Ada Limón, the national poet laureate and University of Washington alumna, spoke to The Seattle Times Education Lab about why young people should be reading and writing poetry.

Diane Sun, a 17-year-old Interlake High School senior, will represent Washington state on the USA Debate Team and as the National Student Poet of the West.  She is at the entrance to her high school Friday, September 30, 2022. 221708
Senior at Bellevue’s Interlake High has a winning way with words

How can poetry help young people, like Diane Sun, find autonomy and agency to effect change in their communities? 

Poetry reminds us that we have a voice. The voice isn’t always the one on the bullhorn, but it is the voice that explores the nuances of an individual life. When young people find poetry, they find a way to enter the world, a way to speak back to a world that often feels overwhelming and silencing. 

How can communities better listen to and support new and rising voices? Why should they care and listen?  

Reading, writing and listening to poetry all have a powerful role to play in helping us to remember our humanity. When people have access to reading poetry, they are reminded that they are not alone, that many people, just like them, have struggled or found joy, and have lived to write about it. It’s important that poetry not just be read, but also celebrated, held up. Local readings, events, collaborative projects that help bring poetry off the page help connect all of us. It’s not just about the artist who is creating, but the audience, the reader, the bond that’s made through that connection.  


What advice do you have, for young people especially, on how to find and develop your voice and use it in a meaningful, purposeful way? 

I always tell new writers to read widely. There are so many wonderful poets writing today, and so many foundational poets that paved the way. I’d say, read, read, read! But also, pay attention to your own sound. When you write on the page, remember that what makes you unique, what makes you who you are, that voice underneath the voice, the voice that’s in your mind when the world is quiet, that’s what matters, that’s the voice of poems. It’s not about performance or trying to be someone else, it’s about tapping into who you are, right now, on this planet. 

Are there particular lessons or mentors from your time at the University of Washington that fuel you and your work today? 

I worked with some wonderful teachers, but Colleen McElroy [UW professor emeritus] was one of my mentors. She helped me to see that I had to focus on balance in my work. The music couldn’t outweigh the core thrust of the poem, and the story inside the poem couldn’t outweigh the music. She was a great teacher.