Anjalequa Leynneyah Verona Birkett, an 18-year-old student at the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science, was named the City of Boston’s youth poet laureate on Feb. 26 by Mayor Michelle Wu and the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture. Birkett was born and raised in Roxbury before moving to Roslindale, and discovered her passion for poetry through slam and the 826 Writers Room. Ace Boston’s second-ever youth poet laureate, she hopes to give other young people the ability to express themselves through the arts.
Q: How were you first introduced to poetry?
Birkett: It’s kind of a long story, but I can shorten it a little bit. I was one of those kids that was struggling in school and missing out in class and everything, and I felt like super different and left out. And what made me feel some sort of connection was reading and writing and words, and around second grade and I got introduced to Jacqueline Woodson and her books by her and that really ignited like “Whoa, I want to write.” Then in eighth grade, I was introduced to my school’s slam team and they made me want to write poetry.
Q: What has some of your nonprofit work looked like?
Birkett: Yeah, I’m A-VOYCE [Asian Voices of Organized Youth for Community Empowerment, a youth program that is part of the Asian Community Development Corporation] was a Chinatown-based organization that focused on stopping the gentrification in Chinatown and just reclaiming back that neighborhood, and BARCC is the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. I volunteered there for a year and learned about healthy relationships, how to deal with them, how to deal with toxic relationships and deal with domestic violence and be an advocate to kids my age and younger and even adults.
Q: Would you say that social justice is a big driver for you? How has it been incorporated in some of your poems?
Birkett: I have a couple of pieces that I’ve written for particular, like social justice projects or things that stick in my mind. For BARCC I wrote a poem about domestic violence and for A-VOYCE a poem about gentrification, and I have my other pieces in my arsenal about different issues that I am very passionate about.
Q: How were you first introduced to the Youth Poet Laureate application? How did the process go for you?
Birkett: So, two years ago, was the first time that it happened and I heard about it through my school, a guidance counselor sent an e-mail to the whole student body, and I was just like, “oh, this is cool.” I didn’t get it, and I had almost like forgotten about it, until it came out again a few months ago … and I was just like it’s my last year to apply because the cut-off age was 18 and I was just like, you know what, let me do it again. The process was you have to submit five poems. One has to be about Boston, a bio, a statement, and you do an interview process, and then you perform at the Showcase and then they announced who the winner was.
Q: What do you kind of think of your poetry moving forward? Do you have plans to continue with it?
Birkett: Yes, I have many ideas about what I want to do and would love to do. Specifically, I like visual things, so I want to make like visual video representations of my poems and hold like events and workshops at schools based around poetry. You know, all grades, whether it be like a group of second graders or even a group of high schoolers. I just feel like art, and poetry and all that expression like you can give off through it, it really needs to be seen and heard and put into schools. I really think it can help a lot of children who are having a tough time expressing themselves and maybe finding something that really speaks to them because it took me a while to understand or realize poetry was a big part of who I was until I was in the current setting in my school that was like, inviting, and allowed me to represent myself.
Q: What are some of your responsibilities or ambitions as Youth Poet Laureate?
Birkett: I’m an advocate for the arts and poetry and implementing it in that community and advocating for that expression. That is pretty much open from whatever my interpretation is, whether it’s holding events or workshops or holding different performances. It’s really: You tell us what you want to do and we’ll be right there to stick by your side and make sure it gets done. I work with Tom Johnston at the City Hall and Porsha [Olayiwola], the Boston poet laureate. They introduce me to many different people, many different organizations, who want to work with me to get what I want done and really make sure that I achieve those goals.
Q: Do you want this position to slingshot you into a similar kind of career path?
Birkett: Yes, my big dream career is to be an author, like books of verse or novels, but my real passion, what I would really want to be is a high school English teacher. I really feel like this could help me get to that point. Everything that I’m doing with, you know, English and what I’m doing with the community and giving back and teaching in a way, and so it’s just like, the stars are aligning, you know.
Grace Gilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.