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Corrections & clarifications: This story has been updated to reflect the location of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
When Alyssa Gaines was in third grade, her teacher assigned the class to write a poem about a color.
While her classmates might have chosen pink or red or yellow, she chose black.
“At that time, I think I was just beginning to consider identity factors,” she said. “So I wrote my poem about the color black and I'm thinking about the way that this cultural group, this big community affects my life and shapes my experiences.”
This kind of introspection only scratches the surface of the 18 year old, who was the inaugural youth poet laureate of Indianapolis in 2019 and is now Urban Word's 2022 National Youth Poet Laureate Midwest Regional Finalist.
If she's named National Youth Poet Laureate later this month, she'll follow in the steps of poets like Amanda Gorman, who was the first to ever hold the title in 2017. Many likely remember Gorman’s reading of her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at President Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration.
Gaines’ love for poetry goes beyond titles and competitions. It’s ingrained deep within her, an art form she uses to express herself, process events and represent her community.
It starts with her words.
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The impact of her words
Mark Gaines, Alyssa’s father, said she’d always loved to read and that her curiosity and passion for social issues emerged at a young age.
When she brought home the poem she’d written about the color black, Mark said he was both surprised and proud of his daughter’s insights.
“It was really one of the things that you were very interested in to see what her perspective was, but also (I) was really proud of how critically she was thinking in third grade,” he said. “It catches you off guard, but then you have that proud parent moment.”
Following that poem, Alyssa said her grandma started taking her to poetry slams, competitions where people read poems and receive scores based on those experiences. It’s been a part of her life ever since.
Lauren Hall Riggins, who is the director of the Youth Poet Laureate program for VOICES Corporation and one of Gaines’ mentors, has known Gaines since she started coming to the after-school poetry programs and competing in slams.
When she was 13, Gaines got a perfect score at a Slam led by National Endowment of the Arts and the Library of Congress. That poem was about Gaines' friend who had a Confederate flag.
“I really pushed her to think about what it means that she is a young Black girl in Indiana,” Riggins added, “because that is a different and unique experience than some of the people she was competing against in New York City or L.A. or Chicago. And so she really has such an incredible way to translate across racial and economic differences.”
Gaines is a senior at Park Tudor High School. In addition to her writing, she plays lacrosse and is in choir and theater.
A play she wrote about Indianapolis' east side won the Indiana Repertory Theater's Young Playwrights in Progress competition in 2020 and was staged at a theater in Broad Ripple.
"She's thinking on such a high level that that oftentimes, I'm trying to tell her to relax," Mark said. "Don't burn out."
She’s busy. But poetry is her passion.
“The first thing I learned was the impact of my words, the potential for my words to be more than just something casual, the potential to elevate my language,” she said.
'Room for revision'
Each day, Gaines said she is “falling in love with this writing and editing process.” Her years in slam poetry have taught her to become a good listener.
Gaines’ writing process starts from a topic, something that elicits “strong emotion” from her. Then she sits down to write.
In terms of content, that differs depending on style. Her more performative poems, which play with sound and language, often start off as free verse, focusing on an angle that resonates with her, how she wants to "dive in."
“What do I want to explore about this topic?” Gaines asks herself when she writes. “What's exciting? What's interesting? And I try to find how I want to get into it, dive in. And if I have my in, then I just start writing.”
If she doesn’t have an angle, she begins with form — examining what poetic structures might best showcase her topic.
“I think about my topic, and I think about forms of poetry that are directly connected to that, that might allow me to unravel it," she said, "and then I'll go from there.”
It’s a process — one that's carefully planned. Her thesis project, which focused on how the Republican Party can be reconstructed based on “a shared cultural understanding” between working-class white people and Black Americans, has her looking into southern poetic traditions, specifically.
Her family's history in Russellville, Kentucky, where her grandpa lives, and the Confederate history of the town inspired her to write her poem "Blue Dashers," which she read on NPR.
Gaines said she feels better about putting her poems out into to the world when they're connected to civic engagement, — something she's been able to do a lot of through her duties as Youth Poet Laureate.
"That takes away some of those nerves, because not only did I write this poem, but even if I revise it, I'm doing the work in my community," she said. "So it's okay, and there is room for that revision."
As Youth Poet Laureate in Indianapolis, Gaines has focused on increasing access to fine arts for kids in Indianapolis. Specifically, she wanted to inspire kids to write poetry. That included a lot of workshops and speaking engagements, but also going to schools and directly engaging with young kids.
“Kids have their own perspectives, their own way of viewing the world, and that's valid and interesting," she said. "And it can help us as people who are older, or even someone probably older than me, to reimagine things that they already think they know from this new lens.”
Inspiring young poets
Gaines became Indianapolis’ first-ever Youth Poet Laureate in 2019.
“Being the first was exciting in the sense that there were all these possibilities,” she said. “I got to shape it into a service in my community in a specific way that I wanted to serve.”
Her local title made her eligible for the regional Midwest title, which she currently holds as a finalist for National Youth Poet Laureate.
Being up for the same title as Gorman and other talented poets has Gaines realizing the power that her words have to affect others, she said.
When asked what advice she'd give to young poets, Gaines said that “nobody writes a perfect first draft.” The key is to get started.
"If there's something that you want to talk about, or a strong emotion, start there," she said. "Start with something that's very important to you and something that you're passionate about, and write about it."
"There is an eastside everywhere there is a corner store
Everywhere the pace moves like a slow and steady baseline shaking the concrete..."
Gaines’ words echo through Lawrence Township Park as she reads from her poem called “Eastside everywhere."
This piece, she said, is the final product of a poem she’s been “writing, and rewriting and rewriting” as a love letter to her home.
Gaines synthesizes joy and pain in her poems about Lawrence. She sees what collective remembrance and grief can look like, because “a lot of people that live on the east side can tell you they know someone who’s been killed before they were 18.”
“You hear about it, because you're one circle of separation away,” she said. “Because it's someone who goes to the local high school, someone on the football team, it's someone you went to a party with. There's all these instances of communal grief.
“I put a high value on my personal relationships and my interactions with others, and I think I owe that to Lawrence Township," she continued. "And so I have all these fundamental experiences, of beauty, of community, of love, of care, but also of trauma, of grieving, and still moving forward, and still making art.”
Writing about her home also requires standing in intersections," which Alyssa has done, Mark said. He said his daughter’s ability to juxtapose different situations in her life, between school and home, between Lawrence and Park Tudor, in her poetry, is a “blessing.”
“She's been just hyper-intelligent, but then finding poetry as a way to express her thoughts, her frustrations, her views," Mark said.
The many parts of Gaines’ identity help frame her poems, she said.
“There's so many intersections there," she said. "I'm Black. I'm from the east side of Indianapolis. I speak Spanish, I’m bilingual. All these things come together and they create a unique identity.”
Building bridges through poetry
Gaines has explored activism in her poems for a long time, but her relationship to poetry as a means for social change has fundamentally changed throughout the years.
At an earlier age, she might have set out to write a poem that was explicitly political. But now, she's trying to "write the things that only I can write." That still means exploring political issues, but through her own experience and communities.
Her awareness of social issues has been evident since she was young, her dad said.
Mark said when the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary happened in 2012, he and Gaines’ mother, April, tried to shield the then-8-year-old Gaines from the realities of what happened.
But a few days after, news about the shooting came on while they were watching TV. Mark jumped up to change the channel, but Alyssa told him to keep it on. When he asked her how she’d found out about it, she said she’d read it on the internet.
“We really quickly found out our attempts to shape how she perceived the world and interacted with the world weren't going to work,” he said.
“I'm trying to write the pieces that show my unique perspective and that I'm directly connected to, so that I can stay grounded in that and my poems can be authentic in that way,” she said.
Moreover, Gaines' understanding of poetry as activism comes from her experiences with slam, she said. If she is standing before an audience performing a piece about an issue, the audience members will "explicitly" know where she stands and why. There's a connection there.
"I think poetry builds bridges. Poetry builds community," she said. "And where there's bridges and community, there can be activism. There can be mobilization. We can discover shared interests."
'The work doesn't stop'
It's a big month for Gaines: She graduates from Park Tudor, and she’s still deciding where she wants to go to college. She wants to study abroad and major in political science, economics or history.
Gaines will find out whether she’ll hold the national title on May 20 at the National Youth Poet Laureate Commencement at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
Her life will change forever, no matter what happens. It already has.
"Even when I pass on my title, the work doesn't stop," she said. "And now I have a bigger platform to do more work and to reach more people and make more connections, which is so exciting, so rewarding. And I'm really grateful for that."
Poetry is always going be a part of her life.
"If all else is done, if I don't want to perform, if I don't want to publish my work anymore, poetry will always be, at its very basis, the way I process things," she said. "So I'm always going to be writing.”
Contact IndyStar trending reporter Claire Rafford at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @clairerafford.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indy's National Youth Poet Laureate finalist: 'Poetry builds bridges'