Poet laureates reign across the country, representing different cities and states like kings and queens of the written word. Often, they’re college professors with knee-deep resumes. Not so in Oakland, where being a professor would actually disqualify you: Oakland’s poet laureate has always been a high school student.
The final performance of Oakland’s aspiring poet laureates isn’t a competition. Judges have already chosen the winner, though they haven’t said yet who it is. Gathered outside the gallery on Frank Ogawa Plaza, the seven finalists have nothing to win or lose tonight. They’re just here to perform for the city they might end up representing.
Gabriel Cortez, the M.C. for the evening, leads the poets in a warm-up exercise to help boost their confidence. He tells them to make the nastiest, most “troll-coming-down-from-the-mountaintops” sound they’ve ever heard.
They make eye contact, and one final troll-like cry, then head into the gallery to wait for their turn to read in front of a room jam-packed with literature lovers, parents, and friends.
The competition is a partnership between the Oakland Public Library and the nonprofit Youth Speaks. Over the next year, the winner will have a few jobs: run a Facebook page, respond to messages from fans and from the media, and attend at least five literary events. This year more than 50 people applied for the poet laureate job. The final seven were chosen for their leadership potential; judges looked at their resumes, as well as the boldness and originality of their poetry.
First up is Ericson Amaya. Amaya is 18, and one of the oldest competitors. The youngest is 16.
“He’s on the honor roll at Coliseum College Prep Academy,” Cortez says, introducing him. “He recently received the 2015 O.G. Award in 67 Sueños collective. Poetry is his power, his source of healing and his resistance.”
“Taco shell, Taco Bell, I’m tired of gang bangers being the only representation of me on TV, but they could make Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 ... and 3,” Amaya reads, with a bit of a smile.
Amaya’s work is charged with calls for social justice, as is much of the rest of the poetry: a blend of the personal and the political.
Lucy Flattery-Vickness’s poem is dedicated to her friend, Jay. She’s white, Jay is black, and her poem is about realizing that they live in two very different worlds.
“Little Boy Black ... sat in the back ... two desks behind and one to the right ... just close enough for hot breath on neck and note passing ... Jay, this one's for you,” Flattery-Vickness reads.
Tova Ricardo dedicates her poem to her grandfather and his tiger tattoo.
“He heard nothing but the monster piercing roar of grenade blast, shooting through battlefields like fallen stars,” Ricardo reads.
Before Azariah Cole-Shephard starts reading, she warns the audience that she’s not there to read poetry. She’s there to tell a story.
“Our words get neglected. Another black king ... another black queen ... they don't want to hear us scream ... they don't want to hear us scream at all,” Cole-Shephard reads.
But tonight hundreds of people are listening. Oakland Teen Services Librarian Lana Adlawan says that’s what Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate program is all about.
“We take the talent of Oakland’s youth and bring it to a much wider stage,” Adlawan says. “There’s so much heart and soul in the community. Our youth is talented. And we just facilitate them.”
But it’s also a competition, and there’s only one winner. Mayor Libby Schaaf walks to the front of the room to make the announcement.
First, the runner-up: Azariah Cole-Shephard.
And the official Youth Poet Laureate of Oakland?
Ricardo gasps, and walks to the front of the room, where she grasps a giant $5,000 check.
“This means the world to me. I just want us, the youth, to just change the world. To go out there and change this crazy, crazy system that's trying to knock all of us down,” Ricardo says.
She’s a 16-year-old Bentley High School student, and an active leader in her school’s diversity club. Now she’s going to go a step farther to represent her entire city.
“I want to inspire youth to whatever art form, to whatever way they find peace and sanity, to keep going with that and to not be above and to not feel like they're not worth anything,” Ricardo says. “No one else is going to write your story. You're going to write your story.”
Ricardo may hold the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate throne for the next year, but her plan is simple: keep reading, keep writing. She’s already giving shape to a lot of complex feelings -- that’s poetry.