NSPP poets
NSPP poets and Bill Murray during the Poetry for the Pandemic virtual event.

“These driven, focused young people tackle very serious social issues of today’s society. Given the events of 2020, this program has served as bibliotherapy for people of all ages and brings communities together in a number of ways that are really unexpected.” – Dennis Nangle, Senior Program Officer of Grants to States at IMLS

This month marks the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month, which was founded by the Academy of American Poets.

As we celebrate poetry this April, the youth ambassadors of the National Student Poets Program (NSPP) are hard at work collaborating with libraries and museums across the country to share the positive impact that poetry has on communities.

National Student Poets are chosen from the pool of National Medalists in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards with input from a panel of judges. It’s the country’s highest honor for teen poets presenting original work.

The program is conducted each year with funding from a National Leadership Grant for Libraries through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and in partnership with the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. It identifies teen poets with unique perspectives and powerful voices, invests in training and mentoring them, then launches them on a year of service as national poetry ambassadors to lead community-focused projects for a wide range of audiences throughout their regions.

By amplifying youth voices to create and sustain meaningful change, the program supports them in being heard and aims to promote reading, writing, and appreciation of poetry in people of all ages. The NSPP also strengthens the connections between the schools and libraries and museums while providing forums for the poets and the public to interact, learn, and grow.

Creativity, Collaboration, and Communities

NSPP poets
NSPP poets and IMLS staff

NSPP not only recognizes exceptional youth poets, but also gives them an opportunity to develop their leadership potential.

“The program is unique in the fact that it’s not simply a prize that’s given to talented young poets,” said Dennis Nangle, Senior Program Officer of Grants to States at IMLS. “Acknowledging them at the appointment ceremony is just the beginning.”

Partnerships are a critical component of the NSPP. Nangle works with the Alliance to identify organizations with whom the students can work to expand the literary knowledge of community members. To promote effective collaboration and engagement, students are paired with libraries and museum programs that reflect their interests and areas of focus, so they are guaranteed to be a good fit.

“Having IMLS as a partner to facilitate introductions to libraries and museums on a local level is very important to the success of the program,” said Christopher Wisniewski, Executive Director of the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers/Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

For example, students may host a workshop for participants to experience poetry in a more personal and less academic way, as many people associate poetry with classroom-based assignments. However, workshops that lead with expression and feeling can make a big impact and connect more meaningfully with community members. In this approach, students are able to reach multiple generations by integrating formal elements of the artform within a more experiential framework. This allows the community to discover poetry as a passion and hobby, not just a class or lecture.

“One of our 2020 Student Poets, Ethan Wang, is doing a book chat with the Texas State Library to talk about how poetry became relevant to him as soon as he started doing it for himself rather than for school assignments—something he realized while visiting a library,” Nangle explained.

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NSPP poet on video call

Although their year of service is still underway, the students have adapted well to current circumstances and pivoted to a virtual space to carry out collaborative and individual work. In addition to partnering with organizations, the students partner together for projects; recently, they served as panelists during a virtual event—Poetry for the Pandemic—that reached about 1,000 people.

To prepare the students for such events, the Alliance serves as their guides, mentors, and support systems, working closely with them throughout the year to refine their community service projects and develop the skillsets they need to be successful as National Student Poets. This includes everything from brokering introductions to potential programmatic partners to conducting monthly Zoom sessions with poets to answer their questions and check in.

“The poets are exceptional and inspiring to work with,” said Wisniewski. “The opportunity to get to know a young person who has already accomplished so much but is still exploring and developing their voice and to be able to offer them a platform is endlessly gratifying.”

A Student Poet’s Journey

After being selected from tens of thousands of submissions, five high school students from across the country are appointed as National Student Poets—each representing a different geographic region of the country. In 2020, the National Student Poets are:

  • Maddy Dietz, Midwest Region;
  • Manasi Garg, West Region;
  • Ethan Wang, Southwest Region;
  • Anthony John Wiles, Jr., Northeast Region; and
  • Isabella Ramirez, Southeast Region.

April, May, and June will bring more community projects, workshops, and readings, but some events have already taken place. A notable partner this year has been Theater of War Productions; they have involved the student poets in three events this year:

Isabella Ramirez, 17, is a senior at Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in Florida. With a background in slam poetry and spoken word, she uses her poetry as a platform for advocacy and social justice. Ramirez also hopes to provide a voice for the Latinx and LGBTQ+ community through her work and looks forward to engaging with her region through readings, workshops, and exploring how people’s identities have a place in poetry.

NSPP poets
NSPP poet on video call

In addition to being a National Student Poet, Ramirez was recently selected as a South Florida Youth Poet Laureate by the Jason Taylor Foundation. The foundation also sponsors Louder Than A Bomb Florida—a competition in which Ramirez placed second in her junior year.

With this recognition, she will be able to compile her work in a chapbook as a tangible way to share her poetry far and wide, as well as work with the foundation and engage with other Youth Poet Laureates across the country, which will be integral to her service project with the NSPP.

Although the students haven't been able to interact with community members in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a silver lining: Virtual programming has allowed them to reach and engage with more people than they usually would.

However, they’re still eager for the chance to conduct events in person this summer if public health guidelines allow.

“I hope to be able to do at least one event in person, because I think part of beauty of the program includes connecting with people, and sometimes being in that physical space is what provides that connection,” said Ramirez.

Although their year as ambassadors concludes this summer, their work won’t come to an end; NSPP alumni often continue their community projects after their terms have ended and participate in mentoring each incoming class.

“These students are very creative and self-sufficient—it’s always great to see what they’re capable of and how libraries and museums can support them and amplify their work with the exciting opportunities the program brings,” said Wisniewski.

About the Project

Grant Project Name: National Student Poets Program
Grant Log Number: LG-00-18-0243-18 (a)
Year Awarded: 2020
Recipient: Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, Inc.
Project Contact:
Dennis Nangle
Senior Program Officer, Grants to States
IMLS
dnangle@imls.gov
Website: www.artandwriting.org/programs/national-student-poets-program