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Becoming a Poet

In libraries, time seems to stretch. The hours of possible reading, the abundance of plotted pasts or imagined futures appears to slow down time. Yet there’s no such thing as slowing down when we meet Angel Gardner, Seattle’s Youth Poet Laureate, in the Lake City branch of Seattle Public Library. In fact, she’s launched herself into the conversation so fervently that only five minutes in I realize I need to hit the record button. 

As children stream out of a reading class, Gardner delves into a steady, soft stream-of-consciousness: She relates that she fed her unborn son a diet of heavy metal music and declamations of her own poetry during her pregnancy, that she named him Maverick after a dream, only to discover later that the word means “free spirit,” and that Langston is his middle name—after her favorite poet Langston Hughes. 

She keeps on. About what meeting writer Sherman Alexie—who had read her work—was like (“a huge honor, and comforting”). The moment when, to her surprise (as she never really loves her work), she liked one of her own poems, “A Few Words To A Racist America”. Why she loves the word melanin in her mouth and on her tongue, how it reminds her of the golden glow of the sun, how it uplifts her and hopefully the African-American youth she wrote the poem for.

Gardner never really halts her train of thought, except for some soft humming in the small cracks of silence between questions, or the seconds it takes her to find the poem she wants to read on her laptop. Her life hasn’t slowed down either. Or, as she puts it: “It’s been a hell of a ride.” 

Gardner was four months pregnant when, last year in May, she was named Youth Poet Laureate. A panel of writers at Seattle Arts and Lectures selected her to represent the city as part of a national campaign. Concluding her year as the city’s youth poet, she will serve as a juror on this year’s prize and publish her first book of poetry, Blood Melody.

“The Youth Poet Laureate came out of nowhere, and at the exactly the right time,” she says. “I was still homeless at the time. Less than two months later, I signed a lease for an apartment. It’ll be the first time I’ve held a place of my own for a year. It still feels strange. I’ve been in foster care for 14 years, and bounced around 28 different placements. When I grew out of the system and left a group home in Idaho, it was messy. I arrived in Seattle with three bags, tried couch-surfing and stayed in a couple of shelters, and ended up staying in a tent with some youth under Eastlake downtown.”

In a small room Gardner has reserved for us, we sat down to talk about how she got there, and where she'll go next. 

Living homeless—what was that like? 
I was surprised to find so many young people. How did they end up here? It was crazy, but at the same time the tent encampment functioned like a family. We would share our stuff or space in our tents. and make sure somebody would get up in time to go to school. It’s very communal. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but it’s where I felt safe and accepted. 

Did you also find space and time to write?
I always write. During my time in foster care, I taught myself how to write in my head. There were periods where I stopped writing things down because [caregivers] would go through people’s stuff, so I’d memorize the most important line and then build off that later. I still write in a similar way to this day.

When did you start writing? 
During a writers’ group, a therapy thing, when I was seven and living in a group home. They told me I was good at it. I just thought, “Damn, I’m just writing about flowers and shit.” But they urged me to go on, and I did, although I never really saw myself as talented. The only thing I knew I was good at was picking up a spoon with my toes and dipping it into a pudding cup. But writing? I kept going, though, mainly because writing proved therapeutic for me. It wasn’t until I was 15 and I read my poem “My Recovery” that I realized my poetry could be therapeutic for others too. 

What was it you think that struck others about this poem in particular? 
Recovery is always presented as this big, bright thing but nobody really talks about how you get there, or slipping up. Afterwards, people came up to me to tell me how much they related to that—which was new to me. I knew then that I had another reason to keep doing it. 

What did being named Youth Poet Laureate mean to you?
It gave me confidence. It was a moment of acceptance of my writing. People apparently accept that I am a good writer, so I guess I’ll have to start believing it. 

Will your confidence consolidate when you have your book in your hands? 
I’m getting there. I also thought I was a bad poet because I didn’t know anything about the Poets. I knew Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, but I didn’t even know poets from Seattle really. I never really realized you could be a poet. I tried getting into Shakespeare and realized soon I do not relate to this kind of language. My style was that of the people in my community. 

You’re doing a lot of community work professionally.
I’m working as a chapter leader at The Mockingbird Society, where I work with youth advocates to end homelessness. We help them speak out for themselves on issues they find important, talk to senators and officials, help make and change laws. Through the Youth Poet Laureate, I’ve been also given the chance to teach a lot of workshops and speak about my experiences being in foster care. United Way and the Orion Center are also helping me finish my senior year of high school, so that I’ll be able to get my bachelor’s in social work. The issues in my life and thus my poetry infuse all of this and vice versa. It’s all intertwined.

What are some of the themes you have been expanding into? 
People ask me about my homeless experience all the time, but I don’t have a lot of poems about it. Homelessness was a very serious thing that was part of my life, but it’s hard to talk about it in a poetic form. Partly because it felt like an in-between state. There was this feeling of rebellion, acceptance and complete unwantedness in the city. We were seen as a bunch of delinquents by the city, but at the same time we had no parents, no rules. We were youth but basically adults. I’ve been trying to write about it more, and it’s been interesting. Racism and #blacklivesmatter are other important themes, and I’ve also written a couple of poems about my little one.

In your poem “Mama Wants Success” you write to him. Could you talk about that? 
In the poem, I tell him to see us as a success story. A story that is just beginning, and that I’ll build on, in my community and with my writing. It’s also about not wanting to be labeled as a survivor.  A couple of years ago I started writing about my experiences in foster homes and group homes, and I just kept building on it. It’s a three-part memoir now. I want to call it They Called Me A Survivor. When people call you a survivor, they usually just leave it at that. Like: “you survived foster care, so it’s good now, your story is done.” No: I’m only going on 21. I’m just beginning my new chapter. 

As we wrap up our conversation, I ask Gardner to recite the poem. She writes, she says, as fast as she talks. It’s only when she reads her poem aloud that her voice slows down.

Mama Wants Success
I am balancing on a line in-between what I need to be and what's expected of me.
Calloused feet no match for the wire gripping the thickest pads on my soles.
And pushing.
The pressure of responsibility
Sending my nerves to a point they never warned me about, In sessions of adult preparations, appropriate reactions and DBT.
Now bound tight to a life.
That I am learning how to nurture to a being, From what was once a seed.
Know,
That Mama doesn't want you to see a survivor.
I need you to see us as nothing less than a success story.
They tell me I survived as if my chapter is somehow finished.
As if I approached each battle shameless and naked, To be told that I was to retreat.
Rather than rebirth from ash and fire like the phoenix I've made myself out to be.
So now I find myself balancing on bare feet, Wire close to the tendons taut underneath.
Breathing harsh from blunt realization,
With one hand spread across my middle protectively.
Only I can know what to expect from me.
And Mama
Expects nothing less
Than a success,
Story.

Blood Melody, published by Penmanship Publishing, will launch at the Folklife Festival on May 27, when the new Youth Poet Laureate will also be announced. 

Photo by Margo Vansynghel.