CHEVERLY – Congratulatory cheers erupted when 17-year-old Dominique Holder was named Prince George’s County’s first Youth Poet Laureate (PGC-YPL) on Dec. 21 at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly.
After poets residing in Prince George’s County ages 14 to 19 performed poetical selections, one by one, Kiah Patterson, A’dora Willis, Dione Smith, Samantha Jackson, Myah Hale, Leilani Clendenin, Tai’won Gladden, Emerson Garcia, Juwan Blocker, Jocelyn Nolasco, Carolyn Felton and Karen Villatoro were named youth ambassadors who will represent areas where they live in Prince George’s County.
“I’ve been writing poetry since my freshman year of high school,” Holder said. “It’s overwhelming, but it’s an overwhelming blessing. I’m just about to cry because I didn’t expect this. To know that I am going to be a published author is mind-blowing.”
The shocked student, who attends Oxon Hill High School, won a book publishing deal with a New York-based publisher called Penmanship Books. The company was created by a performance poet and writer named Mahogany L. Brown. Holder will be busy working on her book that will be available at the next competition. While holding the prestigious title, she will participate in a reading tour at libraries and have opportunities to perform her poetry throughout the country.
At first glance, the PGC-YPL Finals could have been mistaken for a poetry slam where original work was presented to move the crowd. However, the inaugural event that was hosted by EZ Street – a radio personality from 93.9 WKYS – was the opposite of a pressure-filled lyrical contest.
Local youth who participated were scouted at open mics, events created by partners and at schools over a three-month period. Those who raised their voices creatively about important issues and who demonstrated characteristics aligning with the PGC-YPL were encouraged to apply to participate. By Dec. 21, the winner had already been selected, before the official announcement was made public.
Seven esteemed judges previously assessed and rated the literary ability of each applicant, their attention given to social issues, evidence of community involvement and future plans. Poets were also required to submit bios, audio and video clips. Although Holder’s combined score was the highest of all applicants, which is how she was selected to become Prince George’s County’s first Youth Poet Laureate, the event held in Cheverly was a celebration of each standout poet.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, III formally recognized PGC-YPL by proclaiming the week of December 20 through 26 the 2015 Youth Poet Laureate Week in Prince George’s County. Bringing the unique program to the area is the result of many partnerships, including Urban Word, NYC, Lyrikal Storm and DIALECT of Prince George’s County, LLC. Urban Word is an award-wining youth literary arts organization with offices in New York City and Los Angeles. The Youth Poet Laureate program, which has launched in numerous cities, integrates student civic engagement. Urban World provides structure through a template of the program that includes technical support, when organizations collaborate with them. Two literary leaders – Patrick Washington and Neville Adams – currently serve as executive managers of PGC-YPL.
“Because I know of them (Urban Word, NY), they approached me and said, ‘How would you like to establish this program in your area?’” Washington said. “All we had to do was bring the kids to the program, create the event and just be sure to document everything.”
Washington, a Clinton resident, is a performance poet and founder of DIALECT of Prince George’s County, LLC, which is a youth arts education company specializing in conducting creative writing and poetry workshops in area schools and afterschool programs. Adams is a fellow poet who resides in the District of Columbia. He is an English teacher who works at Parkdale High School in Riverdale. The educator regards poetry as a therapeutic outlet which offers young people an opportunity to utilize their creativity, think critically and become accustomed to presenting in front of an audience. Additionally, Adams founded a performance based spoken word and poetry group called Lyrikal Storm and a nonprofit organization called Phoenix Medina Writer’s Project Inc.
While Adams and Washington decided to partner for PGC-YPL to reach more youth from different parts of the county who are interested in poetry, the program gained support from other highly regarded poets such as (Sistah) Joy Alford. She is the founder of Collective Voices, which addresses socially relevant issues and challenges; producer and host of Sojourn With Words, a poetry cable television show in Prince George’s County; and president of the poetry ministry at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church located in Fort Washington.
Alford was a PGC-YPL judge who felt that Holder’s qualities combined the skill of a writer, yet illustrated her ability and interest to become a public servant, which are integral components of being a poet laureate.
“Certainly, one has to have their own skills at a certain level, but you also have to have that desire to bring to poetry what is good for the craft itself, but also how do you take that and use it for the community? And when I looked at (Holder’s) service for the community, I felt it was a good combination,” Alford said.
The dynamic program will allow other talented youth to share their talents during events ranging from festivals to ribbon cuttings, when youth voices are needed locally, and if Holder is unavailable.
“The remaining 12 (poets) are still considered winners because they are going to be named poet ambassadors for various cities,” Washington said. “They can take that title back to that area and kind of draw some more interest by getting other youth to express themselves in spoken word and writing.”