The White House
Welcome to the White House!
In so many moments of my life, when my heart was bursting with an emotion that I couldn’t quite describe— when I laid awake in the early morning hours, worry running through my mind— when I felt lost and utterly without a map; I turned to poetry.
In the words of others, I found the contours of my own joy. I found a place to lay down my fears. I found a compass that would lead me through the darkest of woods. And on the page, tangled in hurried lines and smudges of ink, I found myself.
So, it’s truly special to be able to welcome the 2022 National Student Poets—along with ten years of alumni—to the White House.
As many of you know, I teach writing at a community college, and every semester, I start by reading a poem to my class, called, “Where I’m From,” by George Ella Lyon. Its verses tell the story of the author’s hometown, not in locations, but in sensations and experiences and memories. I use it to tell them about myself:
I’m from ribbons of pasta, drying on the linoleum counter in my grandfather’s Italian kitchen, tomato sauce bubbling on the stove.
I’m from five sisters, glued together—messy rooms and borrowed jeans and standing up to bullies who lived on our block.
I’m from running through the yellow streetlights on hot July nights, feeling like summer would never end.
And then I say, it’s your turn! And, yes—a sheen of terror washes over many of their faces at the thought of writing their own poem. I can almost hear them internally screaming, “No!” But I show them other students’ examples and we talk it through. And when they come in the next day, not only do they have finished poems—beautiful poems—they are competing to read them to the class. The structure helps them find their voice and take risks. And overnight, my class of nursing and paralegal and automotive technician students becomes a community of poets.
Anyone can be a poet. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
No, in fact, it’s anything but.
It takes faith to ignore the critics that surround us or swirl in our heads—the voices that ask us: What makes you think you deserve to be heard?
It takes nerve and strength to pull those words from our hearts and pin them down on the page.
It takes courage—so much courage—to dig into the dark and messy depths of ourselves with curiosity and humility; to hold what we find up to the light; to open our throats and say something true.
It isn’t easy. But it is essential. To help us see the beauty we too often pass by; to untangle the meaning of this twisted life; to remind us that we are never alone.
And so, those with enough nerve and strength, with faith and courage—we follow Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
We celebrate with Lucille Clifton what she “shaped into a kind of life…here on this bridge between starshine and clay.”
When doubt creeps in, and we question our voice, we remember the words of another young poet, Amanda Gorman:
“Like light, we can’t be broken, even when we bend.”
And we vow to live by the words of Rumi, and “Let the beauty we love be what we do.”
That is why we’re here today—the students on this stage, all the poets in our audience, the parents, and everyone who makes this incredible program possible. I can’t wait to hear your work.
So now, I’m proud and honored to introduce our MC for the evening, one of my favorite poets and the Poet Laureate of the United States, Ada Limón.