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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Gasparka

Youth Poet Laureate Program Seeks to Amplify Young Voices, Promote Active Literacy in Milwaukee

In 2022, Milwaukee’s Woodland Pattern Book Center established a local Youth Poet Laureate program with partners Milwaukee Public Library, the UWM Writing Project, the UWM Graduate Program in Creative Writing, and former Milwaukee Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton.

The local program is a branch of a National Youth Poet Laureate program, which is administered by Urban Word NYC. Each year, the selected MYPL will receive support and mentorship, and will have the opportunity to serve as a community leader through creating poetry-based programs for the people of all ages, with the intent of promoting civic engagement around an issue or cause of their choosing.

In April, Emily Igwike was named as the first Milwaukee Youth Poet Laureate. I spoke with Jenny Gropp, Co-Executive Director of Woodland Pattern Book Center, to learn more about the MYPL program, and the first young person to step into this distinguished role.

A women gracefully presents a crystal award to a young women who receives the award with honor.
Former Milwaukee Poet Laureate, Dasha Kelly, awards Emily Igwike as Youth Poet Laureate.

Why create a Youth Poet Laureate program?

Milwaukee is home to so many talented young poets who deserve recognition and support, and more ways to live out their dreams! Like their peers throughout the country, our city’s youth poets are called to poetry because they feel the transformative power of the written and spoken word—every time they share their poems, they are practicing self-definition and self-celebration, and making their lives and communities known.

The Milwaukee Youth Poet Laureate program centers and elevates this practice, giving young people the tools, training, and platforms they need in order to exponentially grow their powers of self-expression. Students who aspire to be the Milwaukee Youth Poet Laureate work throughout the year with mentors, studying the craft of poetry, writing and editing their own poems, practicing the art of performing poetry, and assembling a portfolio that showcases their poems and their many other talents. The MYPL is then chosen by a panel of judges at a competition that takes place in the spring of each year.

Upon receiving the title, the MYPL is also awarded a $500 book allowance and a paid summer internship, both through Woodland Pattern. And over the course of the year, the MYPL has many opportunities not only to develop their own writing practice, but also to engage with the community. For example, in June, the current MYPL, Emily Igwike, appeared for public readings at Woodland Pattern’s Poetry in the Park series (alongside Wisconsin Poet Laureate Nicholas Gulig) and at America’s Black Holocaust Museum, and she also served as a mentor during our Youth Poetry Camp—and the months ahead promise much more!

The MYPL program also forwards civic engagement, and each Youth Poet Laureate, with the help of their mentors, selects issues in the Milwaukee community that they would like to address through poetry, and communities or organizations that they would like to work with. The civic engagement component of the program creates an active literacy, promoting critical thought and positive social dialogue through poetry, and igniting in young poets a further commitment to growth and learning. All in all, this program has so many facets that prove its worth—it provides widespread, ongoing opportunities that prepare and encourage our city’s youth to become expressive thought leaders, and game-changers in the world.

What do you hope this program will achieve?

All of us who worked to create this program—people from Woodland Pattern along with former Milwaukee Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton, and partners from the Milwaukee Public Library, the UWM Writing Project, and the UWM Graduate Program in Creative Writing—believe that it is uniquely positioned to uplift young people in our city, who have suffered from years of cutbacks to public education, as well as a pandemic that has further jeopardized learning and deepened existing inequities. We hope not only to recognize and support promising young poets, but to bolster the literary arts in our city's under-resourced schools; support our public school teachers; encourage engagement with our city’s public library system; and foster in Milwaukee a culture of civic engagement and pride that extends intergenerationally through the urgent voices of our young people.

Tell me about Emily, and why she was selected.

Emily is a remarkable young poet and person! She’s a rising senior at University School of Milwaukee, and declares herself a “proud Nigerian-American.” Her poems have already come so far, and she’s eager not only to develop her own craft but also to help other people of all ages develop theirs. Our Youth Poetry Camp students adored her as a mentor, and she challenged herself to write alongside them in camp workshops. We’re also excited to help her work toward her civic engagement projects—her focus will be on food insecurity and on literacy in Wisconsin. The judges ultimately chose Emily as the first MYPL because of her poise in performing her poetry, the strength of her verse on the page, and the already-exemplary nature of her academic and civic work.

One amazing thing about Emily, which we found out after the MYPL competition, is that she’s previously been recognized on a national level for her poetry—an accomplishment she vastly understated in her MYPL application! In Fall 2022, she was named one of five National Student Poets through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and she was invited to read at the White House, where she was honored by First Lady Jill Biden. Also, this past April she was the featured student reader at the Academy of American Poets’ signature event, Poetry & the Creative Mind, where she joined notable figures including U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón, Ethan Hawke, and Malala Yousafzai. Milwaukee is very lucky to have her as its first MYPL!

Learn more about Emily Igwike and the Milwaukee youth Poet Laureate program, here.


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