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‘Poetry is the best way to view the world:’ Milwaukee’s first youth poet laureate reflects on her time

Lidia Sharapova
Woodland Pattern Book Center
Emily Igwike, a senior at the University School of Milwaukee, was selected as the youth poet laureate by Woodland Pattern Book Center’s competitive program last year.

Milwaukee’s first-ever youth poet laureate is wrapping up the last few months of her one-year term.

Emily Igwike, a senior at the University School of Milwaukee, was selected as the youth poet laureate by Woodland Pattern Book Center’s competitive program last year. During her time as youth poet laureate, Igwike says she’s helped guide other young people in poetry camps and writing workshops.

Milwaukee County high school sophomores and juniors have until March 24 to apply to be the next youth poet laureate. Judges will pick finalists by April and finalists will then perform at a judged event in May.

Lake Effect’s Xcaret Nuñez spoke with Igwike about what inspired her love of poetry and her experience as youth poet laureate.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Where do your love for creative writing and passion for poetry stem from?

I think that my first exposure to poetry was actually through religion. So going to church, a lot of times, you'll hear these things called psalms, and they're usually used in a responsorial way where somebody, a cantor, is leading the church. And there are these beautiful verses that, a lot of times, are really effective at expressing beautiful types of emotions like anger, betrayal, isolation, love, praise, etc. Those were my first exposure to poetry because I always thought the psalms were so beautifully written.

Throughout my childhood, I've always loved reading, especially reading different types of books. My mom always encouraged us to read different types of books. So, I really wanted to emulate the writers that I was reading; I really wanted to be a good creative writer since I was little. So that's kind of my love for creative writing. But for poetry, specifically, it was through those psalms, which I always thought were so beautiful.

I've read a couple of your poems, and the words you use are really beautiful and vivid. The way you describe your experiences really paints an image in my mind. What do you love most about poetry that keeps you connected to it?

Poetry is the best way to view the world, specifically through the lens of mirrors and windows. [My English teacher] taught us that poetry is a way to not only find yourself in a poem, like in a mirror, so you can see somebody else describing your own experiences, your feelings, your emotions, or even sometimes your own memories. [But] it can also act as a window into somebody else's life, emotions, experiences, or ways of moving through the world.

It's so cool how you can do all of that in such little words because you can articulate yourself in so many different ways. Poetry allows you to be really strategic and you can pay attention to language, how you put words on a page, putting punctuation or not putting punctuation. So not only can you create meaning with the words that you use, but then also how you use them.

Also, [poetry] has an infinite number of possibilities. You could write a poem; it could change over time the way you present it, and it can change its meaning in a completely different way. And then, obviously, you can always play with how you capture emotions or memories. So, the words you use and being able to capture certain sensations in poetry and words are always so cool to me.

Why did you decide to apply to the program last year? 

My junior-year English teacher thought it was an excellent opportunity for me to try out, and I thought it was a really cool opportunity, too. Reading the application seemed a little intimidating at first, but it would be a 0% chance if I didn't apply. So I started getting help from my mentor and English teacher, Ms. Ihrke.

I really liked how the youth poet laureate program emphasized civic leadership and this idea of not only writing new poetry but engaging with the Milwaukee community, especially the Milwaukee arts community, so that was really cool. I really wanted to at least be able to get in touch with the program in that respect.

Also, I knew that this opportunity would be an excellent way for me to grow as a writer—just by getting exposure to different types of writing, getting exposure to different types of poets around the area, and getting inspired by them. So I applied out of curiosity and the hope that maybe if I did, I’d have a higher chance of actually getting it.

How would you advise young creative students such as yourself to get started in writing poetry?

The first step is getting over the fear of the blank page. It also sometimes seems so daunting to me personally, but I realized early on that if I wanted to continue writing, I had to come to terms with the fact that a first draft is a first draft. Sometimes, I am a perfectionist and make anything that I write down perfect when I first try to write it down. But then I realized that inhibits me more than helps me to write.

So I think my best piece of advice is to just not be afraid of just putting whatever ideas you have down on the page and know that you can work from there because it's easier to keep on editing and revising than it is to just create something new from scratch. Getting over the fear of a blank piece of paper, a blank page, or a blank computer screen is the best way to start writing in the first place.

Then, just be confident enough and have enough willpower to know that anything you write down is valid enough to be written down, and then it can evolve as time goes on. But just being able to write down those first few words is so crucial.

You can visit the Woodland Pattern Book Center’s website to learn more about the Youth Poet Laureate program.

Xcaret is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
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