How US’s First Desi National Youth Poet Laureate Found Her Voice
“16-year-old Meera Dasgupta writes to promote gender equality, climate change awareness & draws on Indian heritage.”
“it is during these uncertain times that we
must understand the bones and lessons
of those who have come before.
to not ignore the horizons above
crashing, turbulent shores.
to not ignore the cost for
there is so much left in store.
for it is only when we continue to swim.
continue to rise and make ourselves known
that we as the people
of this nation
can truly learn
to mend & grow.”
Meet Meera, The First Asian American & Indian American National Youth Poet Laureate Of US
These verses from sixteen-year-old Indian American Meera Dasgupta’s poem ‘Armor’, are introspective and inspiring, and intend healing and hope, in a country ravaged by the virus and the rage of its citizens. A high schooler from New York City, Meera a is the US National Youth Poet Laureate 2020. She won this laurel in October 2020 — a title made famous by poet Amanda Gorman with her reading of ‘The Hill We Climb’ for the Biden-Harris inauguration at the US Capitol. Gorman, who has since become a media sensation, was the National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, the title Meera Dasgupta, a 12th grader from Queens, New York City, enjoys currently.
As the teenage poet calls for a better America, her words also ring true for other ‘turbulent shores’ such as her country of origin, India — where, to quote Meera, ‘we as the people’ need to ‘rise’ and ‘mend’.
Meera Dasgupta is also the first Asian American and Indian American National Youth Poet Laureate. At the age of 16, she has made history by becoming the youngest person to merit this glory.
Where Poetry Meets Social Justice
The one-year position as National Youth Poet Laureate is part of a program run by the nonprofit group ‘Urban Word NYC’ that recognises youth poets with a flair for leadership, artistic merit, and commitment to civic engagement. Many organisations including Youth Speaks, the President's Committee on the Arts & Humanities, the Academy of American Poets, and the Library of Congress, are co-sponsors.
While holding the title over the course of a year, National Youth Poet Laureate participates in events all over the US to help young students find their voice through literature and poetry. Meera, through her work, aims to amplify the voices of women of colour within politics, at online events, especially in a pandemic year.
Inspiration For Meera’s Poetry? Drawing On Personal Experiences
During her high school years in NYC, Meera has been involved with community civic engagement projects among students, such as an empowerment summit for girls. Drawn to helping others, she leads with her flair to uplift voices of marginalised communities. Working at the intersection of poetry and social justice, she reflects on grassroots experiences to rouse change and hope.
“The future is of young voices and we need to have them be heard. My poems are at the intersection of youth, gender and intergenerational conversations. Political events can be at the forefront of what affects me. We are political bodies navigating this society. In terms of personal experiences, it can be as simple as seeing something on a train, or in a coffee shop, which I write on the Notes app. I go to school in Manhattan, a few blocks from City Hall. I walk by and see people organising movements in that space. I draw from these experiences in my writing.”Meera Dasgupta to Savita Patel for The Quint
Explaining ‘Brown Girl Feminism’
Being a New Yorker, trains travel into Meera’s poems often. An interaction with a schoolmate’s parent during one of her pre-COVID daily subway rides to school became a poem — ‘explaining brown girl feminism to a white man on an e train’. Excerpt:
“brown girl feminism. a phrase/ that blisters tongues not keen on/ holding asian spices; that changes the name of this poem/to a white man’s lament in masala tears. but/ this rickshaw has no room/ for another man spread. Or the venti chai/ latte that he says looks like you. masticate/”
Writing For A More Equal World: ‘Yo, Mama!’
One of her better-known poems is ‘Uncle Sam’s Alphabet Soup’ — a modified abecedarian on America — which talks about the country having become a mixed soup of xenophobia, categorisation, suffering immigrants, inaction, guns, etc. It urges revolutionising the ‘recipe’.
Another poem that is a part of Meera’s popular repertoire is ‘(yo mama jokes)’, which was born of the realisation that “dad jokes are considered funny and cute, but yo mama jokes are insulting.” Excerpt:
“(yo mama) curie discovered that women can be radioactive.
(yo mama) tubman embraced the railroad & the soil & the loud that were her limbs.
(yo mama) ride swallowed the stars and grew herself a galaxy.
(yo mama) mirabai twisted her hands in prayer for a god she did not fully know.
(yo mama) yousafzai found her saviour at the back of a bullet.
(yo mama) steinum scorched the earth until nature didn’t need a mother, but a woman.
there is a joke somewhere in this poem but i can’t seem to find the laughter to accompany it.”
Meera’s Climate Change Activism
The 16-year-old poet is also a climate change activist and is the UNA-USA National Global Goals Ambassador for Life on Land.
“In September (2020), prior to the pandemic, in NYC I witnessed the biggest climate movement. We forget many issues and if we don’t act now, it will be too late. We need to go faster on that. I saw a little kid, older kids, and other students walking over the bridge close to my school to witness that — which made me write an important intergenerational action poem ‘lineage’ — about how we all have to play a part in that movement.”Meera Dasgupta to Savita Patel for The Quint
How She Found Her Voice
Meera remembers writing poems all thorough her elementary and middle school years, but she felt shy when public speaking opportunities came up. “ I would read a lot; I always did. In elementary years, you have the creative freedom and I would write 50 to 100 pages sometimes. But I was very quiet. I wouldn’t raise my hand voluntarily. Once when I was chosen to perform, I froze. I would shake and forget my lines at chorus auditions. I actually did not go up on stage till high school. It is misconstrued that when you are quiet, you choose not to be heard. Within myself I wanted to speak in front of others.”
She found her voice though her poetry and now the US Youth Poet Laureate reads her poetry at events across the US, motivating young students to find their voice.
Meera now looks forward to her first book, titled ‘botany’, which is slated for an April 2021 release.
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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