After reading one of her poems at Alphabet City on the North Side Monday night, 17-year-old Aja Lynn sat with some of her peers onstage and discussed poets who inspire her — she mentioned Sarah Kay, Amanda Gorman and Billy Collins — and marveled at their ability to compose work that strikes a nerve and connects with people.
“I’m hoping some day I’m able to write something that makes people step back and say, ‘Oh, maybe I need to reevaluate,’” Lynn said.
“Trust me,” said Danielle Obisie-Orlu, Allegheny County’s youth poet laureate in 2021-22, “you’ve already written something like that.”
Aja and four other high school poets honored the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the federal holiday marking King’s birthday by composing poems inspired by quotes from activists and then reading those poems in front of an audience of about 40 people, who snapped their fingers in appreciation.
The poets included current Youth Poet Laureate Rho Bloom-Wang, 16, and four poet laureate ambassadors — Lynn; Jade Davis, 19; Emily Tea, 15; and Audrey Alling, 17.
We asked each poet to identify a few lines from their compositions they’d most like to share with readers. You’ll find those selections below, along with photographs of the poets during their readings.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Progressive, or repressive, with the irony of a Black and White answer.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
Mouth taped; I envy the Foot loose and fancy free!
— From Jade Davis’ poem, inspired by the Martin Luther King Jr. quote “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
Before our return to dirt specks & helium atoms
will we choose now for our crumble? Into
each other, into a future
out there, somewhere, with waterfalls instead of tear gas
to make us cry, with love songs & pomegranates
to break us apart.
When the coke plant falls
will there be any kids left
to learn what it means to breathe?
— From Rho Bloom-Wang’s poem, inspired by the Brandon Wilson quote “If, as a human being, you find yourself treated and appreciated less than your surroundings, if you are made to feel that the state will protect glass with more earnestness than your own flesh, mustn’t the glass crumble? Mustn’t you assert your place as the more essential treasure of this world?”
I made the decision to choose these times — the time’s we’re living in
That is the first small thing I can do.
and in turn, I choose who I want to be.
If I call this activism,
I mean it in the broadest sense of the word:
taking action looks like conversation,
like a poem, like a small thing done in a great way.
it looks like knowing
“You don’t choose the times you live in.”
It looks like choosing who you’re going to be.
— From Aja Lynn’s poem, inspired by the Grace Lee Boggs quote “You don’t choose the times you live in.”
Women belong in all places
Where decisions are being made
To be a woman is to be stronger than the fragile framework aiming to oppress
Is it to be fiercer than the hands that muffle our voices
Only so they can speak louder
— From Emily Tea’s poem, inspired by the Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote “Women belong in all places that decisions are being made.”
We wonder: what is one person to do when the fight is not theirs but the war is not fair?
We tell ourselves:
“if the scars aren’t mine
then my quietude is fine.”
But to respect this boundary
is to found a tragedy
“You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other.”
I may be just one heart and one mind and one voice and one spine
So are you.
And suddenly ten hands can lift a fallen man
And a hundred hearts can change a mind
And a billion voices — this choir of spirit, passion, will, and choices — can create a melody I
can find a way to play along with.
Let me extend a hand; let me contribute what I can;
it may not be much, or rattle even one leave against the wind,
but we can meet
“I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same.”
— From Audry Alling’s poem, inspired by the Audre Lorde quote “You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same.”