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A Powerful Voice for Poetry: An Interview with National Student Poet Camila Sanmiguel

2018 May 21
by Bethany Wilson

Each year, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers collaborate to choose five students to serve for one year as National Student Poets through the National Student Poets Program. Charged with inspiring other young people to achieve excellence in their own creative endeavors, these literary ambassadors are linked with audiences and organizations in their assigned regions and provided opportunities to promote the essential role of writing and the arts in academic and personal success.

The Texas State Library & Archives Commission was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Camila Sanmiguel from Laredo, Texas. Camila is the 2017 National Student Poet for the Southwest U.S. and was eager to share her experience with us.

I: Tell us about your journey to poetry. How did you begin writing?

C: I found my way to poetry through a desire for change. Poetry is a form of literary activism that carries beauty and poignancy, building bridges and connecting those who read it, calling for empathy and unity and action and emotion. It gave me a platform to empower myself and those that are overlooked, to reach people and help close deep divides using advocacy and poetry, calling for action or even just thought – but I have learned that sparking thought is enough.

I: Can you tell us a little about the National Student Poet Program and how you got involved?

C: The National Student Poets Program is the highest honor in the country for youth poets, in which five nationally-recognized students are selected to serve a yearlong literary ambassadorship, each in one of five regions of the country. The program is made possible by the U.S. Library of Congress (where we were appointed last year by Dr. Carla Hayden), the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Academy of American Poets.

My peers and I were selected from a pool of National Medalists in poetry in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards through a multi-layered adjudication process with panels of judges including former U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.

I: Tell us about your experience as a National Student Poet and the kinds of outreach events, activities, and workshops you have had the opportunity to facilitate.

C: As the National Student Poet for the Southwest, I have strived to promote poetry as a form of healing and expression in multicultural groups of first- and second-generation immigrant youth, working with the Child Advocates at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in San Antonio and with the Refugee Services of Texas in Dallas to reach groups of people that can benefit from poetry.

For National Poetry Month, I held readings and workshops around my region, the Southwest. I had the great honor of reading at the Phoenix Art Museum alongside the incredible poets Ada Limon and Eloisa Amezcua, reading and holding workshops for students at Albuquerque prep schools, and using poetry to work with middle-school students at a reservation for Pueblo Native American reservation, among other audiences I had the privilege to reach in these states.

I: Do you have any suggestions for how public and school librarians can help develop an appreciation for poetry in youth?

C: The way poetry is taught in most public schools is, in my opinion, not the best, and promotes the rigid idea of poetry as antiquated or esoteric. This creates the unfortunate problem in which many students go through school believing poetry can’t be for them to enjoy, write, connect with, or even understand.

An important step for me in my childhood was reading Latinx literature, moving from Sandra Cisneros’s vignettes – which delivered short, powerful messages about the tragedy of being a young Latina – to eventually finding gripping work from Francisco X. Alarcon and Juan Felipe Herrera, then finding a groove of poetry about heritage that I treasured. Even if students don’t identify with a certain culture, finding contemporary poets who write on subjects they can connect with and appreciate is critical to enabling their own voices.

Ada Limon, who I had the immense honor of reading with during National Poetry Month, wrote a book called Bright Dead Things, which is among my favorites and speaks on a spectrum of subjects from grief and sacrifice, to empowerment and love, using themes as varied as death, want, need, home, and racehorses. The great thing about this kind of poetry is that anyone can fall in love with it. Current U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith is another wonderful poet I feel should be shared with young people.

One good method for disseminating good poetry among young people is through methods like one used by the Poetry Coalition, circulating postcards with Smith’s poem “Flores Woman” in efforts to facilitate Americans interacting with poetry and potentially discovering something meaningful to them.

I: As your year as a National Student Poet comes to a close, what’s next for you?

C: I’ll end my year of service by reading at Carnegie Hall in New York for the National Ceremony of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards – I’ll also be attending the Aspen Ideas Festival with my fellow poets, and this fall we’ll be at the appointment ceremony of the next Class of National Student Poets at the Library of Congress.

After that, I’ll be attending Harvard University in the fall, studying History and Literature. This summer I’ll be interning at federal court like I did last summer; I hope to attend law school after graduating from college.

To learn more about Camila’s experience and message, please join us for a Facebook Live interview with her on Thursday, May 24th @ 10:30am (Central Time). Camila will read some of her work and we will have the opportunity to take a deeper look at the experiences that have shaped her poetry and her journey.

Come with your questions and don’t miss this chance to hear a powerful youth voice!

Facebook Live Interview with Camila Sanmiguel

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