In my latest interview conducted on behalf of Seattle Arts & Lectures, I talk with Aaron Counts and Matt Gano, co-founders of the Seattle Youth Poet Laureate Program. Our Q&A lives here on SAL’s SAL/ON Blog where you can listen to an audio recording and read a full transcript of our conversation. Enjoy!
Poet Aaron Counts, co-founder of Seattle’s Youth Poet Laureate (YPL) program, described the power of poetry to me this way: “A great poem helps you understand yourself and how you fit into the world. It’s like having the recipe for oxygen—it’s a survival skill.”
Poetry isn’t frivolous or a luxury, it’s necessary.
Many of us have heard or made this assertion, but it was Aaron’s phrasing that stuck with me. He alluded to the poet as alchemist and, without saying the word, equated poetry with breathing. His metaphor continues to linger in the center of my chest, for in what other year has breathing been so top of mind? The word breathe is everywhere—poems, newspapers, podcasts, common parlance—though the context is anything but common or casual. Then, just as it felt the lesson had been hammered home, weeks of devastating wildfires once again reminded us of the precious necessity, and struggle, for oxygen.
Breathing, like poetry, is a survival skill.
When the human body experiences stress, we breathe high and shallow. Our senses narrow in fight-or-flight. We withdraw, we conserve, we brace. The body channels energy toward escape and defense, leaving few resources for thinking creatively or critically. Deep breathing, like poetry, is a survival skill. It feeds us oxygen that calms our nerves, broadens our view and connects our hearts, lungs, emotions, and mind.
The word inspire can apply to art as well as breath. We invoke breath and creative muses; we draw breath and paint scenes with words. How different, then, is the landscape of a poem from the tableaux of our lungs—500 million tiny sacs called alveoli in each—the site of transfer of oxygen into the bloodstream, which affords us life?
Poetry, like breathing, is a survival skill.
During our conversation, I asked poet Matt Gano to describe the origins of the program he and Aaron co-created—why engage with youth in the practice of poetry? Matt said, “We wanted to offer community and connection, especially for kids who are experiencing the world through the types of feelings and ideas that lead them to poetry.”
This, too, sounded familiar. A youthful surge of emotions and experiences that demand an outlet which, for many, is poetry.
What stuck with me is the nuance Matt inferred, that youth relate to poetry in a special way—that, with age, one’s relationship to passion, vulnerability, and the mystery of living shift. It’s no wonder why. Poetry requires deep work of readers and writers. The mental labor of poetry—What does this mean?!—can feel like too much to bear on top of everything else. Who has time or energy? And therein lies the magic of poetry, which complicates the human condition in a world that pushes us to rush, to gloss over, to simplify. When I feel tired and overwhelmed, when it feels like I have little to give physically or emotionally, I ask myself, Is there a better moment for poetry—or a deep breath?
The good news is, we never lose the ability to engage with poetry though, like breathing, it’s possible to temporarily forget. We can return again and again, buoyed by life experiences that lend greater insight to poems we thought we understood. As adults, we may be able to write poems that were out of reach when we were young.
What gives me hope?
That poetry is valued in our region. That organizations like Seattle Arts & Lectures consider poetry as essential to the emotional growth and psychological development of engaged youth. When the YPL program was conceived six years ago, Matt and Aaron expected to select one laureate. After reviewing applications from many passionate poets, they realized a sole winner working alone wasn’t what they were hoping to create. Thus was born the notion of a cohort working in partnership with the laureate, building community together that would last beyond the program year.
What gives me hope?
The power of poetry to connect us as humans in breath, rhythm, and image. The power poetry gives us to name and channel our feelings, emotions, and ideas as we meet the struggles of our time. The power and responsibility we hold as a community to support the work of young poets as they describe their relationship to the world—not only as they see it, but the future they seek to create. I am so excited to hear the YPL readings this year.
Now that the smoke has cleared, we will, once again, emerge from our homes and rejoice in the deceptively simple act of breathing outdoors. The air has turned crisp, the leaves yellow, orange, and red—my favorite time of year. Our windows will soon close again as the skies turn rainy, but fall is a fine time to open oneself up to other seasonal experiences: brisk walks in the mist, spicy cider doughnuts, and essential books of poetry.
Our conversation follows here.