National Student Poet Michaela Coplen, age 18, was a featured presenter at the 2014 Academy of American Poets 12th Annual Poetry & Creative Mind Gala at Lincoln Center in New York City, held April 24 during National Poetry Month. Catching up with her after that appearance and end-of-school-year tests, I asked Michaela to talk about her involvement in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards contest, her activities as a “poetry ambassador” in 2013-2014, and, in particular, her NSP-required community service project.
Michaela Coplen counts herself “extraordinarily lucky that my school district has been a huge supporter” of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She credits her middle school English teacher, who “required everyone in our class [to] prepare a submission,” for getting her involved. “I’ve made a habit of submitting something every year since.”
On learning that she had been selected for the National Student Poets Program, Michaela confides that her first thought was, “‘This is awkward. They obviously have the wrong person.’ I couldn’t believe it!” Repeatedly assured she’d been chosen, she became “ecstatic. Nervous, but ecstatic.” Recalling attending a reading by Luisa Blanchoff, a 2012 National Student Poet, Michaela remembers thinking she’d never be able “to write like that” but went home “determined to improve, to write even more, even better, poetry. To know that I would become a part of the same program that had inspired me, to be able to inspire others . . . it was a gift,” Michaela exclaims.
As an “ambassador” for the literary arts, Michaela has visited a women’s correctional facility, presented at Vermont State House in Montpelier, and read with Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea. “I have met so many fantastic literary figures—some of my personal heroes: Mary Jo Bang, Juan Felipe Herrera, Edward Hirsch, Andrea Gibson, Natasha Trethewey, Jillian Weise, to name a few.” What is Michaela’s perspective on these interactions? “I think my overall take-away . . . has been that poets, no matter how famous, are still people. They are people who love to share experiences, work, and advice, and are always eager to spread their love of the form. Don’t be afraid to talk to them!”
Her greatest challenge, Michaela says, has been school. “Honestly, the hardest part has been balancing school work and my work for the National Student Poets Program. It was particularly difficult this year, as I had to add in applying to and auditioning for colleges.” Yet, Michaela’s enthusiasm for “so many extraordinary yet different experiences” is unwavering. She’s especially grateful, she says, “to have been able to teach all the students . . . It has opened my eyes to a form of service that I find so engaging and rewarding. Sharing my love of poetry with so many budding poets has really been a blessing.”
For her project, Michaela partnered with Carlisle Barracks Community, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to present two six-week workshops for military children, teens, and family members that concluded with a community reading and publication. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted to bring poetry to the military community,” Michaela explains, noting that “growing up in a military family is difficult . . . I experienced a lot of the loneliness, paranoia, and separation anxiety that accompany having two parents on active-duty. I wish that I had been as aware of poetry then as I am now; I’m sure it would’ve helped to alleviate, or at least neutralize, some of that burden.” She conceived of her project “to give local military children at Child & Youth Services of Carlisle Barracks what I wish I’d had: an education in how to draw inspiration from their own unique experiences and express themselves in a safe, creative outlet.”
I asked Michaela what those in her workshops learned from her about poetry. “First,” she replied, “poetry isn’t always polite. It can be a bit gritty, or a complete mess, and there’s no such thing as a bad word. Second, [attendees] already have enough within them to write books of poetry . . . I stressed to them over and over that anyone can be a poet but no one can be the same poet as you.”
She adds that one of her goals has been “to spread appreciation of poetry at all levels . . . I want to encourage people to make poetry a part of their daily lives, whether [by] reading, writing, or listening to one poem a day.” If there is any myth about poetry, she says, it’s that poets write “in a code that the reader must be smart enough to decipher.” It is “absolutely not” the case, she maintains, that poetry is “distant, elitist, and inaccessible.”
Currently considering a career in theatre performance and production, Michaela is doubtful she “could ever stop [her] love affair with poetry. I’ll always be writing and reading poetry,” she insists, explaining, “Reading poetry helps us see from the perspective of . . . another fellow human. Poetry is a booster shot of empathy. Poetry can show us the past, point us to the future, and remind us in the huge world of the present that we’re really not all that alone.”
Read Part 1 of Maureen’s interview with
National Student Poet Michaela Coplen, Connecting with Poetry
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