April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Interview: Ishmael Islam, NYC’s 2012 Youth Poet Laureate

Nineteen-year-old Ishmael “Ish” Islam was recently named New York City’s 2012 Youth Poet Laureate for his winning poem, “Daydreaming at the Voting Booth,” which he performed at a poetry slam at Cooper Union.

SLJ spoke to the Kingsborough Community College student about his new role, his passion for poetry, and how librarians can help spread the love of this art form to their students.

The Youth Poet Laureate program is a voting-themed teen competition designed to energize young voters through spoken word poetry and is a partnership between Urban Word NYC and the NYC Campaign Finance Board.

What sparked your interest in poetry?

I always had a need to create. Being an only child for seven years left me very rooted in my imagination—and still does till this day. Writing was the way of expressing all the thoughts and feelings. Once my teachers noticed the other things I wrote in my books that weren’t their notes, they encouraged me to read poetry books and join workshops. The turning point was when my mom took me to an Urban Word NYC slam in 2007, and from then on, the rest is history.

Tell us about your winning poem, “Daydreaming at the Voting Booth.”

“Daydreaming at the Voting Booth” literally came from a daydream. I didn’t vote in the 2011 NYC elections primarily from feeling the need to reassess why voting is important to me as a youth and citizen of this country. Thinking about such factors while sitting in my college library I dozed off, and the spirit I speak of in the poem must have been my subconscious pointing out all the nostalgic undertones mentioned in the piece. I’m big on history, so knowing why voting was important in the first place can remind why it’s still useful now.

What do you hope to achieve as the 2012 Youth Poet Laureate?

The title of NYC Youth Poet Laureate means I represent the voice of many other talented youth poets in New York City in the pursuit of raising voter awareness and other forms of civic engagement. The achievement I’m aiming for with such responsibility is to demonstrate to other teens citywide creative methods of being involved with their local communities.

Do you think educators can reach certain kids better now that poetry slams are more mainstream and are included in classroom lessons?

I like the idea of poetry becoming more mainstream, not necessarily slams. To be quite honest, I only enjoy slam sometimes. It isn’t my favorite aspect of being a poet right now. However, I do understand the vibrant energy included in slam that can attract an audience on a mainstream level, even in an educational setting. There’ve been many high schools I’ve performed in where the class time was built around the students having a slam to summarize their poetry unit. As long as it engages students in appreciating the dynamics of poetry, then that’s a success in my book.

What can school librarians do to encourage more kids to read and enjoy poetry?

School librarians can focus on an activity-based approach to poetry. Make games out of it! For example, place a board at the front desk or near the poetry shelves where on it is an explanation of a form or technique (simile, ghazal, anaphora, etc.). Leave space on the same board for students to create their own examples of the highlighted technique. Then conclude with a recommendation of poetry books to have them find the same techniques and forms in the writings.

How does it feel being up on the stage performing your poetry?

I’m very appreciative for the amount of stages I’ve been blessed to experience thus far. I feel free up there. There’s also this sense of safety I get. The truth I give on stage is there to be observed then absorbed, not so much judged how I feel it would be in normal conversations. A lot of that stems from the shyness and timid communications I had with people ever since I was younger. As an artist, I’m now at a point where I can’t hide from interactions about my work off-stage (feedback, interviews, and the like) the same way I don’t hide it while performing. I think the next phase of my growth is being fully comfortable with that.

Why do you think this art form has become so popular, especially with young people?

I think the art form of poetry and spoken word has become so popular because it may be the most financially accessible. Music and visual art programs in schools now dwindle in capacity to the point where it’s becoming dangerous due to lack of funding. Midday or after school poetry workshops takes nothing more than some pens, notebooks, and a group of minds to volunteer. Additionally for youth and adolescents, this is the period of our lives where questions of identity and how it impacts our surroundings are the most intense. The sense of freedom associated with poetry alleviates the fear to question things. In a safe space we can ask, feel, and think in a poem without being judged.

Where does the inspiration for your poetry from?

Inspiration for my poetry right now comes from the relativity of all things within my life and others. With this particular inspiration, I aim to treat subjects with equal interest. So for example, if I’m interested in doing a poem on a subject from my favorite TV show Mad Men, the piece will search for the relativity of male privilege between the show’s perspective and those of men I know in reality. The goal with my poetry is to take what I genuinely imagine, what I genuinely experience in everyday living, and see how they fuse, clash, repel from each other, or become relative to each other.

Can you walk us through your creative process?

Everything starts with the idea. I’m a huge advocate of tracking ideas and writing them down immediately because they can strike at any time. I notice ideas arrive like wildfire when I’m taking a shower. The best times, where I’m in a natural “Zen” point of creativity, are usually very late at night or during morning hours. Other points of the day I have to really organize my focus before working. When spontaneous moments of writing hit, they’re usually freewrites or skeletons of a piece that I’ll invest focused time into during those “Zen” periods.

You’re half of the Brooklyn hip-hop duo HumUni. Do you feel they’re similar ways to express your creativity or is one more satisfying than the other?

Making music is as satisfying as writing poems. Creating in itself is the fulfillment for me. Along with those two art forms, I do graphic design and video production. The age of 12 is my first recollection where I started doing all these things in parallel measures. Of course, there are periods where one thing will take more priority than the other. However, because I love each art form equally, I cannot stop doing them all. Being an adult now, I plan to make a career of being a multi-disciplinary artist. The most humbling challenge of it is to make the transitions between each aspect seamless, and as I’ve said before, relative.

Tell us about the book of poetry you’re about to have published?

I’m still awestruck that I’ll have a book of poetry published in little under a year. The concept is set and it’s still developing, so I wish not to give too much of the story away right now. What I hope for the reader to get at the most surface level is a full perspective of a genuine Brooklynite. The upbringing in my hometown has everything to do with me as an artist and person. As a writer, I aim for this experience to take my writing skills to new levels. Overall I’m very excited about this project! To paraphrase another favorite artist of mine, Erykah Badu, a project is like your child. You have to nurture it and take care of it. In the end, I hope it’s a piece of work that will resonate with readers, and that they find something in it that is relative to them.

About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.