Friends Board Director, M.C. Abbott interviewed the 2020-2021 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, Greer Nakadegawa-Lee, in December. We are lucky enough to be able to share the full video recording of the conversation, including a poetry reading. Link to video here.
Applications for the 2021 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate will be open January 1 to February 1, 2021. Click here to learn more.
Interview with Oakland Youth Poet Laureate Greer Nakadegawa-Lee
FOPL: Thank you Greer for taking the time in the middle of your finals to speak to us about what it's been like to be the city’s Youth Poet Laureate. Maybe first, just introduce yourself and tell us what year you're in, what school and how long you've been the Youth Poet Laureate?
GNL: My name is Greer Nakadegawa-Lee. I'm 16 and I'm a junior at Oakland Technical High School. And I've been the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate since June. I think.
FOPL: It's a little blurry in 2020. Tell us about how you stumbled into poetry and first came into the idea of becoming a poet?
GNL: I’ve actually had two separate California Poets in the Schools teachers. One of them came to my elementary school and I got a taste of that pretty early, and I was like, hey this freewrite thing is pretty cool. Another one came into my sixth grade class and his name was John Oliver Simon and I just really loved being in that environment where we were just writing. Afterwards, I asked him if he was going to have an afterschool class, and he was like, well I might now!
FOPL: Who are your favorite poets? And what do you love about their poetry?
GNL: I owe a really big debt to slam poetry because that's the work that got me into writing. I really liked the emotion and the passion behind it. One of my favorite slam poetry writers is probably Olivia Gatewood because I liked her storytelling. She would sometimes do accents for a particular character. It made it stick in my mind a lot. Someone I've been reading recently is, um, Richard Siken. I really like the imagery that he uses and he has kind of this confessional style that feels really personal.
FOPL: Can you walk us through your process of writing a poem? How does it all get started?
GNL: Most of the poems I write, I write just before I go to sleep. Those don't always turn out great, because I can be a little bit fuzzy. But when I'm trying to write something for a performance or if it needs to be on a certain topic, I'll sometimes start with just scrawling out anything I have, freewriting. Then I pick out bits and pieces that I like and then build off of that.
FOPL: Why right before bed?
GNL: I've been writing everyday for – it's coming up on three years. Or we've passed it? I know it's in December, but I forgot the exact date. Having it be right before bed, it slots really neatly into my schedule and I always remember to do it. Whereas if I just do it anytime of the day, I would definitely forget.
FOPL: What has been the highlight of your career as the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate?
GNL: There's been a lot of highlights. I really liked doing the performances and I really like just the fact that I actually got to meet a lot of really cool people when I was finalist like Sam Getachew who was the Laureate before I was. He's amazing. And then I really liked seeing the performances of the Vice Laureate this year, Michelle Arango. I think her work is really beautiful. Meeting those other people has been definitely a highlight.
FOPL: How do you think you have evolved as a poet in this last year?
GNL: Yeah, that's something that's kind of hard to measure, like concretely in the moment. I really only notice evolution in my work on a longer timeframe. Sometimes it can be hard to see between like December and January, but it's really easy to see between 2020 and 2017.
FOPL: Hmm. So how have you evolved over that period of time?
GNL: Well, definitely my style's changed a lot and the things that I'm willing to write about have changed a lot. I think I've become more open in terms of subject material. And I've allowed myself to be a little more explicit, like when I want to say something. I think when I was younger, I was using metaphor as a way to hide instead of as a way to express myself. That's definitely changed a lot.
FOPL: Why do you think you've been able to evolve in that way? What has made that possible and what has changed in you?
GNL: Well, definitely part of it is this program. When you have the chance to perform in front of like a lot of people or you have an audience, or you even just have people who are behind your work. When you're in this program, you do have people who are behind your work.
FOPL: I saw that you published a book of poetry this year.
GNL: I did. God, months ago. I think it was in February.
FOPL: How has that experience been?
GNL: That was really amazing. It is a little bit surreal because I wrote a lot of that work when I was in middle school and some of it when I was as young as like 11, I think. And so to see it in a physical form now that I'm a junior in high school is really crazy to me. It sort of feels like a time capsule in a way.
FOPL: You said there's poetry from middle school and as young as 11 – do you still identify with that work?
GNL: It definitely feels like a different period of art for me to be honest. Some of it, I look at it and I'm like, I don't even recognize who this person is, but I am still proud of the work that's in it.
FOPL: What has been the most challenging part of creating a collection to publish?
GNL: Definitely all the writing that wasn't poetry was hard. Writing the intro was hard. Writing anything for promotional material was hard. It wasn't something I anticipated at all, going into it.
FOPL: One day you can hire someone to do that for you.
GNL: That's the dream.
FOPL: What has been most surprising about publishing this work?
GNL: Definitely the response from people around me has been surprising at times. I remember giving a copy of the book to a friend from my, my school and – how do I explain this? He was showing me his copy of the book later and I realized that he had like, highlighted little lines from like all the pages, because he had really read it. I really felt appreciated.
FOPL: I was reading reviews of the poetry collection that you published, and I saw that your work is often described as almost like an instigator on social and political issues. And there's a great focus on identity and our relationship to the collective. I wanted to know if you could speak to what, if anything, you want people to take away from your poetry on these themes.
GNL: I mean, I think a lot of my poetry has some social justice themes in it, but I guess the morals of it kind of just boiled down to having compassion for other people. It's not that complicated – the message – but to me, it's an important one to express, when a lot of times it feels like the people who are in power right now, don't seem to have a grasp on that basic lesson.
FOPL: What are you looking forward to in the new year? And it doesn't have to be poetry related.
GNL: Well, I'm looking forward to winter break right now. I’m just trying to get there. In the new year? I'm not sure. I'm a little bit scared for the future, to be honest.
FOPL: Final question: applications for the Youth Poet Laureate open again in January. What advice do you have for applicants?
GNL: First of all, if you're on the fence about applying, you should do it. Even if you apply and you aren’t selected, you still become part of this community. Then if you're definitely going to apply, I would say, share them with other people first, just so that you feel comfortable and confident in your work. Make sure that what you're submitting represents you because that's really important.