Her first poem, penned when she was a high school freshman at the urging of a friend, was about her late father. Dominique Holder spilled her emotions onto the page, an exercise in catharsis.
She would go on to write about police brutality, about “how people can have an intelligent mind but an idiotic heart” and about the weight of expectations for young people to choose practical careers and abandon creative pursuits.
Writing poetry, she said, “felt different and odd, but right.”
“It felt like being honest for the first time,” Holder said.
A senior at Oxon Hill High School, Holder, 17, was recently named the inaugural youth poet laureate of Prince George’s County as part of a program for up-and-coming poets sponsored by Patrick Washington, a local arts educator. A panel of judges, including local performance artists, selected her portfolio of five poems as the best among the submissions, and she learned of the honor just before the holidays.
Washington, who has worked with Holder in poetry workshops at her high school, said the student is a talented writer and performer. But those qualities alone did not win her the distinction.
“Those things don’t make a laureate. There’s a full 360,” Washington said. “That strength of character and that passion is also very much needed.”
Washington called Holder “very low-key,” and for a teenager, she is unusually comfortable in her own skin. At the laureate ceremony, she performed a poem dressed in her school uniform and a favorite sweater from a thrift store.
The prize comes with opportunities to perform her poems around the county and to publish a book of her own poems, a prospect that Holder finds a little daunting.
Her mother, Jeri Holder, said her daughter was interested in books at a young age and “really started craving novels.” Dominique Holder’s grandmother, Brenda, also is a poet and encouraged her granddaughter to write poetry.
But Dominique Holder said she found poetry intimidating and abstract. It wasn’t until she wrote her first poem — about her father, Wesley, who died of cancer when she was in fourth grade — that she understood the power it could hold for her.
The poem “was kind of about how the people you grow up with kind of disappear before your eyes,” Holder said.
Her work touches on social issues, race, self-image and grief. Last year, she self-published a collection of poems titled “Everything Under Our Tongue.”
“On the days when you can not / Hear your heartbeat / Sing / On the nights when your / Grief is a wild thing / Let it roam free,” she wrote in a poem titled “A Lot Sad.”
Her work has improved and evolved with the help of Washington, who started the poet laureate program because he wanted to elevate youth poetry from a hobby to a serious art. He is hoping to model his program after one in New York City, where those chosen as youth poet laureate hold civic leadership positions. The most recent poet laureate there, Crystal Valentine, is working on a youth voter campaign in the Big Apple.
“It lends an air of importance to the youth poetry movement,” he said.