from our stomachs
breaking bell jars
the fish bowl has been shattered on the floor
in the sidewalk
press seeds between the concrete
press wishes that tower
into each others' palms
doesn't expose an absence of yours
doesn't expose an absence of mine
All of this light
is not about to go out against the wind
Because we are monuments against the wind
female monarch butterflies fly thousands of miles
against the wind
This is not a window display
this is a wide open window
let's give them something
to pin down
New York City Youth Poet Laureate
If Gentrification Was a Broom Then...
Yall don't know nothin 'bout a scorned burnt body,
All this witchcraft waiting to be used
You think we won't curse you?
You gonna try to hang a ghost? You think that still works?
We won't forget your name in the afterlife, just how this concrete
won't forget whose blood built it
Gentrification ain't nothing but some no named heifer trying to
still my land
But this dirt ain't nothing but an accumulation of my people's
We be something the rain can't wash out
What's a bulldozer to my Grandmother's memory?
We built the hands you're trying to tear us down with
You think I need a key to get into my own home?
These doors know my face better than your whips ever did
You think just cuz you like "black music" the floorboards won't
These streets will ever forget my name
These streets are drunk off my blood
What your blood taste like?
Do you even know how to bleed?
Why you want something you ain't bleed for?
Even Jesus can tell you that ain't right
Whose hood you rep
What you know about the Bronx?
What you know about 161, Pelham Parkway, GunHill road?
Why you think the street got a weapon in its name?
What you gonna do when bullets start flying?
We ain't got no gates or picket white fences,
Just bodies to hide behind
What you gonna do when your son gets shot,
Or jumped in the back of the BX42 bus?
What you gonna do when your daughter gets catcalled into
Whose bones will you offer
When the police start knocking at your door?
Are you gonna ask your maids to sweep their bodies under
the rug too?
You can't renovate a borough without burying the people already
This be more than your vacation home
This be more than your white-guilt getaway,
More than your Walgreens across the street from the courthouse
Say you wanna clean up our streets
Say you wanna save our children,
They know what to do when the bullets start flying
But what about you?
What you gonna do when the ghost start knocking?
Don't you know you're sharing a bed with someone's tombstone?
You'll wake up one night to my grandmother's spirit praise dancing on all your waxed hardwood floors
and you can't do shit about
We'll haunt you out of house and home
We'll bring the maggots feast on your daughter's freshly
We're sacrifice your wife and bath our bones in her blood
Gentrification be the priest that failed at the exorcism
What will the maids do?
All this sweeping and no rug to put the bodies under
Whose bones are willing to be dusted?
What Skelton is ready to be exterminated?
You can't renovate a borough without burying the people already
Denver Youth Poet Laureate
According to my Upbringing
1. my auntie believed there were words a little girl should never yell
no is too much of a sinkhole, stretches her mouth and fills it
no one wants a girl with more rocks than all the stars inside her
ready to throw
everyone is afraid that if they ask loud enough god will answer and
they will have to listen
little girls have the power to ask and make everyone listen
2. there are ways a little girl should never be able to bend her spine
over something so frail like self-worth
her body so powerful will earthquake all over it
and the world will tell her to become smaller
trade power for smallness that won't scare them
3. little girls can scare the life out of anything
and little girls have been scaring the life out of your boot-stomping
patriarchy since the dawn of time
perhaps this is why we hold them like near-invisible pieces
ready to be dropped and lost at moment's notice
stretched and twisted through the needle's eye to be called useful
naming them fragile, like fragile will make them easier to cut
but with every drop of blood from scraped knee they
they remind us that
the ability to be broken does not quantify fragility
little girls do not break silently
they will crash and make you swallow the glass of their fragments
4. never challenge a girl to a fight you are too sure you will win
you will lose
like fishing boat to mississippi river tide
her mouth is unforgiving despite the smiles
5. little girls know the thunderclap of survival
how to be a lightning storm when provoked
there is nothing scarier than a girl who knows when to push back
the rosebud is nature's most deceptive fist
6. little tomboy girls are not often told they are beautiful but stay
awake at night with a flashlight to tell it to themselves,
they paint their own rose petals red until the world will tell them
but beware of the ones that don't
7. when the bough of girlhood finally breaks and the water comes
rushing in and the fish with their mouths flapping telling
you to now be woman now be the body the world will
simultaneously pray in and desecrate their mouths are just
gasping for air
you are the dam that must withstand it all
8. no one really ever tells you how to mold this whirlwind of nature: thunder and water and earthquake into woman. sometimes little girl is just too stubborn to let her waves settle, so the body keeps growing with a storm inside it
9. sometimes becoming woman starts with digesting the harvest of little girl little ocean little mississippi river tide consuming everything even the thorns and the alligators the catcalls the world praying the broken rosebud fists so tired of fighting when the glass has all been broken becoming woman is letting girl stretch into lightning storm just to make room for everything she must learn to carry.
10. womanhood can be the revenge for girlhood
and ain't nothing scarier than a black body that you can't kill
Oklahoma Youth Poet Laureate
A Tongue Borrowed From Lucifer
I remember our first conversation
about how my tongue can't carry
the heavy words of the family member before me.
I am trying to learn the language that
generations of my family have used,
rolling the Rrrr's with ease.
And though my bones are made of your suffering
(knees and painful joints),
my tongue is American.
my tongue can't speak a language
that I have only just begun to breathe.
Each time I inhale,
English goes in my nose and
this language, too, has tried to suffocate me.
It's the reason I had to go into speech therapy at age five
and say mow lawner-
And I am trying to carefully roll my r's
while saying the words your tongue has known since birth
but mine has only started to accept.
Sometimes I wonder
if I even want to use the words of those before us,
because our family's tongue is full of lies.
Years of ancestry lost out of shame,
and I wish I knew what was more shameful
than our involvement with la Mafia.
Though this family comes from a line of good Catholics,
I am afraid our tongue came from Lucifer,
whispering soft lies in the ears of those around us,
Telling them we are of god and not the devil.
Someone told me
they didn't believe I had a lying bone
and they were right.
I have a lying muscle
(and it lies) in my mouth
and it can't roll r's like my family before me.
(How am I to pass on lies
to those who will follow
if I can't speak the tongue that taught them?)
Our native tongue scares me--
what lies do you hide from those
who never knew the language behind it?
The truth and lies are so blurred together
that none of us can tell the difference anymore.
Each of us pass down the lies to the next generation without
So when my tongue can barely carry
the new words that my mouth has learned,
forgive me if I struggle.
I am just afraid this tool
that helps me speak
will become another tongue borrowed from Lucifer.
Atlanta Youth Poet Laureate
Boys Don't Cry
Today a man stared at me after crying at a funeral
Tears streaming down my fact
I wonder if it was a rare to see a man who knew that
At a young age, whenever I fell off my bike
I was told suck it up, be a man
Taught that the only way to be super is to be a man of steel
That boys will be boys but lacked to mention
That those boys will become young men
Young men who were told who they should be instead of who
Creating a conflict of self-identity
So it's not a mistake that men are the ones who go through
a midlife crisis
This is a crisis
There are days when I go digging for myself in graveyards because I feel buried alive in my emotions
But I am told to keep my feelings in the grave because a man must
A man must not show any signs of weakness
A man must stand tall even at the times he feels short
Women are not only ones who wear makeup in the morning
But I woke up like this
My flaws are the only things that remind me that I am nothing
less than a man
That I am nothing less than at all
There are men out there who are failing under the pressure of
pretending to be perfect
Men who find pills because they do more than the prayers ever did
Eventually the pills become a pistol and bang that's how the story
In the United States, men are 4 times as likely to commit suicide
But those men are dead long before they decide to pull the trigger
So men ask yourselves
Will you ever stand behind metal bars for the murder of your
How much of yourself have you buried six feet under within the
depths of your insecurities?
Did you have enough courage to write the obituary?
What about the eulogy?
Teach me that being sensitive does not equate to being feminine
Teach me that who I am will not be thrift shopped to society
Teach me that it's okay to lose myself
Teach me to find myself
When you are little, they will always tell you about the boy who
But you will never hear the story about the boy who cried for help
Maybe because no one cared to listen to him
Maybe because his pride and dignity drowned out his screams.
Maybe because they thought his scars were from falling off of
bikes but they were from falling off of mountains
Sometimes when you have the weight of the world on your back
You forget that you are living in it
That your heart is still beating
That there are vibrations in your pulse
Oxygen in your lungs
That you have emotions
That you are human not a God.
But even God cries sometimes.
His tears are often mistaken for the rain.
Your tears are often locked up in chains.
Let them free.
Let them flow like a waterfall because you may not see them again
until next spring or four summers.
Sounds a lot like Fort Sumter
There is a civil war going on in our men these days
And we've neglected to count the casualties.
Instead we call them survivors knowing damn well that parts of
them are no longer living.
Parts of me are no longer living.
Last week, a man stared to me at a funeral
For the rivers flowing down my face
I should've told him that I had already cried for his death too
Seattle Youth Poet Laureate
For Black Boys
Delicate Black boy. Solider, plum painted spirit, deep rooted, dreamer. I can tell from the oceans on your bed that you've never been told you were beautiful. Mother didn't remind you of rainbows in her malleable insides. She soaked you in songs but never self-love, never explaining the pink hue of your lips or the mole that marked your spine, you later saw mirrors. And didn't memorize the letters of beauty so you couldn't recite them, you didn't know you're magic.
That love making on a Sunday was your conception and no one could dismiss that you had a shine oozing from your collarbone when you were born at 6am. You glow in the dark, you are a poem, boys can be roses, boys have hearts, they need love. You have amputated your stomach for relief from the world, relief from what they feed you. That Black boys don't need love only bullets, that they'll find warmth in a barrel before they can bear a reflection, they lie to you.
Black boys bleed every month. They are left with miles of blood clot, the hymns of their brothers, they leak the blood of the murdered, the red liquid that drowns concrete, drowns tomorrow, drowns the pigment of their skin, you are a Black boy that sheds.
Finding yourself in these science experiments with your flesh, not trying to be heartless, not wanting to be in pain any longer, wanting to be told you are flawless, you are a work of art,
standing in the light so it can reveal the shades of magic, your blood, the shades of Black boy beautiful that paint the world, but you were never told, that you are acrylic and you unique, something that takes time to love, something that takes time to believe in, your mother should of whispered in her pregnancy to you,
She should have put you to bed with the words that hold off revolutions, beauty would stop the war, women are not the only ones that need to know their value, boys are human, these TV's and politics won't deny them of hearts they love, no matter what.
Delicate Black boy, you bleed every month. Your ribs leak the sea of last night's massacre, the next night your legs will drip and stain like an unattended Sharpie, you will crust at the edges of your hips, tattoo at the angles of your chin with those stories, you go through pain too, you do not birth humans, but you birth the world every single day you wake up, I tell you,
In a place that will never understand you are amazing, in a place that will put fire to you then say you are callous, they will burn you then say you are reckless, some mothers won't tell you because they think it is feminine and they want you to prepare for a battlefield your whole life but I tell you, you are beautiful, you are grand, you are too permanent to be unloved.
You will heal this place when it is full of scabs, full of scars, full of stitches, you will be the one to erase the pain. Beauty is a tongue you will learn to speak. Pass this to the young brother on the corner, who's been told his body is a mixture of oil and water, pass it to every brother, delicate Black boys, soldiers, beauty is a tongue you will learn to speak.
Raven Bland, Norfolk Youth Poet Laureate
Lady in the Curtains:
Hallucination in the Jewish Square of Poland
I glanced at a curtained window
Thin blue sheets
I imagined an aging analogy
With flowers and butterflies
Attached to thread
I seen a small grey haired head.
Ages were gray
Hair was gray
Skin was pale
Bones as thin as a nail.
I seen her bones grow
Seen her skin fatten
I seen her grin towards me
But nothing happened
I stood still,
She glanced right, glanced left.
As she was looking for something.
After a single grin, her lips faded thin,
What was she looking for,
Why was she still here?
Doesn't she know the attitudes
The hate, the disbelief
They consciously think: God choose you not me.
See, they're jealous, get out of here, flee.
Go to the place God created you to be.
I stare into her eyes, she's speaking to me:
This is my home, I created it to be.
They have robbed me of enough,
They won't take all of me.
She glanced left, glanced right
With her head out her curtained window.
I seen her head then fade in between.
Derick Ebert, Baltimore Youth Poet Laureate
My father says to me
why are you into poetry,
why not be into something
something that will bring in the money
and then the honeys
have an interest
looking for something that may
or may not exist
while you slave in the hot sun -
does that not sound fun?
My father is white
and I want to give him a look
that makes him question
whether he should have used slave
and hot sun
in the same sentence to his bi-racial child.
But instead I fold my mouth into a smile and tell him
"I am an archaeologist, I just never leave my room"
See, in there I find bits and pieces of things that match what I am
Dad poetry is where I unearthed remains of myself that you never
bothered looking for.
An even though I come from you, it is like we speak two different
your love seems encrypted.
No wonder my hieroglyphics smiles
tells stories that get mistranslated
I have been drinking from the lips of denial.
there are days
When I don't know who you are
When I feel more comfortable
between fours walls because they have been there
for the duration of my life
from the time I was being conceived, to birth, to even this moment.
I guess you could say, they spend more time with me than you do.
Is a father figure fact, fiction, or forgettable
An answer alliterated and avoided
Dad you taught me well
with never saying how I feel
"I am proud of you" is something I am learning how to say more
and on my own.
Because I have never seen your lips attempt to teach me.
"here son, this is a bat, it hits the ball"
"here son, this is a pen, and it can change who you are"
Ask any male
they have had a
heart to heart with their father,
listen for the saliva being swallowed
to make up for the silence in their answer.
We are taught that sensitivity is our worst nightmare.
That the moment you crack open and spill raw fluids.
Is the moment you become disposable
that there is no kleenex
in the world
to dry the tears of masculinity
When really you are the masked enemy.
and I can relate.
in this chamber of secrets,
we grab our pens, our cigarettes, our bottles,
whatever kills us
say that I am fine with who I am
when I'm not allowed to express who I want to be
because you view sensitivity
as a synonym for femininity
How many more boys in America will research how to tie a noose
before getting their own collection of ties?
just want to be fine with being who I am.
With telling my brothers I love them
and mean it.
With saying to my Dad
I hide the pain sometimes
and having him embrace me
and mean it.
I don't want to hear suck it up anymore
when there is no more beer left in the can
and it has been my fifth one
in less than an hour
and I'm only 19.
Going numb is the only way I have learned to deal
If it takes a poem to say
I enjoy feelings
no matter how cliche
then so be it –
as long as I can believe it.
I know you've always had dreams
of becoming an archeologist/cop/forest ranger.
Thank you for letting me believe that I can be anything in the world
I think it is time
I became more of myself.
When I wrote this
I found another missing piece,
covered in what felt like shame –
it was acceptance.
Something I have been looking for
for a long time.
I'm not going to pretend to be a poet.
I told you,
I'm an archaeologist.
I'm just trying to find the pieces
that'll make me feel whole.