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Meet 18-year-old Alyssa Gaines, Youth Poet Laureate of Indianapolis

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the next few weeks, we'll be hearing poems from four finalists for the National Youth Poet Laureate award. The first poem comes from this year's Midwest Youth Poet Laureate Ambassador.

ALYSSA GAINES: Hi. I'm Alyssa Gaines. I'm 18 years old. I'm a Black girl from the east side of Indianapolis. The name of this poem is "Blue Dashers" (ph).

(Reading) Blue dashers dancing atop the lake. Light strokes across the heavy landscape. Eagles fly, and bowriders call. I was baptized in the blue waters of a red state and came to south of the Mason-Dixon. And there I was, stagnant and black against the holy water and the land stretching its fingers to God.

This is a poem that I really love. It started as an idea. I took a trip on my, like, summer vacation last year to Branson, Mo. And it was just beautiful. We were in the mountains. And it caused me to kind of reflect on my family's Southern history. My grandpa's from Russellville, Ky., which is a very small town in Logan County by Bowling Green, the Confederate headquarters in Kentucky. This is a poem I wrote about kind of reckoning with that history against the backdrop of a beautiful southern landscape.

(Reading) Voices in the wind of my kin asked me where I've been, wondering how long it would take me to reclaim the land promised to them, to jump unshackled in the lake and let them watch me swim. And what if I drown in a memory of all they were amongst chosen people too proud and too taut (ph) to bleed red? And me, still black against the water and black as the swing of the trees, and me, trying hard to be blue like a dasher or water, or sweet like honey-golden light, black as whatever breathes at the bottom of the basin and the undercurrent it came through and wishin (ph) still to rise, to dance in the wind like the stars and the stripes from the back of the boat in flight, the first thing I saw when I finally opened my eyes.

"Blue Dashers" is a villanelle, a form that is popular among Southern poets. It's used to talk about, like, beautiful landscapes. There's this repetition there, and that's kind of paying homage to this tradition of the spoken word. One of my most formative experiences with poetry - I was, like, 12 years old in a competition at the Library of Congress. I just remember standing there on that stage. I was nervous, and I got my first perfect score I'd ever scored. Like, the whole audience stood up. That performance aspect, the quality of delivering it to the audience is something that I'm always considering. All of my poems, it's like me in conversation with the reader. That's a big piece of my writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: Alyssa Gaines, 2022 Youth Poet Laureate Finalist, sharing her poem, "Blue Dashers." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.