“Poetry helps root us to our humanity, ” believes 2013-2014 National Student Poet Louis Lafair, whose year-long service as “ambassador to poetry” concluded this September with the appointment of a new class of five poets. Unimpeded by ads, social media feeds, and conversations in text, we can use poetry to “pause and reflect, ” Louis, says, adding that poetry is becoming “more crucial” the more wired we become to technology.
In an interview conducted via e-mail, Louis, from Austin, Texas, spoke with me about his early introduction to poetry, his favorite poets and why he reads them, and what he discovers in poetry.
Noting that he has been “playing with words” since “forever, ” Lafair, now a freshman at Stanford University, credits a third-grade teacher’s instruction in palindromes as one of his most attention-riveting experiences with language. He was so taken with words or phrases that are spelled and read the same way forward and backward that he “proceeded, over the course of a year, to create a list of hundreds of palindromes.”
Louis also cites his exposure to modern and contemporary poets, the availability of videos of spoken-word performances, and a summer program with “an extraordinary teacher” as instrumental in fostering and encouraging poetry reading and writing. The teacher, Michael Sofranko, was “the first person who helped me see poetry as the most elegant way of playing with language and [condensing] human experience to its essence, ” Louis says.
Louis’s attitude toward poetry was not always so positive. He told one interviewer that he “originally thought of poetry as a foreign, incomprehensible medium with complicated structures and confusing language.” Eventually, he began to realize that he didn’t have to be constrained by or “conform to any single style” of poetry and so, he happily noted to a different interviewer, “Everything I do and see [now], I look through a poetic lens almost.”
Poets Billy Collins, who “taught me that poetry does not need to tackle big or historic or distant subject matter” to “still be profound”, Sarah Kay, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Jericho Brown are among Louis’s favorite poets. Louis adds that he is “a huge fan” of Robert Frost and remembers memorizing in sixth grade Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Asked what impels him to read these particular poets, Louis continues, “I love how each of these poets plays with language, how they manage to capture their surroundings through unique lenses, how they cause you to rethink everyday topics, how their words make you pause.”
I asked Louis what he thinks makes a poem accessible. In addition to “the length, the rhythm, the phonetics, the ability to relate to its content, ” Louis responded, “More than anything, a poem is accessible when it puts into words a common experience—something that the reader has always known but never been able to voice, something that makes the reader think, ‘I’m not the only one!’”
Louis advises anyone who wants to cultivate an appreciation for poetry to “[e]xperience as many different poems in as many different forms as possible. Read poems, watch poems on YouTube, attend a poetry slam. No single poem will speak to everyone but at least one poem will speak to each individual.”
If allowed just six words to describe his own poetry, Louis says he would describe his work as “playful, metafictional musings; reflections of ourselves.”
Join me next week for Part 2 of my interview with Louis Lafair, who addresses my questions about his experiences as a National Student Poet and his entrepreneurial poetry-related activities, which include the launch of his Website Poetry2Point.0.
An initiative of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the National Student Poets Program is the highest honor accorded poets in grades 9-11. Annually, five students are selected from different geographic regions of America to serve one year as “literary ambassadors”. The youth poets are chosen from a pool of National Medalists in Poetry through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards competition.