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Joy as resistance: Meet Youth Poet Laureate Salome Agbaroji

National Youth Poet Laureate Salome Agbaroji. (Courtesy of Urban Word)
National Youth Poet Laureate Salome Agbaroji. (Courtesy of Urban Word)

This year’s National Youth Poet Laureate is still getting used to the crisp fall weather in Massachusetts after growing up in Los Angeles.

Salome Agbaroji is a first-generation Nigerian American passionate about political science and dreams of a future in advocacy. The Harvard University freshman is charting a path for representation in poetry that she didn’t always see growing up.

Poetry didn’t always feel accessible to Agbaroji, so she redefined the craft for herself. 

“Poetry as an academic field of study, poetry as a fine arts practice, has been very exclusionary. It used to be this thing that, you know, we would only describe the birds and nature with the words, with the most syllables we could possibly find,” she says. “And honestly, that’s not very accessible for people who define poetry as making a beat on the table at lunch and rapping over it. [Because] that was the kid I was.”

For Agbaroji, the journey to poetry didn’t begin with learning about literary devices at a fine arts school. Instead, her favorite rappers and her family’s jokes shaped her relationship with language. 

“When I started to identify as a poet, I realized that the way that I use words is just as worthy,” she says. “And I think that’s what I try to get people to understand as well, that you don’t have to look a certain way for your words to mean something, for your words to be worthy of a stage for an audience.”

In her poem “In The Palms Of Your Hands,” Agbaroji celebrates Blackness and the joy the community finds in disheartening events, like the murder of George Floyd in 2020 — a pivotal moment for Agbaroji at the start of her poetry career. 

Laughter and joy are the “greatest forms of resistance,” she says.

“When we talk about Blackness, it doesn’t always have to be a conversation about mass incarceration. It doesn’t always have to be a conversation about a broken home, that Blackness is so much more,” she says. “There’s stardust in what Blackness is.”

The poem “Pretty Places of LA” celebrates the diversity of her hometown of LA and sheds light on the “antagonist” its communities face: gentrification. The poem praises neighborhoods often disparaged for high crime rates and stigmatized by the news, she says.

“We like to divide certain geographical regions into like the ‘good part’ and the ‘bad part.’ or the place you want to visit and the place you want to avoid,” Agbaroji says. “And I wanted to combat that narrative with this poem basically saying that you will label the darker parts, the shadowy parts, as the place that is bad, but in fact, that’s the heart of everything else that surrounds it.”

As the National Youth Poet Laureate, Agbaroji hopes to inspire Nigerian American poets like herself and shed light on the global literacy crisis. 

“One of my goals is to really make sure that I can do whatever I can to combat educational inequities,” she says, “to make sure that everyone has access to the very powerful thing that is literacy and that is voice, and that are words.”

Poems by Salome Agbaroji

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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