James Cochran of Charleston WV is working in West Virginia’s capital city on a program to lift up the voices of young poets, as part of a process that will culminate in the selection of Charleston’s first Youth Poet Laureate. WestVirgniaVille caught up with Cochran via e-mail to learn more.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You’re involved with a new effort to encourage young poets in West Virginia’s capital city, the Youth Poet Laureate program, in conjunction with Kanawha County schools, the Kanawha County Library and the University of Charleston. You’ve mentioned that this is part of a national effort by the non-profit Urban Word to “equip young voices to harness their power as leaders at the intersection of the literary arts and civic engagement.”
JAMES COCHRAN: We live in an age of short attention spans, and I think encouraging young people to set aside time from busy lives, social media, etc. to explore their creative voice can be an important antidote to that trend. I’ve been reading/listening a lot recently to poet Kae Tempest, and highly recommend their book “On Connection.” It does a great job summing up how creative connection and expression can be a key part of developing a rich inner life, as well as a healthy engaged community. My hope for the Youth Poet Laureate program is that it can play some small part in supporting that.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet ever to speak at an inaugural when she was featured at the inauguration of Joe Biden in 2021, reciting her poem “The Hill We Climb.” Did that high-profile gig help spur some of this emphasis on lifting up the voices of younger poets?
JAMES COCHRAN: Bringing the Youth Poet Laureate program to Charleston WV was definitely inspired by seeing Amanda Gorman speak at the January 2021 Biden inauguration. After making it through some tough times — from the Trump years when it felt that youth voices were being ignored, to the pandemic years where our societal fabric was stretched to its limits and young people especially were impacted in so many ways — it felt like the perfect time to start something here in Charleston that could make a positive impact. I hear all the time how many young people are leaving West Virginia. So, choosing to listen to them and value their voices seems like a smart choice.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: How will the program work? What are the age ranges encompassed by the Youth Poet Laureate program and how will it unfold? If I am a young poet — or the teacher or parent or friend of a rising young poet — how do they engage with this effort?
JAMES COCHRAN: The program will initially just be focused on high school-aged teens. We will work with partners, including Kanawha County Public Library and Kanawha County Public Schools, to do outreach and let people know about this opportunity. We’ll also hold writing workshops to help with portfolio development. We don’t have a web presence yet, so any teachers or students interested in participating should e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information. Plus, keep an eye on local media for announcements. We will be holding a kickoff event at University of Charleston in October and will make sure that is well publicized.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You say that the process will culminate with a judging, a selection, and a commencement coinciding with National Poetry Month in April 2023. What are the details of this process? Are you moving towards identifying a single Charleston Youth Poet Laureate?
JAMES COCHRAN: In Spring 2023, there will be a judging and commencement process to select and celebrate Charleston’s first Youth Poet Laureate. That individual will serve a one-year term, having opportunities for public appearances, as well as representing our city in regional and potentially national Youth Poet Laureate events.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: As a poet yourself, how would you describe the significance of bringing attention to young poetic voices in a culture drowning in memes and superficial social media?
JAMES COCHRAN: I am relatively new to the world of poetry myself. I have always dabbled in writing, and a college friend offered up a free course over Zoom at the start of the pandemic on “Mindfulness through writing.” This small group got together weekly and shared writing. It was supposed to be a six-week course and more than two years later we are still meeting! It has taught me the power writing has to help us understand and process our experiences, and connections and growth that can be fostered through the sharing of that writing.
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