In troubled times, Leija Farr, 17, says poetry is "like taking a deep breath."
Last week, Leija Farr walked into her U.S. history class at Cleveland High School and was hailed as a celebrity — not for leading a championship sports team, or winning a beauty contest or being named valedictorian. But because she is a poet.
Farr was named Seattle’s first Youth Poet Laureate after judges reviewed her portfolio and those of 34 other students who applied for the honor. The competition, modeled on New York City’s Urban Word, nets Farr two writing mentors and a book deal with Penmanship Press in New York.
“We have a U.S. Poet Laureate, and a Washington State Poet Laureate and a Civic Poet in Seattle,” said Jeanine Walker, director of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program, which organized the competition. “But all of us work with young people, and we know they have a lot to say. We wanted them to have a forum, too.”
Walker said she was blown away by Farr’s portfolio, including the prose poem “For Black Boys.” Here’s an excerpt:
Delicate Black boy. Solider, plum painted spirit, deep rooted, dreamer. I can tell from the oceans on your bed that you’ve never been told you were beautiful….
In a place that will never understand you are amazing, in a place that will put fire to you then say you are callous, they will burn you then say you are reckless, some mothers won’t tell you because they think it is feminine and they want you to prepare for a battlefield your whole life but I tell you, you are beautiful, you are grand, you are too permanent to be unloved.
A week after being named Youth Poet Laureate, Farr, a high school junior, spoke about what inspires her and why poetry matters.
Education Lab: Is there a poem you’ve written that has particular importance?
Farr: Yes, my poem called “For Black Boys.” I saw my dad watching the news and crying (about police shootings of black men), saying, “they don’t care about us, they don’t care.” It just hit so close to home. I couldn’t take any more. I needed to tell them, “you’re beautiful, you’re worthy, your life is worthy.” It took a lot out of me to write that poem.
Education Lab: How long have you been writing, and what got you started with poetry?
Farr: I got serious about it in middle school, when I was 11 or 12, soon after my grandfather passed. I did a rap poem about teens and drugs that won a contest, and that’s what started the whole thing.
Education Lab: Why does poetry speak to you over other forms of writing?
Farr: Poetry is a way to connect other people to me. Whenever I feel like the world is working against me, when I write it’s like releasing those feelings. Like taking a deep breath.
Education Lab: You’ll be something of an ambassador for the next year, performing and organizing. What do you want people to know about being young these days?
Farr: That it’s hard. With social media, we have so much information coming at us. It’s hard to decipher what’s good or bad.
Education Lab: Any favorite poets?
Farr: Maya Angelou. Buddy Wakefield. This guy named B. Yung in Brave New Voices, and Langston Hughes.
Education Lab: Is English your favorite subject?
Farr: Yeah, but I like chemistry too because I like when we mix chemicals together and it makes combustion.