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National Student Poet: Michaela Coplen (Part I): Connecting with Poetry

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national student poet michaela coplen

A self-described actor, farm girl, Mexicana-Americana, and “life-long Army brat” who has fallen in love with poetry, 18-year-old Michaela Coplen of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is one of five American high school students selected for the 2013 National Student Poets Program, an initiative of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Appointed at the Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., last September during a special ceremony at the White House, Michaela and her peers comprised 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 that included poets Richard Blanco and Terrance Hayes. Each received a $5,000 college scholarship and the opportunity to serve for one year as a national “poetry ambassador.”

Michaela Coplen kindly took time after end-of-year tests to talk with me about the program and her interests in poetry. Today, in Part 1, Michaela talks about her early reading, study, and writing of poetry; next week, in Part 2, she discusses her year as a National Student Poet.

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Although she cannot recall when she first started writing poetry, Michaela says she owes her first experience of hearing poetry to her mother. “She used to read me these long, epic poems—our favorites being Alfred Noyse’s “The Highwayman” and Robert Services’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee”—instead of bedtime stories. I fell asleep to the lullaby of their respective rhythms and dreamt of the images they evoked.”

Later, as a student, Michaela remembers “being incredibly struck” by Marilyn Nelson’’s “How I Discovered Poetry.” “I found it so remarkable that this poet I didn’t know and had never heard of shared an experience with poetry so similar to mine,” Michaela says. “It was my first, most memorable encounter with poetry’s ability to connect the reader to the poet across all boundaries.”

In addition to reading poetry aloud, Michaela notes that her mother “even made tapes of her reading so that my sister and I could hear her voice while she was deployed. [S]he got this idea because her father (my grandfather) did the same for her during his deployments. I think his mother used to read poetry to him as well.” A love of and respect for poetry “have been in the family for a while, though not necessarily the practice of creating original poetry.”

One of Michaela’s favorite contemporary poets is Mary Jo Bang. “I love how multi-dimensional her work is,” Michaela explains, adding that it has such “depth of emotion” that she’s been moved to read Bang’s poems again and again, experiencing something new each time.

An admirer of traditional poetry forms (sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, etc.), Michaela is quick to admit, “I’ve yet to have much success with them” beyond memorizing and declaiming sonnets for a Shakespeare class. “I’m in love with [Shakespeare’s] use of the sonnet and how [the form] combines the rigidity of structure with the fluidity of emotion.”

While she claims not to be “yet brave enough” to perform at spoken word events, Michaela says she does try to read aloud her work at local coffeehouses. She also has a habit of “accidentally memorizing” favorite poems (she cites Mary Jo Bang’s), “simply by rereading them and speaking them aloud to myself to puzzle out the language. I’m a strong believer that poetry should be read and appreciated aloud.”

Asked about the subjects of her own poems, Michaela cites “my experiences as an Army brat…growing up, I noticed that the voice of the military family in literature and art was conspicuously absent. I guess I’ve always wanted to help fill that void.” In addition, she draws on her knowledge of and interests in mythology and philosophy, scientific principles and linguistic idiosyncrasies. “I like to experiment with a lot of different themes.”

Michaela’s extracurricular activities include editing a literary publication, Young Adult Writers and Poets. That experience, she tells me, “has taught me how important it is to be clear and concise…[R]eading on a deadline with piles of submissions on my desk, I know that the pieces I feel most confident about accepting…are those which engage me from the start and leave me with a distinct impression.”

When asked what she’d say to convince someone to read her poetry, Michaela replies, “I’m not for everyone. But I just might be for you.”

Read poems by Michaela Coplen
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Photo by ALWButler, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Maureen Doallas, author of Neruda’s Memoirs: Poems.

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16 Comments so far

  1. L. L. Barkat says:

    Loved seeing “The HIghwayman” here.

    Like you, Michaela, my daughter accidentally memorizes poetry. The Highwayman is one poem she has almost completely in memory, she loves it so. I should introduce her to Mary Jo.

  2. Donna says:

    I am always so impressed when someone of any age knows exactly who they are and why they do what they do, but especially so when it is someone so young. Intentionality always impresses me and that, among other things, stands out with this young poet. Michaela says “the voice of the military family in literature and art was conspicuously absent. I guess I’ve always wanted to help fill that void.”

    Wonderful to read about the historical thread that Michaela has identified – how the tradition of reading/reciting poetry aloud has been passed from one generation to the next. Such a feeling of connectedness – to poetry, to rhythm, and to family. I’m looking forward to reading part 2!

    • Thank you, Donna. Michaela is a poised and articulate person. I, too, was impressed with her achievements to date and her clearsightedness. All the NSPs represent themselves well and it’s easy to understand why they were selected to be national literary spokespersons.

  3. LW Lindquist says:

    Had the pleasure of hearing Michaela read her poem, ‘Deployment,’ at the Poetry and the Creative Mind event, and really pleased to see her interview here. Looking forward to Part 2 next week. :)

    I love the idea that her mother recorded her voice for the times she was deployed. The sound of a loved one’s voice can be very comforting, even when people can’t be together in a room. And that what she recorded was poems? Double bonus. ;-)

  4. Maureen, love your interview. Michaela sounds like an extraordinary young lady. I am so moved by her passion for poetry and the story of how she arrived at a place of deep love for the language of the poet.

    What a wise soul. My favorite line is the final line of the interview in which she says my poetry might just be for you. I look forward to finding that out soon. I am eager to read some of her art. Her boldness and strength shine through.

    Last night I attended my daughter’s senior awards ceremony at the school. Many accolades and awards were given, as well as scholarships. I hope that one day I can set up a scholarship for young poets. I wish I had deep deep pockets for I would gift Tania Runyan’s book to each of the Seniors in my daughters class with a note expressing my desire for them to uncover and discover the poetry in their lives as they make their way out into the world. Poetry is a healing balm. A gift to be unwrapped.

    This interview is also gift. Thank you for the introduction to this exceptional young poet.

    • I was also taken by that same line, Elizabeth; and it provided the perfect line to end this first part of the interview. She gave a lot of careful attention to her answers and was delightfully forthcoming.

      Thank you so much for your generous words. I think Michaela will go far in life.

  5. That Michaela is only 18 and so steeped in poetry and able to articulate so clearly fascinates me–especially when I consider where I was at 18. I love how she’s identified a need to give voice to military families in verse. Thank you for introducing me to Marilyn Nelson and for the encouragement to start regularly reading poetry to my grandgirls. I hope it’s not too late to break down some Minecraft walls with new words.

  6. Wonderful interview, Maureen. I am always in awe of those who discover their calling in the early years of their life. To know know about poetry early on is one thing, but to be a poet at 18 is amazing to me. I look forward to hearing more about Michaela and her poetry.


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