INDIANAPOLIS — Alyssa Gaines was in third grade when she first began writing spoken word poetry. By the time she was 13, audiences were already giving her standing ovations for her work.
When she takes the stage on Friday as a National Youth Poet Laureate finalist, alongside a handful of teens from across the country, she’s doing so with something that’s been with her from the very start.
“There's a passion. I love and I really care for my writing. All of the topics that I write about are things that I do love and care about. I think that that comes through in my writing. And also, I think I pull from these very personal narratives, certain common themes and common emotions,” she said.
Gaines’ work is multifaceted and, very often, multilingual. The poem Tongue-Tied, which she first performed at the Indianapolis Public Library, is a typical way Gaines incorporates the beauty of two languages in her work.
“It's about code-switching and navigating different spaces. And I really liked that poem,” Gaines said. “I'm also bilingual, I speak English and Spanish. And so, I like to play with my language in that way, and explore the different traits of both languages in my poems.”
While Gaines centers the experiences of immigrants and first-generation Americans in her work, she also focuses on her lived experiences growing up on the east side of Indianapolis.
“Whether I'm talking about Fall Creek, or I'm talking about gun violence in general, I think there's these common threads. So, I might pull a certain nostalgia or I might talk about a certain grief that even people who didn't grow up in Lawrence Township can relate to,” Gaines said.
As the first National Youth Poet Laureate finalist from Indy, Gaines has an opportunity to share her work and experiences among an elite group of writers. The competition's 2017 winner was Amanda Gorman, who performed "The Hill We Climb" at the 2020 Presidential Inauguration.
“It's definitely an honor. It's very exciting because I do get to go through the same workshops and meet other young poets who are doing exciting things in their own cities. And to be amongst them is is very exciting for me,” Gaines said.
And she has some advice for other young poets.
“Get that first draft done. Get something down on paper about how you're feeling, and then you can go back and edit it later. But start writing, and write what you love,” she said.
Gaines poems have been featured in the Indianapolis Reporter, Scholastic’s “Best Teen Writing” and was published by “Teach for America.” She was Indy’s first Youth Poet Laureate in 2019.
The Urban Word’s Youth Poet Laureate Program has celebrated young poets in the United States since 2008.