In a time when the world is more difficult to make sense of than ever, Santa Clara County is opening the floor to local teens to make their meaning through poetry.
For the first time, the county will choose its own youth poet laureate. The idea by Santa Clara County’s own poet laureate Janice Lobo Sapigao is to select a candidate to “represent and elevate youth voices from all over the county,” according to the program description.
Candidates must be 13 to 18 years old, live in Santa Clara County and can’t be enrolled in college throughout the term, which spans for one year starting in June. Citizenship is not required.
“My goal as poet laureate was not only to start this program,” Sapigao said. “I want this program to continue past my tenure and I hope that someone will take it on and people will decide it’s necessary for the county.”
Sapigao said the program is important because society needs to do more to amplify youth voices.
“We live in an anti-youth society,” Sapigao said. “They’re told their voice will be heard only when they turn 18 and can vote.”
Furthermore, Sapigao said, youth are economically disempowered because they can’t work until their later teens.
“There’s a sense that adults and politicians and rich people think youth will not take care of them when, in fact, it’s often the adults that don’t take care of the young people,” said Sapigao.
Poetry often can serve as an entryway to get young people involved politically and within their communities, she said. It also gives them a sense of agency that’s otherwise hard to come by. Sapigao will mentor the chosen youth poet throughout the tenure, providing support and instruction.
Organizers of the competition want as many people to apply as possible, whether or not someone thinks they’re “good enough.” Six judges (Sapigao will not be one) will choose the finalist based on literary excellence, civic engagement and commitment to poetry as a craft.
Santa Clara County public libraries are helping administer the program by providing platforms to host events, as well as promoting it across social media.
“We’re very excited about the program, and I think it’s a great opportunity for teens to participate in a contest that will help them develop their language skills and help them express themselves, especially now when it’s so difficult to so,” said Steve Fitzgerald, library services manager for the Santa Clara County Library District.
The program is funded through the year with money from Sapigao’s own earnings through an Academy of American Poets fellowship that also funds her appointment as poet laureate in Santa Clara County.
An approximate $15,000 budget includes paying judges, running workshops and hopefully paying the young laureate.
Fitzgerald said the library district is lucky to have Sapigao leading this project, which is important for the community.
“It’s also an opportunity for teens to practice an art form that’s been around for a long time and recognize that there are other things out there other than science and math,” Fitzgerald said. “Language is important and this gives them an opportunity to fool around with a medium they might not otherwise have a chance to.”
The deadline to apply is Feb. 26.