INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis' own Alyssa Gaines is the 2022 National Youth Poet Laureate. After performing her poem Lágrimas Negras, a piece which blends song and spoken word to provide a powerful commentary on the beauty of communal pain and healing, Gaines was given the top honor out of a group of four finalists and 65 high school poets across the country.
We caught up with Gaines after the win about the power of spoken word, and how she plans to work towards accessibility in fine arts for future poets.
13News: What was it like to have that experience of being in D.C., performing your work, and then realizing that you were the winner?
Gaines: It was super exciting. As we pulled up to the Kennedy Center, I kind of realized that I had been there before. The only time I'd been there before was on my eighth grade trip to D.C.
I just didn't think I would ever go back, especially as a performer. So, that in its own right was amazing. And then when they called my name as the National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, that was also amazing!
I was up there with all the amazing finalists. I knew how talented they were, and all the work they've been doing. So, it was definitely unexpected. And when they call my name, I just was - it was unbelievable. I was shocked. And it was super exciting for me.
13News: I saw you covered your mouth when you won. What was going through your mind at the time?
Gaines: When I realized that it was me, I was just excited. But I didn't want to, you know, celebrate prematurely. And also, I know that all the other finalists were also amazingly talented. And I didn't want to be disrespectful in any way. Because I know that it could have been any of us.
So, I didn't want to just start jumping up and down. But it was an exciting moment.
Watch Gaines' performance here, it begins at 30:07. She wins at 40:09.
13News: Which poem did you perform?
Gaines: I just performed the group poem that we'd all written together called, Joy. And then, I performed one of my poems called Lágrimas Negras.
The group poem was one that we've been working on for weeks and weeks, and workshopped together about joy. We all wrote poems about our various experiences of joy, and moments of joy that we remember. And then we put them together, which was an amazing experience. I think our own experiences all spoke to our different passions or different identities.
And then, my Lágrimas Negras poem is a poem about, not only the the death of Breonna Taylor and police violence, but how we recover from that specifically as Black women, and the community traditions that we have that we can find joy in even in these times of grief and mourning.
13News: Was it sort of interesting to see that the joy theme that's present in several of your poems was also a common thread through the group poem?
Gaines: Yeah! It was exciting for me also because, in writing poetry, poets tend to write about things that are sad or angry. Sometimes myself included, because we write from places of strong emotions.
And so to see these two poems about about joy, and about healing and recovering from these strong emotions, personally was important. Because that's something in my own writing that I like to push myself to explore.
13News: How does knowing these works will be performed impact your writing?
Gaines: The spoken word aspect is very important to me, and has always been very important to me, because a large part of my introduction to poetry was my introduction to slam.
I started competing in slams when I was 13, when I was very young, and I learned poetry as this way to connect with other people and to create community. Because in the spoken word, poetry and in slams communities, you have an audience there and you owe something to that audience. You have to deliver these poems that have a sense of urgency and immediacy to them. That's how I learned poetry.
And so in my writing, as I've grown up and grown as a writer, I'm always mindful of the spoken word and how the word sounds off of the page.
Being able perform my poetry at the Kennedy Center, to go to commencement with a spoken word piece, I was very excited because it's something that I know and I love about poetry.
That was something that I was prepared for. I was excited about the Lágrimas Negras poem because of the musicality, the song is a big part of it.
Being able to sing that and bring the audience members into that moment with me was a big part of delivering that poem.
13News: What's next for you after this?
Gaines: As the Youth Poet Laureate, I'm very interested in increasing Fine Arts access and accessibility. And I'm excited about being able to use my poetry to civically engage with my nation.
I'm also going to college next year, I'm going to the University of Wisconsin - Madison. And, even there, I hope to be using my poetry to allow me to synthesize what I'm learning, and using what I'm learning to allow me to grow in my poetry. So I'm going to be writing, and I'm going to still be be doing the civic work with my new title.