Poetry Student Workshop at the White House
Remarks by the First Lady at the Poetry Student Workshop
2:36 P.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Hey! Thank you, everybody. (Applause.)
AUDIENCE: Good afternoon!
MRS. OBAMA: Like that. That's good. I like the (inaudible) part. (Laughter.)
Well, again, let me welcome you all to the White House. I am thrilled to be here today and to have you all here today.
I want to start by thanking Tiesha for that wonderful poem and those words and that attitude and that suit and everything else that goes along with it. (Laughter.) I had a terrific time visiting the students at your school. You weren’t in the classroom, but you all were a terrific challenge. It was an honor for me.
And I also -- before I go any further -- I want to acknowledge one of my dear friends who is here with us, the First Lady of Mexico, Mrs. Margarita Zavala, who is here, right here. (Applause.)
Yeah, I get to meet a lot of First Spouses in my work, and sometimes you just click with people, and this woman, who is an attorney, she’s a passionate advocate for young people in her home country and around the world, she’s somebody that I click with. And she happened to be here, and I was like, you got to come, you got to come and check this out. So I’m pleased that she’s been able to join us today.
I see some -- a bunch of people around here. I won’t start naming names, but we’ve got a pretty good room full of people here. So I want to thank the extraordinary group of poets and artists who’ve taken time out of their busy schedules to run today’s workshop.
My dear friend, Elizabeth Alexander -- hey.
MS. ALEXANDER: Hey. (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: Rita Dove, Billy Collins, Kenny Goldsmith, Alison Knowles, and Aimee Mann, let’s give them a round of applause. We’ll get to hear from these folks. (Applause.)
They have moved and inspired so many of us with their words and their music, and we’re honored to host them here at the White House.
And finally I want to recognize all of the student poets who are here today. You all are the reason why we do this workshop.
So we’re going to do this big, fancy poetry reading this evening, and that's all fun, and we’re going to hear some stuff. It’s going to be good. But this is the real reason, this workshop today, this is why we do it, because we’ve flown you guys here from all over the country because we want you to be a part of this conversation, sitting here in the State Room of the White House of the United States of America, because you’re just that important, right? You’re just that important. And this is the best part of the day, every time we do these. It’s today. So thank you for being here.
I was a budding writer. Elizabeth doesn’t know this. She thinks she knows everything about me. But when I was young, I was a passionate creative writer and sort of a poet. That's how I would release myself. Whenever I was struggling in school, or didn’t want to go outside and deal with the nonsense of the neighborhood, I would write and write and write and write.
So this workshop and celebrating you all is important to me, as well, because I think it was my writing that sort of prepared me for so much of what I’ve had to do in my life as an adult.
But you all come from all different backgrounds and different schools and different states across the country. But all of you students have one thing in common, and that is that same passion for poetry and writing that I had when I was young, and I understand that you all are a pretty talented bunch. I think that's why you got to come here, because you’re pretty good at what you do. (Laughter.)
As poets, you all work wonders with the English language, arranging, rearranging words to tell stories and help paint pictures. That was something I loved to do with words, is just to paint a picture and make it real so that you felt like you were right there; to evoke the emotions of your readers.
But in addition to being very talented, you all are something that -- what I think is even more important for being a poet, and that is you’re brave.
Robert Frost once wrote, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat.” In writing poetry, you all put words into that kind of emotion. You give voice to your hopes, your dreams, your worries and your fears. And when you do that, when you share yourself that way, and make yourself vulnerable like that, you’re taking a risk. And that's brave. Not many people are willing to do that, to put themselves out there like that.
And when you write poetry, you’re not just expressing yourself. You’re also connecting to people. And that's the key to everything we want to be and do as human beings -- is our ability to connect to one another.
Think about how you feel when you read a poem that really speaks to you; one that perfectly expresses what you’re thinking and feeling. When you read that, you feel understood, right? I know I do. You feel less alone. I know I do. You realize despite all our differences, there are so many human experiences and emotions that we share.
And poetry doesn’t just show us how much we share. It also exposes us to wonderful new ideas and experiences. It helps us see the world in an entirely different way.
As Rita Dove once wrote, “What writing does is to reveal. A good poem can awaken our senses and help us notice things that we’ve never noticed before. It can take us to places we’ve never gone -- to a mountaintop or a battlefield or a city halfway around the world.” And I know that writing poetry is not easy. I know that sometimes you really got to work hard to make it happen. I know that it can be discouraging when you’re struggling with writer’s block and you can’t find that word that is just right, or get that line exactly the way you want it to be.
I know I was talking to Malia last night -- was working on a paper, and it’s her first draft. And she said, I hate first drafts. (Laughter.) It’s the toughest thing, is the first draft. And I know that feeling. I know we all know that feeling of the first draft.
But when you start to feel that kind of frustration, when you feel like you’ve been working on a poem forever but it’s just not coming together, I want you all to know that you’re not alone. Rita Dove goes through as many as 50 or 60 drafts when she’s writing a poem. I try to tell my kids that all the time. It is not the first draft. There’s no such thing as a first draft. You write and you write and you write. And for Rita, she might take as long as two years to finish a poem. Is that true? Does it take you two years to finish a poem, Elizabeth?
MS. ALEXANDER: Upon occasion.
MRS. OBAMA: See there? So even the best. So I want you all to keep at it. Keep taking those risks. Keep having the courage to share your work, which is so important. That was the best part of writing -- it was reading it back to my mother, making them sit and listen to my work. And I also had to read it and perform it. So keep sharing, keep reading poetry, and learning from other poets. And even if you don’t grow up to be a professional poet, I promise that what you learn through reading and writing poetry will stay with you throughout your life. It will spark your imagination and broaden your horizons and even help your performance in the classroom. And that’s what Melody was talking about just a little while ago.
That’s why it is so critically important that we integrate the arts into schools. It is a must. It’s critically important that we continue to encourage after-school programs and engage community partners to help young people like all of you develop your gifts and to fulfill your potential. This is not an option. This is a must.
For so many young people this will be the air they breathe, the reason they keep going to do the right thing. That’s what you’ll all be doing today here with these brilliant poets and artists. This is a true gift to you all to be in this room with these people. They will share their own stories with you; give you tips and advice that are invaluable.
So I hope that you take the fullest potential of your time here in the White House. I want you to ask lots of questions and listen carefully. Do not be afraid. Don’t let the cameras or the lights intimidate you. We’re just here. I just happen to be the First Lady, but that’s not a big deal. (Laughter.) Hard to say. Because these folks have a lot of wisdom to share, and I know that they are as excited as I am to be sharing it with you.
And know that, as I always say, you got to keep passing it on. You got this experience to be here, right? So you are fortunate. You are blessed. So the question after this is what are you going to do to pass it on? What are you going to do to give this gift back -- because not everybody could fit in this room. If we could, we would have had -- it’s small rooms. The White House seems big; kind of small. So it’s up to all of you to keep passing this on.
So with that, I’m going to stop talking so that all of you can start learning. Thank you again for joining us at the White House. You’re going to get to see the performance this evening. So we’ll wave to you into the cameras. So I hope you have a wonderful time today. I’m going to sit for the first session and hear a little bit, but we’ll probably get up while you keep going. So with that, do I turn it over to you, Elizabeth?
MS. ALEXANDER: Yes, you do.
MRS. OBAMA: All right. It’s on you. (Applause.) Thank you all.
END 2:46 P.M. EDT
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