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#NPRPoetry: Samuel Getachew

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, poetry. In honor of National Poetry Month, April, we've been asking you to submit your original poems on Twitter or TikTok. And joining us to talk about some of your submissions now is poet Samuel Getachew. He served as the 2019 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, and he was a finalist for the 2020 National Youth Poet Laureate, and he is with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

SAMUEL GETACHEW: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: You've accomplished a lot already as a youth poet. You've won prestigious spoken-word competitions. You were a finalist for National Youth Poet Laureate. But I'm going to ask you to take us back to how it started for you. Do you remember when you fell in love with poetry and why?

GETACHEW: Oh, geez. I've always been in love with the written and the spoken word. I was an avid reader as a child. I used to eat lunch in the library. And there was kind of a moment where I realized that I could also create language and create art out of language myself, and it wasn't just something that I had to consume.

But specifically with poetry, that came a little bit later. My teachers in my first, you know, classroom writing assignments would always tell me, you know, this is good, but it's not academic writing. This sounds too much like poetry. So there was kind of a moment in middle school where I just kind of decided to try writing poetry super-intentionally. And then I kind of just never looked back.

MARTIN: I think like a lot of people, this has been a year of change, you know...

GETACHEW: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And of some uncertainty for many people - maybe most people. What has been the role of poetry in your life during this period?

GETACHEW: This year has changed so, so much. For me personally, I feel like I've grown so much as a person, and my view of the world has changed so much. And throughout that, poetry has really been grounding. And I think it's also exceptional how I've been able to see poetry's influence on the way that I view so many things that aren't related to poetry.

In the last two months, I've been living in New York on my own for the first time, where I'll be finishing out the rest of my gap year. And I've actually been pursuing modeling, which has been a very, very different and interesting experience from poetry. But I - you know, as I'm trying to learn this new art form of, you know, styling my own shoots and experimenting with fashion and experimenting with movement and posing, I'm, like, noticing the similarities in which, you know, poetry - it lives in everything. And I see it in music now. I see it in day-to-day interactions - how everything kind of takes on this really beautiful shape of poetry to me now because of all the years that I've spent, you know, living with poems.

And so I think throughout everything, poetry has always just been something that helps me understand the world. And I think that that can sometimes be super-specific, as in I'm writing a poem about an experience that I've been through. But it can also be super-abstract, where I'm finding similarities in the ways that I'm interacting with people and interacting with new challenges that I'm facing. All of that has been super-influenced by the way that I've approached poetry.

MARTIN: All right. Well, great to hear. All right. So let's get to some of the poems that stuck out to you.

GETACHEW: Yes, let's...

MARTIN: Why don't you just pick one? Go ahead.

GETACHEW: All right. Let's start with this Twitter poem. This is from Kelly Van Nelson, and this is a haiku. (Reading) Empty street is filled with nothing but memories of feet once moving.

MARTIN: Oh, wow. What did you like about it?

GETACHEW: Before I moved to New York, visiting my old high school, it was just a random day that I happened to be driving past it, and I was looking at how empty it was, even just in passing and how full I remembered it being before COVID. And it just - it - this poem made me a little bit nostalgic. It reminded me of that feeling of looking at a place that you once thought of as, like, so full of life and seeing it empty.

MARTIN: Yeah. It's interesting. It's bringing up feelings for me because I'm from New York, born and raised. And that's the main thing that I was thinking about, is friends who still live there, family that still live there talk about how empty the streets had been - right? - especially during those early days when everything was shutting down. It just really brought up a lot of feelings. Well, that's great.

So you also picked a submission from TikTok. I'm going to play it. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

CHRISTIE BRIE: The goddess of the moon descended and pressed me. With a kiss, I awoke a woman.

MARTIN: That was from Christie Brie. What did you like about this poem?

GETACHEW: I - you know, I'm 18 years old. I'm coming into adulthood for the first time. I'm getting ready to go to college for the first time. And this is such a period of growth and transition for me. And I really, really loved the way that in such a short poem, that piece was able to kind of depict this, like, overnight coming-of-age feeling. And so, yeah, I'm being a little selfish, picking the ones that resonate with me so personally, but yeah.

MARTIN: It's fine. And OK, how about one more?

GETACHEW: This last one is also from Twitter, and I think it's also a haiku. And this one is from Sharon Rousseau. I'm so sorry if I mispronounced your name. (Reading) The sweet dragonfly would be glad to eat you up if you fit its needs.

MARTIN: OK (laughter). And what did you like about this one?

GETACHEW: I love nature poems, and I love nature poems that are a little bit sneaky. And I felt like this one fit both of those criteria. And I think it's just - it's such a beautiful metaphor and can be applied to so many of our daily interactions with people. And I love writing and poetry that explores kind of those less pleasant to think about sides of interaction but things that we all think about subconsciously anyway and just never really admit.

MARTIN: Well, as we said earlier, at the beginning of our conversation, you started writing really early, really young.

GETACHEW: Yes.

MARTIN: And do you have any tips for people who maybe would like to start writing but don't know where to start?

GETACHEW: For people who are just getting started out with writing, I would really emphasize that writing doesn't have to have rules if you don't want it to. And then in terms of having trouble getting started, simply with inspiration or things like that, I would say, you know, find your favorite book, your favorite poem, even your favorite song, and find a line that really resonates with you from it, and just put that at the top of a blank piece of paper and use that as the first line of whatever you want to write. And that is an exercise that has helped me in the past. It's an exercise that I know lots of experienced writers do to this day, and it's a pretty safe way to get started.

MARTIN: That is Samuel Getachew. He is the 2019 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate. Samuel Getachew, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on everything. Keep us posted on everything you're up to.

GETACHEW: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And if you would like to participate in our Poetry Month celebration, there are two ways. As we said, you can post your original 15-second poem to TikTok with the hashtag #nprpoetry. Please keep it radio-friendly and 15 seconds or less. We are also taking your original Twitter poems, and you can tweet those to @npratc with the hashtag #nprpoetry. We're sticking with the original Twitter length rules. Poems must be 140 characters or less. And as you heard, your submission may end up on NPR because every week, we have invited a celebrated poet to join us and discuss some of the poems that caught their eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA FEAT. KARRIEM RIGGINS AND RIVER TIBER'S "BUS RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.