Written by Devyn Forcina, Intern with the City of Worcester’s Cultural Development Division, summer 2021
Supporting Worcester’s Poet Laureate program was perhaps my favorite aspect of interning with the City’s Cultural Development Division this summer. The literary arts are a personal passion of mine, and seeing poetry flourish in the Worcester community was incredibly meaningful to me. To expand on my interest in this program, I sat down with Amina Mohammed, the City of Worcester’s first Youth Poet Laureate, and the first Youth Poet Laureate in the Commonwealth.
Although our interview was conducted over Zoom, there was a palpable power to her words as she articulated the significance of poetry in her life. Each question I asked her elicited thoughtful phrases which revealed her poignant philosophies on life. I felt empowered as she expressed herself with raw and vulnerable language that conveyed her emotional strength. Her remarkable ability to put words to her experiences and ideas made me feel connected to her, and I hope that in reading her carefully chosen words, you will feel connected to her, too.
Our interview started with a general conversation about what poetry means to Amina. “For me,” Amina began, “poetry means this form of peace, and a form of combatting the stress that goes on in my life. I would say that poetry is an escape. It’s not something I do every day. When I get in that mood and get passionate about a certain topic or subject, it is like a form of releasing everything.”
Amina first began writing what she termed “my type of poetry” about three years before our interview, during her junior year of high school. Her English teacher assigned a poetry project in response to “I Hear America Singing,” a poem by Walt Whitman:
She wanted us to write a poem. How am I supposed to do this? I’m thinking she’s talking about these structures, like haikus, having to have this structured poem. She was like, not necessarily, you don’t have to do that, you can just free write. Before I didn’t think my type of poetry was allowed, didn’t think it was classified as poetry. No, poetry comes in all shapes and forms, and this would be the best way to express how you feel about this certain situation that’s going on.
Amina’s poem focused on doctors, teachers, musicians, and “unheard voices” in communities. Laughing, she remarked that she had actually procrastinated the assignment and saved it for the last minute. Despite her quick writing process, her words clearly had a lasting impact on her classmates. They approached her after class with compliments and words of praise. Her teacher also compelled her to write more poems, and Amina did: she would not turn in only one poem for future assignments, but two or three.
Amina’s writing process is similarly based on her conceptualization of poetry as a “release” or an “escape.” Writing poetry clears her mind and allows her to “zone out.” She tends to draw inspiration from her lived experiences, and quickly puts her thoughts down in her phone. Describing her process, she said, “I write everything that I’m thinking about. Give me a subject, and I think of what comes to mind and I just start writing phrases. Then I look at the phrases, what else goes with this – boom, boom, boom, what else aligns with this? I’ll copy and paste, move things around.”
While poetry helps Amina to relax, she noted that she also writes well under pressure. She shared that she was hesitant about applying for the Youth Poet Laureate role until applications were about to close, and submitted her work on the last possible day. The same teacher who assigned the “I Hear America Singing” project supported her during the application process, even though she did not have many poems to submit at that time. “What are the odds?” she paused for a moment in quiet contemplation before continuing: “This is what I always tell people: listen, anything can happen. Don’t play yourself or say you can’t do this, because what are the odds it could happen?”
Since her inauguration as Worcester’s Youth Poet Laureate in January 2020, Amina said the role has brought her, “out of her comfort zone, but for the good.” Poetry has given her a way to express herself and relate people, which she did not always think was possible when she was growing up. “On the day of the inauguration, I was shaking. In front of a crowd now, I’m just like ‘whatever, let’s go!’ I talk to people that I haven’t talked to before. Now I can have a conversation just fine, not just a bland conversation, I can go into depth and can relate and give my own commentary back.” She often reads her work at open mics and other community events, and has made many connections through those experiences. I asked her if she felt her relationship to Worcester has changed. “I value it more than I did before… I appreciate being in a community where you don’t have to wait until things get too serious or something bad happens before people get together and celebrate the unity, and celebrate the cultural differences.”
While the role has helped Amina to gain new experiences in Worcester and beyond, it has also given her perspective on some of her past experiences and helped her to “heal.” She spoke about what she meant by this for a while, and I include her whole response as to not detract from its emotional resonance:
A lot of kids, I’m speaking for me personally, we grew up having all this pain, having all this anger bottled up in us. If it wasn’t for my teacher I don’t know where I’d have been. She truly sat down with me and said “you can talk with someone, music is another way to relieve stress, or you can stick to poetry.” I know a lot of my former friends didn’t really think those things were ideal, and they went into other things to find any sort of happiness in negative things like smoking, drinking, and other stuff I don’t want to get into, never truly healing. And I feel like, this [Poet Laureate] program has in a way helped me heal myself.
These past few years have been like a healing process, and it can be for a lot of other kids… I didn’t really see it as a job but as an opportunity to grow. An opportunity to, not put my past behind me, but take from the mistakes that I have done and move forward. Everything was a learning process for me. When you have programs like this that encourage youths to you know, go out there and show the community, show the world their creativity – the pain, the anger, the happiest moment you have – bottling this into a poem like I’ve done, a lot of people will be able to relate to that. And this program is another opportunity […] to understand that there are a lot of people, even grown people, that grew up with the same struggles and pain as me, and before this, I didn’t even really think people could understand me. That’s why I was so quiet all the time. And now it’s just me realizing that I’m not alone in this battle that I’m fighting.
And I definitely feel that for the future, youths that get into this that have the same story or somewhat of the same past, I feel like this program will help them realize that through the people they meet, through the different places they might go to perform, I pray that it helps them to realize that they’re not alone. There are people like you who understand your anger. I pray that they get the same treatment as I did in that, there are people here to help you.
Amina’s description of healing and coming to terms with her past left me stunned. She communicated her emotions to me with a clarity and power that reminded me of her poems, which similarly balance vulnerability and strength. Her favorite poem, she tells me, is one she wrote for an open mic during her time as the Youth Poet Laureate titled “Change.” I invited her to share what she liked about this poem in particular:
That poem was a reminder to myself or an acknowledgement to myself: listen, things are going to happen. It’s life. Crazy things are going to happen. But that’s the beauty of this thing we call life. The situation that you are in today is not going to be the situation that you are in tomorrow or in two years. Never dwell on the past, or think too much of a sticky situation or something bad happening. And it taught me, it was basically a reminder to me that no condition is permanent. Looking back, and looking back on that poem, it is a reminder, a BIG reminder, that if I could get one moral, one moral from that poem it is that no condition is permanent. Things may go down today, and somehow, things will change for the better.
Things are changing for Amina, too. As her Youth Poet Laureate term concludes this year, I wondered what would be next for her. She plans to continue pursuing her Nursing degree at UMass Lowell, with the goal of becoming a Nurse Practitioner specializing in pediatrics. She loves working with children and wants to have a greater impact on their futures. She also says that, “what’s next for me is getting out there, not just Worcester, but seeing the world for what it is, going different places, relating to different stories, and getting to know different people.”
But what is next for Amina’s poetry? During our interview, I was consistently moved by the self-awareness and fulfillment that poetry provides her with. I told her that I hope she will keep writing, and her response was effective in its simplicity: “Poetry will always be there.”
As our interview came to a close, I looked back at my scribbles of wise words Amina had said. She had been so attentive and gracious in her responses that I had not wanted to miss anything she told me. I felt bonded with her through our mutual passion for poetry, but also through the honesty she had met my questions with. I was touched by her thoughtfulness and willingness to open up to me, especially after describing herself as historically being more reserved. What I gleaned from this interview is that Amina is a gifted young poet who observes the world around her in bold and beautiful ways. I feel pride and happiness on her behalf that the Youth Poet Laureate program has enabled her to grow and to be challenged, and has made her realize “poetry will always be there” for her in the times ahead.