Until he submitted work to Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, 2013-2014 National Student Poet Louis Lafair says he mostly “kept my poetry to myself, and hadn’t submitted to other contests.” When a teacher told him about the Scholastic competition, he decided it “sounded like a fantastic opportunity to share some of my work.”
Not only did Louis’s submission produce a national medal for the poetry he submitted; it also earned him recognition as a National Student Poet representing the southwest region of the United States. When news of the award arrived, Louis says, “I thought it was a simple rejection notification, thanking me for submitting. After opening the package, I sat for some time in a mixed state of excitement and disbelief. And then I called my twin sister to share the news.”
Describing the region he represented as “vibrant with poetry, ” Louis cites as highlights of his year of service the opportunity to meet Dean Young, Texas’s 2014 state poet; Jan Seale, the state’s 2012 Poet Laureate; and Alberto Rios, Arizona’s inaugural Poet Laureate. Of these poets, Louis says, “Each brings so much life and energy—and unique style —to the art form. [All] write of landscapes or people, of memories. They aren’t afraid to tackle big questions or paint simple pictures. . . they manage to capture beautifully what it means to be human, what connects us across the southwest region, the country, and the globe.”
Austin, Louis points out, “is a spectacular poetry hub, with a weekly slam event at Spider House, a host of talented local poets, and countless visits from national poets.” Among the latter: Billy Collins, who, Louis continues, braved a snowstorm to share “the magic of poetry [with] thousands sitting in a theatre on a frozen night” in January.
In addition to meeting renowned poets, including Naomi Shihab Nye, with whom he read, Louis met First Lady Michelle Obama, made presentations at the National Book Festival, Texas Council for Teachers of English and Language Arts, SXSWedu, and Aspen IDEAS Festival, and conducted a poetry workshop with Rios. “I loved all of the events and activities; each contributed to my growth as a poet and my role as ambassador [of poetry], ” Louis remarks, continuing, “It’s impossible to choose one” as being “the most meaningful.” However, Louis describes his experience in Aspen, his last national event, “the perfect conclusion to the year. We participated in a series of seminars, reading texts by Adichie, King, Plato, Aristotle, and others, and discussing what it means to be a human. . . a poet, and . . . a leader in society.”
Louis, who planned the first TEDxYouth@Austin in 2012, also was involved in TEDxAustin events in both 2013 and 2014 and interned one summer at Rap Genius. All his experiences, Louis says, reinforced what it means to work with a team. “[T]he magic of the experience stems not only from the event itself but from. . . the people with whom we get to spend so much time planning.”
As is required of all National Student Poets, Louis completed a community service project, working with middle-school students “who will be the first in their families to attend college.” He also organized a Webinar, “Educator Innovator” with the National Writing Project, which involved Jeremy Dean of Genius, Elisa New, a Harvard University professor, and Sarah Kay, founder of Project VOICE. The date of the Webinar coincided with the launch of Louis’s own poetry Website, Poetry2Point0, which he describes as a “resource for teachers and poetry enthusiasts.”
Louis’s Website has the tagline “New Ways to Experience Poetry in the 21st Century.” So what distinguishes Louis’s site from others or makes it an expressly 21st Century site? Louis answers my question by citing advances in technology, which allow him to compile in one place “all the wonderful content that already exists” and to provide links to all kinds of poetry or poetry-related social media sites, learning platforms, or teaching resources. His objective for the site is “to give people a greater opportunity to play with language, to experience poetry in new ways, ” which might involve using videos, video animations, QR codes, or other technologies. Louis adds he uses notes on his iPhone to record images and phrases that might find their way into his poetry.
I asked Louis, who began studies at Stanford University this fall, whether he sees poetry in his future. He responds that although his interests cover “a wide range of fields, from computer science to medicine to English, ” he sees poetry as something he’ll “always be able to turn to. . . as a means of reflection, a way of contemplating my place in the world.” What’s “key, ” he says, “is simply to capture those thoughts [and] record. . . [my] stories and reflections.”
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.
Interview with National Student Poet Louis Lafair, Part 1