“The world needs to know about a local writer who this year was named the Indianapolis Youth Poet Laureate and has won IRT‘s young playwright competition, while also winning gold keys in the Scholastic Art & Writing competition locally and nationally,” informs the email, as a starting point, followed by a longer list of accomplishments and this summation: “Did I mention she is a 15-year-old freshman? She has been writing spoken word poetry and competing in slams since the third grade, and over the years her love for poetry has only grown.”
The list of credentials includes, out of 320,000 national submissions winning a Scholastic Gold Medal; an American Voices Medal (awarded to only one writer per region); and the Best-in-Grade Award (awarded to two writers per grade level in the country), gaining third place at The Poetry Slam at the 2016 Library of Congress Book Festival in Washington, D.C. In 2017 and 2018 Alyssa Gaines traveled to the international Brave New Voices youth poetry festival as a competing member of the Indianapolis team.
Lauren Hall, manager of corporate & foundations relations for Teach for America-Indianapolis; director of Indianapolis Youth Poet Laureate Program; and board member of VOICES, responded to my email-of-interest, underscoring, “Alyssa Gaines is an incredible young woman and phenomenal reader. I've been privileged to know her since she was in the 3rd grade. Her work ethic, critical perspective, and deep commitment to pushing for a better, more equitable future for all of us is energizing and inspiring.”
We agreed on an email Q/A interview:
nuvo.net: What has been the impetus for poetry as your way of expressing your soul?
Alyssa Gaines: I was called to do poetry because, with it, I can do with language things that I had never seen language do. I can create things with words and turn them into what I want them to be. For example, taking a noun and making it into a verb, or making non-traditional choices about capitalization. Whether you break the rules of language or follow them, everything is meaningful—whether you intend it to be or not—and everything presents itself in a new way to each reader each time they read it.
Creating poetry is like building with Legos, you can choose to follow the instructions and you can also choose not to, but either way you end up creating something that can be moved and changed and that can be viewed differently by different people. I love the freedom that poetry offers writers; the freedom to take the language you’re given and build something with it, or destroy something with it, or say something new with it. Poetry really gives so much life to words in that way
nuvo.net: Why, in your experience, is it essential to maintain proficiency in the multiplicity of spoken and written language throughout your childhood, in light of 'prejudice' against childhood multilingualism; yet when we attend college we are urged to study a second language--what is the duplicity here in your estimation?
Alyssa Gaines: First, I believe that it is extremely important to maintain proficiency in not only written language but spoken language as well. Spoken language is an important part of my culture, and the way I can represent my culture. AAVE, the spoken language that culturally belongs to African-Americans, evolved to represent and affirm the cultural upbringing of my community through slavery and carries a lot of history with it. It is important to be familiar with this history, and for me it is important to maintain a connectedness with this history and thus a connectedness to those within my community. As black people, we must be proficient in standard written English as well, because in many spaces, particularly educational and professional spaces, AAVE is viewed negatively and its use can cause people to internalize preconceived notions about its user. It’s important to understand the rules of engagement around this cultural dialect and recognize the disappointing truth that one gains access, especially in educational and professional spaces, when one uses the more socially-acceptable and widely-understood language of black American diglossia. I also believe that this multilingualism is important because, as black Americans, we can combine the two languages that most of us must be proficient in, to balance our communities and our professional and educational success, in beautiful ways that help to more holistically represent the black identity within the United States—like how one of my writing role models, Zora Neale Hurston does in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The second thing I will say about why it is essential to be proficient in both spoken and written language has to do with the different types of Spanish that are spoken and written globally. Each type of Spanish carries with it its own set of cultural connotations and a history. I have a friend at school who is Puerto Rican, and her being from the Spanish Caribbean you would think that the way we speak Spanish is similar, but, until meeting each other, the way we spoke Spanish was very different. It’s so interesting to look at the ways we’ve both interacted with the Spanish language and the roles that assimilation, classism, and racism, amongst a slew of other factors, have played in making our Spanish the way it is. I grew up watching Cuban T.V. shows, listening to Cuban music, and talking to Cubans on the weekends, and so I got words like “acere” and “guagua,” which supplemented the Spanish I learned in school that gave me words like “anteojos” instead of “gafas.” Throughout Middle School all of my Hispanic friends were from Mexico, so I learned a lot of slang words and swear words from them as well. My friend tells me I speak Mexican Spanish with Cuban words that I intentionally drop in and a blending of the -ado and -ido suffixes into “-ao” and “-io.” I tell her that she speaks like a newscaster for Univision. She was always taught a version of Spanish that is professional and easy to understand. We both frequently have conversations about this, and I have come to believe that my Spanish doesn’t have to be palatable. Caribbean Spanish represents a pride in the history of el caribe, and is a unifying force for all caribenos. But for both AAVE and Spanish, I had to come to this realization and this sense of pride in these forms of spoken language.
The duplicity here lies in the fact that when we get to college, we are told that it is important to be multilingual, whereas throughout childhood we are taught to code-switch for survival. There becomes this greater emphasis on multiculturalism, but not an emphasis on accepting the validity of spoken languages in higher education or corporate America. It’s about recognizing the existence and knowing the history of these ethnolects while subconsciously accepting that they are not to be interacted with outside of their dissection and display for educational purposes. For me, I reconcile this with the understanding that these ethnolects are a part of my identity and they are not representative of a lack of intelligence but rather a complicated connectedness with people like me across geographical lines.
nuvo.net: How has being proficient in sports eased your way into being 'accepted' ...that is, being a team member without the trappings of 'different' or in our class for the purposes of a winning team, but away from that, not really considered by the others as 'part our class'? Living in multiple worlds on many levels--intellect, ambition, responsibility, ethnicity...?
Alyssa Gaines: I would say that in each realm that I exist in, the parameters around being “accepted” change. For me, it’s about learning to navigate each space in a way that will help me succeed while also remaining true to myself. Being a black girl, I enter a lot of spaces that aren’t set up for me to succeed within them, and so I exist and I strive to be the best I can within their lines so the next black girl to enter these spaces has more room to do the same.
The main sport that I play right now is lacrosse, which is a predominantly white sport, so I am accepted at the level of being a moving piece of the machine that is necessary for team success, but lacrosse does represent an elite, wealthy, white world that I, myself, interact with often but am not a part of. Playing lacrosse allows me to break down certain barriers between myself and people who move through the world in a very different way than I do, because at the end of the day we are teammates. I would even go as far to say that it also elevates my social status in a way and lends me a certain credibility within the world of the white elite as a black person who is viewed as “safe,” and “acceptable,” and different than the way that black people are typically perceived within this world; however, even when I am on the field I am usually still navigating being the only person who looks like me on my team and sometimes on the whole field. I felt particularly isolated during my club season this year, I remember thinking to myself that it was like The Blindside. There was really not a lot of chemistry between me and my teammates at all, I often went to practices barely even talking to them, and the parents didn’t talk to my parents either. And this is only a quick example. Last year, I watched Evansville Bosse, an all black girls’ lacrosse team (which is so exciting and affirming to see) get essentially cheated out of a state championship. There are a lot of calls in girls’ lacrosse that are rooted in if a player has the intent to cause a dangerous situation or if a player causes a dangerous situation, and so when we are perceived as more aggressive, dangerous, and malicious, we get treated differently by referees and we draw calls that are a bit questionable. So I would say there’s a certain level of difference that I have and feel, not only within the sports realm that I’m a part of, but in general as a black girl; however, there is a certain privilege that I gain from playing lacrosse.
Being an athlete and existing on so many different planes, I do experience privilege in more than one area. Knowing the privilege I have, for example going to a private school, being able to play lacrosse, being able to code switch and fit in with my team, being able to navigate this world in a way that makes me an “acceptable” black to those who are a part of it, it allows me to consider, when I’m writing from a position of not having privilege, how can I create conversations between people who are marginalized and people who aren’t. I am inspired to explore how I can use my privilege to fuel my writing and help those who don’t have the same privileges that I do. Taking in all of the intersections of my identity and the changing codes of how I move through different spaces, I am challenged to always find new ways to stay true to myself. It also motivates my writing to see how I navigate these settings and look at the bigger picture of how others who look like me navigate these spaces.
nuvo.net: It is likely a younger child, who recognizes physical kinship, will look up to you. How will you give courage to that child to achieve, persevere, be true to self and an honor to your heritage and to the larger society?
Alyssa Gaines: For me, the courage to be true to myself comes from a feeling of responsibility that I have to the larger society and to the people who came before me-- specifically black female writers, scholars, and artists, who had the courage to be their best selves and to clear paths for Black women to come. Every generation that has this courage to achieve, persevere, be their best selves, and honor their heritage, makes it a little easier for the next to go a little farther. I recognize this and I am responsible to clear more paths for those to come after me.
The way I give courage to anyone who looks up to me is by making myself vulnerable and available and showing what writing can do as an outlet to amplify voice. I would say to this child that looks up to me that being true to self is hard, and you have to find the passion within yourself to do exactly that and continue to do it. Zora Neale Hurston believed that everyone had a story within themselves waiting to be written, and I agree. There is something inside all of us that needs to come out and be contributed to the world. By having courage and choosing to contribute it, we do so much for those in our communities and those who will come after us. Courage in this sense is an act of selflessness, so I would say that we must be courageous to help the ones we love and the people around us.
nuvo:net: We each, within ourselves, must be 'our village' of hope, inspiration, gratitude, support--along with those who surround us with love and caring, from the outside. How did you grow your fire of self-assurance, how do you keep that fire glowing?
Alyssa Gaines: Consuming media surrounding and interacting with black women who are strong in themselves and steadfast in their beliefs, inspires me to be the same way. The affirmations and trailblazing of these black women allowed me to grow my own fire of self-assurance. What keeps this fire glowing is the knowledge that I must have a foundation of my own beliefs that I can stand on. Building and maintaining this foundation is essential if I hope to do anything outside of myself. Being a black girl is hard enough, you must be able to maintain knowledge of who you are despite negative messages that you are constantly fed in every twist and turn of life, and it can be very easy to get discouraged. The way I fight this is by, not only supporting myself, but also having the support of a community of people and women who experience the same hardships I do and who can build me up and help me grow. The people who are around me, my family, friends, teachers, and mentors, are all people who guide me and help me grow more steadfast, self-assured, and confident in myself and what I have to offer the world. It’s really a combination of outside factors pushing me to keep going, and the internal realization that without a solid foundation of self I am not able to.
Watching media and other Black women who have been strong in themselves and steadfast in their beliefs and what they stood for, really inspires me to be the same way. You have to have a foundation of your own beliefs and you have to stand on this strong core of what you believe in and support, and what you don’t, so building that foundation within myself was crucial if I was going to do anything outside myself. This pushes me to grow outside of myself and be self-assured and realize that what they say is valuable. I do have to be my own village. Just being in the world being a Black woman is hard and if you aren’t your own village you can get really down and upset and discouraged and you can’t make change in that position and you’ve got to know who you are despite negative messages you’re fed. The people who are around me, my family/friends/teachers/mentors all the people that guide me do help me grow more steadfast and self-assured to grow more confidence in myself and the message I do have to share with the world. It’s a combination of outside factors pushing me to keep going and the internal realization that without it I can’t keep going and working for change because of the way Black women are treated.
nuvo.net: What most makes your life joyful?
Alyssa Gaines: When I got back from vacation in Mexico with a friend’s family, I made a list of things of just things that brought me joy. I love looking at it and adding to it, and pursuing the items on my list when I can. It keeps me grounded, and helps me to know where to go from positions when I feel down. So the list itself brings me joy, but also what it consists of: bicycles, bookstores (especially bookstore/coffee shops), chicken parm, sparkling water, getting new lip glosses (the Lip Injection Extreme by Too Faced & the beauty supply Jellicious in particular), mac n cheese, charcuterie boards, being in the water, speaking spanish, staying out late, working with kids, hugs, sunrise/sunset, doordash, and it goes on. A lot of my list is currently on hold, but I’m always finding new things to get excited about. I’ve been really into A24 films and big t-shirts lately so those are the most recent additions.
nuvo.net: As the Inaugural Indianapolis Youth Poet Laureate, what do you want to accomplish and grow for the ongoing success of this essential uplift program as the city enters its third centennial year in 2021?
Alyssa Gaines: Broadening the exposure of poetry as an artform, and a platform for change among youth. The spoken word/poetry scene in this city is growing, and so what is important to me is making sure that kids beyond those who are already involved can access poetry and see it as an outlet and a form of self-agency, and also making sure that kids who do write are connected with the resources to grow in their writing and the opportunities that poetry can create.
The main thing is broadening the exposure of poetry as an artform among youth. Spoken word/poetry scene in the city is growing. Making sure kids beyond those already in our program can access poetry and see it as an outlet and making sure more kids has access to it. Bring more youth voices to the table
nuvo.net: What else would you like to touch on/convey, inspire others to undertake/consider?
Alyssa Gaines: Do not underestimate the power of your own individual voice. Everyone has different experiences, and everyone has something to share that the world can learn from. There’s so much power in your individual voice, no matter what position you find yourself in you always have your story. You have something you can share, and it is important to fully appreciate and tend to that power. Share what you can so that people can grow in love and empathy and the world can become a better, more safe place.
Applications for the next Indy Youth Poet Laureate are open now through June 5 for any/all youth ages 12 - 19 from the State of Indiana. Applicants must send 5 poems and a resume highlighting their leadership experiences to IndyYPL@gmail.com to be received by June 6.
“We'll have a virtual event (community workshop, open mic, and naming of the next Indy YPL) on June 20, 2020,” said Lauren Hall. “Please direct people to VOICEScorp.org as we're the organizing/host entity, and I'm our local leader for the National Youth Poet Laureate program. We're working on getting a published version of YPL applicant's poems.”