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.
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.”
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