For young poets today, there is no dearth of programs across the United States that aim to engage them in the art form and encourage them to use poetry as a means of expression, education, and civic participation. Perhaps foremost among those programs are two national initiatives: the National Youth Poet Laureate and the National Student Poet programs.
The National Youth Poet Laureate initiative was founded by Urban Word, an organization that provides free literary arts education and youth development programs in creative writing, spoken word poetry, playwriting, college prep, literature, and hip-hop. In 2008, Urban Word launched the nation’s first-ever Youth Poet Laureate program, in New York City, followed by the Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate program in 2014. Since then, Urban Word has launched Youth Poet Laureate programs in thirty-five additional cities across the country. In 2017, Urban Word and Youth Speaks teamed up with the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities to create the National Youth Spoken Word Ambassador program, the first government recognition program for young spoken word poets. The five spoken word ambassadors were chosen from a pool of youth poet laureates across the country based on their writing skills and their commitment to social justice and civic engagement; they were all finalists in the considerations for a national youth poet laureate.
In April of 2017, Amanda Gorman was named as the first ever National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States of America. In April of 2018, Patricia Frazier was named the second National Youth Poet Laureate. In 2019, Kara Jackson was named the third National Youth Poet Laureate. The fourth and 2020 National Youth Poet Laureate is Meera Dasgupta. The fifth and 2021 National Youth Poet Laureate is Alexandra Huynh.
Alexandra Huynh was named the 2021 National Youth Poet Laureate.
Alexandra is the 18-year-old 2020 United States Youth Poet Laureate from Sacramento, CA. She is one of Sacramento’s 2020 Youth Poet Laureates and is the 2021 National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States. As a second-generation individual, Alexandra employs poetry as a tool of self-reclamation and social justice for marginalized communities. This fall, she will be a freshman at Stanford University where she aims to combine her passions for creative writing, science, and civic engagement.
The National Student Poets program, presented by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, is the country’s highest honor for youth poets presenting their original work. Each year five exemplary high school poets are selected from among the national medalists in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards by a jury of literary leaders in education and the arts. These students then embark on a year of service as national youth poetry ambassadors.
The current Class of National Student Poets are RC Davis (Oak Park, Illinois), Aanika Eragram (Milton, GA), Kevin Gu (Hopkinton, MA), Kechi Mbah (Houston, TX), and Sarah Fathima Mohammed (San Jose, CA). Read more about the National Student Poets below.
RC Davis is a rising senior and poet from Oak Park, Illinois. He began writing poetry seriously his freshman year when he joined his high school’s spoken word club and is a two-time competitor in the Chicago spoken word competition Louder Than a Bomb. His poems frequently wrestle with questions of gender and family and the strangeness of being a human with a brain and body. He is a winner of a 2019 Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Award and has been published in Driftwood, Blue Marble Review, and 3Elements Review. RC is an apprentice editor for BreakBread Literary Magazine, which focuses on the publication of writers under 25. He owes his poetic successes to the encouragement he has received from his slam team and his teachers.
Aanika Eragam is a senior at Milton High School in Milton, GA. Through her mother’s bedtime tales of South Indian mythology, Aanika was first exposed to the power of storytelling to connect her to her cultural heritage, unlock foreign perspectives, and help her explore history. Since then, she’s written poetry and creative nonfiction about culture, family, girlhood, and body image. She believes strongly in the power of words to bond and heal. Aanika edits for her high school’s literary magazine The Globe and serves as the 2021 Atlanta Youth Poet Laureate. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would be of the line “There are enough ballrooms in you” from Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie’s poem “On This the 100th Anniversary of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart.” In her spare time, Aanika enjoys long walks outdoors, baking scones, and spending time with those she loves.
Kevin Gu is 17 years old, attends Hopkinton High School, and, some might say, is a pretty normal guy. Aside from his involvement as editor-in-chief for HHS Press and being a self-proclaimed virtuoso pianist, all he really likes to do is hunt for boba shops and sing Chinese folk songs after writing. He finds that, as a Chinese-American, his heritage makes up a large part of his identity. As a result, much of his poetry explores childhood experiences and cultural history, whether that’s his own or that of others. More often than not, he falls down the rabbit hole of different historical events and discovers how certain motifs of memory, selfhood, and acceptance are reflected in his own roots. Ultimately, he hopes to create literature until every story confined within his body is released. Kevin was a participant in the 2019 Grubstreet Teen Writing Fellowship and his work can be found in Rattle and The National Poetry Quarterly, as well as on the back of assigned math worksheets (arguably his best writing to date).
Kechi Mbah is a rising senior at Carnegie Vanguard High School and a Houston native. She founded her school’s poetry club in late 2019 and serves as an editor for her school’s award-winning literary magazine, The Courtyard. She first found a love for poetry when she stumbled upon a YouTube video of a Brave New Voices slam competition in the fall of 2019 and has been performing and writing poetry ever since. Her poetry explores many avenues from making the known strange to chronicling her experiences as a Nigerian-American and the histories of her people. She is also passionate about strengthening her community and serves on the activism and community outreach committee of her school’s Black Student Union and has interned with NASA to help address problems within the food supply chain. She advanced to the semifinals of the 2020 Space City Slam (Houston’s largest teen slam competition) before it was canceled due to Covid-19, and her work can be found (or is forthcoming) in Blue Marble Review, The Incandescent Review, elementia, and elsewhere.
Sarah Fathima Mohammed is a first-generation Muslim-American and a rising junior at Harker Upper School. Poetry has become a world where she can speak freely, holding her voice in her hands while excavating the histories of the women in her family. She writes poetry sourced in grief, faith, and longing because, for her people, these emotions are inherited. When she travels back to her hometown—a small fishing village in Kumbakonam, India—Sarah sits in circles with girls at the mosque, introducing them to poetry. Together, they read and reread Safia Elhillo and Fatimah Asghar’s lovely anthology of Muslim voices, Halal If You Hear Me. She hopes to share with fellow immigrant women from conservative cultures how storytelling can be activism and how poetry can turn “otherness” into power. When she is not writing, Sarah loves long morning walks with her family and listening to music by Yuna.