This National Poetry Month, meet 3 young PNW writers

Though their subjects, approaches and ambitions differ, they’re all devoted to what one calls the ‘most human form of language.’

A triptych of three different images; a girl sitting down on the left; a girl in the middle standing and smiling; a guy performing on the right

Left to right: Azura Tyabji, Sah Pham and Matthew Valentine are young artists involved in the Pacific Northwest poetry scene. Tyabji has published two poetry collections; Pham is Seattle’s Youth Poet Laureate; and Valentine will compete in the national Poetry Out Loud competition. (Courtesy of Azura Tyabji; Seattle Arts & Lectures; Pavel Verbovski/ArtsWA)

April is National Poetry Month, but in Seattle poetry is celebrated year-round. The region is home to an all-poetry bookstore, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry press and regularly names both a Seattle Civic Poet and a Washington state Poet Laureate

The city boasts a wealth of youth poetry programming too. 

Each year since 2015, Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Youth Poetry Fellowship has awarded the Youth Poet Laureate title to one young poet from a workshop cohort and helps them publish a poetry collection through Poetry Northwest, a journal in publication since 1959. 

At longstanding literary center Hugo House, the Young Writers Cohort has a division specifically for poets, in which a mentor guides students through a year-long program focused on poetry.

And spoken-word organization YouthSpeaks Seattle, founded in 2003, hosts open-mic nights, poetry slams and weekly writing circles at the University of Washington’s Othello Commons and at Black arts center Wa Na Wari.

Young poets are writing and performing all over town, and according to Sasha LaPointe, a poet and mentor for SAL’s Youth Poetry Fellowship, the form is helping youth find and hone their voice. 

“I’ve seen students go from quiet and shy, to loud and massive on the stage, claiming space they deserve,” LaPointe wrote in an email.

“There is a strength and a confidence there because there has to be,” she continued. “These young poets are fierce and ready for a fight, they’re tackling themes and addressing issues fearlessly, in a way that feels really groundbreaking, and why wouldn’t they be? They know they have something to say and their voices are so crucial right now. And they’re gonna make us listen.”

Arianne True, who mentors young poets at SAL with LaPointe and teaches young poets at Hugo House, agrees. She added that these poems are good, regardless of the writers’ ages. “Youth poetry is some of the best stuff that happens in Seattle,” True said. “Removed from all context, their poems are incredible and stand on their own.”

In honor of the “official” poetry month, we’re checking in with members of the art form’s vanguard: three emerging poets already making a splash on the bustling scene.

Sah Pham

Sah Pham is the 2022-23 Seattle Youth Poet Laureate, a title awarded to her by Seattle Arts & Lectures. She will publish a poetry collection, LOVELIKE, this summer. (Seattle Arts & Lectures)

Sah Pham’s love affair with poetry began at Cascade K-8 Community School in Shoreline, where she was already scribbling poems at age 7 and 8. In sixth grade, she met local poet and author Vicky Edmonds through Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program.

That was when Pham learned how liberating poetry can be. 

“In other forms of writing, we’re asked to write to a very specific rubric, or write a certain way, and never in a personal way,” the 20-year-old Pham says. “But poetry allowed me to write in a very personal way that really revealed a lot of truths for me.” 

Now poetry has turned into more than a hobby. This year Pham is Seattle’s Youth Poet Laureate, a title given her in June 2022 by the year-long Youth Poetry Fellowship program at Seattle Arts & Lectures. As part of the role, Pham will publish a poetry collection, LOVELIKE, in June. 

“It’s about love, but it’s also about the absence of love, the discovery of love, the searching for love inside yourself and in others,” Pham says of the book. 

Still working on the collection, Pham says that in her poetry she avoids what she considers hard letters, like Z, gravitating instead toward soft sounds. She also uses metaphors involving water and oceans, inspired by her mother’s harrowing journey as a Vietnamese refugee.

Her work “A poem for my mother, a Vietnam boat refugee” reads in part: 

So when the Communists started building concentration camps out of sandcastles,
You ran to ship / afloat in Saigon ashes
Sang Vượt Biên sea-songs in tropical storm
Tossed boat and identity into same belly.
Mama, how could you still love water after swallowing an ocean of trauma?

Currently an undergraduate studying political science at the University of Washington, Pham plans to attend law school after graduation — but she’s not giving up on poetry anytime soon. 

“I want to pursue law and use poetry as a vehicle for justice,” Pham says. “The law is so sanitized and separate from us that I feel like it needs a little bit of humanity — and I think poetry is the most human form of language.” 

Matthew Valentine

Matthew Valentine performs at Washington's Poetry Out Loud competition on March 11. Named state champion, he will perform at the national competition in Washington, D.C. (Pavel Verbovski/ArtsWA)

Matthew Valentine used to hate poetry. He thought it was one of the most “annoying” genres to read. 

But as he continued to read poetry at his middle school in Olympia, he was attracted to the freedom of the medium, as compared to what he considers the constraints of prose writing.

“Prose, I think, is so limiting. There’s no way to convey this huge, ever-expanding, massive world and all that comes with it in something that is so restrictive,” Valentine says. “Poetry opens it up so much more.” 

Now 17, he writes poems and also performs other poets’ work. In March he won first place in Washington state at Poetry Out Loud, a recitation competition. The victory earned Valentine a spot in the national competition in Washington, D.C. this May.

One of his winning recitations was of “The Mortician in San Francisco,” a 2009 poem by Randall Mann about the murder of Harvey Milk. Valentine says he personally relates to the poem as a queer person — a connection that comes through in his performance. He is expressive and musical; his voice crescendos and decrescendos, takes on urgency and slows to softness.

As someone who often suffers from writer’s block, Valentine says he often prefers reciting other artists’ poems over writing his own. “You get to see how other people express their ideas and their feelings,” Valentine explains. “You read it and you’re like, ‘Wow, I felt that too. I never would have thought to put it in that wording.’”

In middle school, Valentine used to write somber poems about heavy topics such as police brutality, but he has lately moved on to lighter themes. “I’ve written a lot of poetry recently about just being a teenager and how much fun life can be,” Valentine says. He’s focused on enjoying his senior year and appreciating his friends.

His 2023 piece “The Parking Lot Hours” subverts the stereotype that poetry is inherently sad by focusing on themes of togetherness and friendship. It opens: 

Here together
An amicable alliance
The hushed hum of teenagers talking 
About something we shouldn’t

Azura Tyabji

Azura Tyabji served as the 2018-19 Seattle Youth Poet Laureate. Now, she's a First Wave Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Courtesy of Azura Tyabji)

Azura Tyabji, 22, has always been soft-spoken. But that changes when she gets on stage to perform spoken-word poetry — an activity she enjoys so much she plans to make it a career.

The first poetry slam Tyabji attended was through YouthSpeaks. It was 2016, and as poet after poet held sway on the stage, Tyabji watched in enchantment. She was awestruck.

“I had never seen something like a slam before,” Tyabji recalls. “Something about young people my age spitting poems just completely changed how I viewed poetry. Spoken-word made poetry feel undoubtedly alive to me.” 

Tyabji served as the 2018-19 Seattle Youth Poet Laureate, was a finalist in the National Youth Poet Laureate competition and performed at the Library of Congress in 2019. She also has published two poetry collections, Dear Azula, I Have a Crush on Danny Phantom (which she co-authored) and Stepwell.

She grew up in Seattle and now attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a First Wave Scholar, a program that awards full scholarships to select hip-hop artists. 

Tyabji’s poems tend to reflect themes of identity, social justice and activism. Her own favorite poem, “Womanhood speaks to patriarchy uninterrupted for the first time,” focuses on the societal reduction of women to appearances and day-to-day misogyny:

I would have loved myself first
but that would have been unfaithful.
So instead, I shrank and shrank and shrank
until forgiveness nestled a tumor in the cradle of my hips and I said thank you.
Even though I asked to be human,
you made me woman instead.

Performing and sharing her poetry on stage is what motivates Tyabji to write, as it creates a community and allows her to connect with others.

“Before spoken-word, I always imagined poets write alone,” she says. “You’d go to your desk that’s lit by a candle and you sit at your typewriter and you write your thoughts in isolation.” But now she keeps the audience in mind, all those people listening. “It matters once I start writing for other people … I don’t want to write for my own ego.”

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