Alyssa Gaines, an 18-year-old from Indianapolis, was named the 2022 National Youth Poet Laureate May 20, a program of Urban Word.
The moment Gaines was announced as the winner was both exciting and surprising, she told IndyStar.
“I just felt so much respect for the other finalists and so grateful to be in this position,” she said.
The National Youth Poet Laureate title was first held by Amanda Gorman in 2017. Gaines is the sixth poet to hold the title.
More about Gaines:Indianapolis native, National Youth Poet Laureate finalist builds bridges through poetry
Gaines recently graduated from Park Tudor School and was the inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of Indianapolis, sponsored by VOICES Corp, in 2019.She represented the Midwest as a national finalist.
The regional winners and national finalists, besides Gaines, were Jessica Kim of Los Angeles, Isabella Ramirez of South Florida, and Elizabeth Shvarts of Staten Island, New York City.
“These poets represent the highest caliber of literary excellence while still committing their personal mission to civic engagement, community change and social impact,” Michael Cirelli, National Youth Poet Laureate founder, said in a press release. “Their poetic work is stunning, while their vision for change inspires hope. These are the changemakers that our country needs.”
Judges celebrated Gaines’ ‘fierce, wide-ranging’ poetry
Poet and judge Cathy Linh Che wrote in her remarks that Gaines’ work is “fierce, wide ranging, funny, and hopeful, bearing witness to the many complexities of growing up in East Indianapolis, in a household that is many-tongued, brimming with beauty and grief,” according to the press release.
Another poet and judge, Bob Holman, wrote: “From the center of the country comes the centered, fierce poetry of Alyssa Gaines.”
This comment in particular meant a lot to Gaines.
“Reading that was very, very exciting for me, because I do want to honor my hometown and the people that have showed me so much and poured so much into me,” Gaines said.
Lauren Hall Riggins, director of Youth Poet Laureate for VOICES Corp. in Indianapolis, has worked with Gaines since she started writing poetry as a third grader.
“This well-deserved accolade is a win for Alyssa and for every Indiana youth, each of whom’s experiences, expertise, and dreams can, and should be, the north star for how we heal, hope and vitalize our path to a thriving Hoosier state for all,” Hall Riggins said in a press release from VOICES.
In her new role, Gaines will be the youth poetry ambassador for the entire country.
“When they need a young poet, she will be one of the first selected to speak in both literary and civic contexts,” Camea Davis, national director of the National Youth Poet Laureate program, said.
Gaines will also commit to a platform issue, which she will focus on and develop throughout the year, as well as leading a civic project.
“I’m excited about, in the broader sense, having the ability and platform to use my poetry and my art to influence and inform my civic engagement,” she said.
She’ll engage with local-level youth poet laureates from around the country, speak at conferences and workshops and develop her craft as an artist and professional.
Gaines is particularly excited about doing work related to fine arts accessibility. But perhaps first and foremost, she’ll serve as a voice for young poets everywhere in this role.
“We do highlight one young person knowing that they represent many other’s voices,” Davis said.
‘Doing the work’ through poems and activism
Gaines went from winning the national title on Friday to graduating from high school Sunday morning.
She’s planning to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison next year, participating in a scholarship program that will allow her to focus on art, activism and professional development. Most immediately, she’s excited to be in the Indy 500 parade on Saturday.
But going forward, newly in the national spotlight, Gaines will continue writing about issues she cares about, in the way that only she can.
“Something that I’ve always talked about is communal healing, communal grief and this gun violence,” she said. “For me, it’s always been something very relevant, and I think the conversation is cycling and cycling and coming back up on the national level.”
For those just hearing Gaines’ name or work, she hopes people will pick up on her passion and dedication. She’s not “writing these poems and then stepping away from them.”
“I’ve been passionate about my poetry, and I’m doing the work both on the page and in my community,” she said.
Contact IndyStar trending reporter Claire Rafford at email@example.com or on Twitter @clairerafford.