The following guest post was written by 2012 National Student Poet, Luisa Banchoff, with the below introduction by Virginia McEnerney, Executive Director for the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. The Class of 2017 National Student Poets will be appointed on Thursday, August 31, at the Library of Congress.
Inaugural Class of 2012 National Student Poet, Luisa Banchoff, has remained—as all our alums of the Program have remained—in close contact with us and their fellow alums since her year of service ended. As she will be abroad during the Class of 2017 Appointment Events, she reached out to us, and the incoming Class, with a beautiful letter of support, camaraderie, and introduction to the tight-knit poetry community into which the new teen poets will soon be inducted.
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Hi there. My name is Luisa. Five years ago, I was, in one particular way, where you are now. I had received a phone call that summer telling me I had been selected as the first ever National Student Poet representing the southeastern United States. I was confused, flattered, scared. I had little to go off of other than the short program description I found online and the series of emails I received after that call. It took me a while to sort out the who’s, what’s and where’s of the NSPP. (Scholastic? IMLS? THE PRESIDENT’S COMMITTEE?) I quickly learned that, in a way, everyone involved in the Program was setting out into uncharted territory alongside me. The sense of building something from the ground up was both immensely intimidating and exhilarating.
One of the great things about the NSPP is that, though it is now in its sixth year, you have just as much freedom as I did back then. Yes, there are now five years’ worth of poets who have gone before you, but you need not take your cues from any of us. You have as much or as little guidance as you want. We are a resource for you to draw on if you like. But remember, your job is to make this year yours.
I don’t want to offer too much advice, but I do want to give you two suggestions, both of which have crystallized since my NSPP year.
The first is that you realize how magnificently privileged you are to have received this honor. Yes, you possess a great deal of talent that brought you here. But you are also damn lucky. You had people in your life who gave you the time and the space and the encouragement to write: parents, teachers, mentors, friends, favorite authors. You had books that first inspired you to come up with stories of your own. You had a library card. You sat in an English class—maybe even in a creative writing class. You had someone in your life who first mentioned something called the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards to you. These are all privileges.
Now, as an NSP, you get those little gold lapel pins and sleek chapbooks with a section dedicated just to you. You get to attend the National Book Festival, the first of what will most likely be one of several high-profile literary events this year. You have the immense opportunity to commune with some of the most prominent, best-loved poets in the country. When I first became aware of all of this, it was easy to get overwhelmed by how incredibly fortunate I was. I am sure you will feel this way at some point, if you haven’t already. But don’t let this state of being overwhelmed (overwhelment?) leave you altogether. It can be a consistent and valuable reminder of the many privileges that come with being a National Student Poet.
The second suggestion is that you approach this year with humility. You are about to be bombarded with a lot of praise and flattery, and you are certainly worthy of it. But be vigilant when it comes to your ego. When I became an NSP, I sometimes got wrapped up in the accolade itself. I would think of it as a powerful entry ticket to an exclusive literary world. It went to my head. And it had an effect on my writing as well. All too often, I found myself thinking about how others would receive my words—and if they would praise me. I continue to struggle with that today when I sit down to write. This saddens me.
So find ways to humble yourself at every opportunity. Go back to the time when you were just a kid writing out lines in a notebook—with no readers, and certainly no jurors. Why did you write back then?
And now that you have been affirmed in your talent, recognize one of the things that makes your poetry so precious: its potential to touch others in surprising and comforting ways. Its capacity to make us feel communion with other people, to make us feel less unmoored in a chaotic world. This thought always humbles me because it reminds me why my voice might actually matter.
Five years out, it is hard to believe all the experiences I have behind me, and how many of them were shaped by my time as an NSP. Four years after my year of service, I graduated from Princeton (where, despite not studying literature or creative writing as I had initially thought I would, I continued to grow as a writer). Today I am living and working at a secondary school in Gaborone, Botswana. I teach history here, and I always have one foot in the English office. I try to write a little bit each day. Even just a half page of prose can be surprisingly exhilarating and freeing.
If there is one book I would recommend you read this year, it is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. As the title suggests, it is incredibly fitting for you at this point in your journey. But it is less about writing than about taking in the world and going within yourself and distilling into words what you might find there. It is one of only a handful of books I could justify adding to my luggage load when I moved to Botswana.
Finally, a small but vital reminder: you are one of five souls who are going on this very particular journey together. So lean on one another. Your greatest asset are the other four people who wear the same little gold lapel pins. And, because I’m biased, I’ll also mention the NSPs who have gone before you! We are resources if you want us to be. We have all been where you are now.
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Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and Institute of Museum and Library Services Director Kathryn K. Matthew will appoint the sixth class of National Student Poets, five outstanding youth poets from across the United States, for their original work. Program to include an appointment ceremony and poetry reading. Public reception to follow. Presented in partnership with the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.