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Alyssa Gaines is named National Youth Poet Laureate


To celebrate Poetry Month, we met the four finalists vying for the title of 2022 National Youth Poet Laureate back in April.

ALYSSA GAINES: I'm Alyssa Gaines.

ISABELLA RAMIREZ: My name is Isabella Ramirez.


JESSICA KIM: I'm Jessica Kim.

CHANG: All four of those youth poets showed incredible passion and talent and care for their communities. But there can only be one winner, who was just announced in a ceremony at the Kennedy Center.


MAHOGANY L BROWNE: And the sixth National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States is Alyssa Gaines.

CHANG: (Laughter) Alyssa Gaines joins us now. Congratulations.

GAINES: Thank you so much.

CHANG: How does it feel?

GAINES: I am beyond excited, super-honored to be named amongst five other amazing youth poets as the sixth National Youth Poet Laureate. And I can't wait for my term.

CHANG: Oh, I'm so excited for you. What do you think assuming this role of National Youth Poet Laureate, what does it mean to you?

GAINES: It means that I'm able to civically engage with my nation through poetry and through my writing, which I'm so passionate about.

CHANG: Well, I would like to play a clip of your poem, "Lagrimas Negras," which you performed at the Kennedy Center last Friday.


GAINES: (Singing in Spanish).

An old Cuban bolero plays over the radio in my kitchen. I'm making empanadas de carne and agua de sandia barefoot. Pack the meat into dough con cuidado and fry until a golden crisp. Cut the watermelon into pink strips and blend con azucar. Last night I heard the news about Breonna Taylor, a Black woman murdered in her sleep by killers who recently vacationed to Florida, paid for the flight with a state salary. And I was too hurt to cry. But this is not about hurt. Committed myself to rest and healing for her in my kitchen. My hands follow the path of Black hands before me. My feet naked on a floor of dough flakes and watermelon water. I take a Cuban communion of empanadas and jugo in honor of every Black girl who wrote her recipes on water. This bread be her body, and this agua de sandia, her sangre.

CHANG: God, that's gorgeous. Alyssa, can you talk about how this poem, how it speaks to your identity, to your own life experiences a little bit?

GAINES: Yes. Of course, I wanted to start with the song that is so beautiful, "Lagrimas Negras," which translates in English to "Black Tears."

CHANG: ..."Black Tears."

GAINES: And I wanted to connect that and weave that in as I talked about tradition. And I talked about community and healing and joy, even through these times of pain and grief. And especially, you know, in the Caribbean, when you look to, how do people recover in times of grief? How do people recover from pain, especially Black women? I think in the Caribbean, there is this tradition of music, of dancing, of cooking and sharing with your community. So I thought that was something that I wanted to honor in my exploration of grief and healing.

CHANG: Well, it's absolutely beautiful.

GAINES: Thank you.

CHANG: I also know that you just graduated from high school this weekend, is that right?


CHANG: Oh, my God.

GAINES: I did.

CHANG: Well, when we spoke to you last time, I know that you were still waiting to hear back from colleges. So can I ask, where are you heading in the fall?

GAINES: Yes. In the fall I'll be attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

CHANG: Woo-hoo (ph) - go Badgers.

GAINES: (Laughter).

CHANG: God, you're so lucky that, you know, you're still young, but you seem to know exactly what kind of work gives you meaning and happiness.

GAINES: Thank you. Yeah, I started writing when I was super-young, and it allowed me to have a voice and to reach people who might not have the same experiences of me. So writing has been very powerful and shown itself to be very powerful. And so I continued.


CHANG: Well, I wish you the best of luck as you enter college. And it's such a joy to be speaking with you today.

GAINES: Thank you.

CHANG: That is Alyssa Gaines, 2022 National Youth Poet Laureate. And this annual competition was founded and curated by Urban Word.


Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.