National Student Poet Luisa Banchoff (Stuart Ramson/Scholastic Inc.)

(Update: Adding a sample of Banchoff’s poetry)

Science, technology, engineering and math are not everything, even in this STEM-obsessed world. Luisa Banchoff is proof of that.

She was in eighth grade when her English teacher in Arlington, Va., gave her class an assignment to write poetry. Other kids felt that writing a poem was as tough as having a tooth pulled, but not Luisa. To her, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. She never stopped writing, and that’s how she became part of the inaugural class of fellows in the National Student Poets Program, the nation’s highest honor for youth poets.

Luisa, 18, who attended Washington & Lee High School in Arlington and is now at Princeton University, was one of five students named to the first class of National Student Poets in 2012, each representing a region of the country. They spent the past year serving as poetry ambassadors through workshops, readings and other projects at schools, libraries and museums. This week, the second class of National Student Poets was named at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

“A good poem is something you can relate to, have an emotional connection with,” she said. “When I like a poem, I feel like I am communicating with a poet and a poet is communicating with me. It’s more than just, ‘Find all the figurative language and write something about what the poem means.’ It’s more than that. It really resonates with me.”

The National Students Poets program was conceived after a poetry workshop was held at the White House with first lady Michelle Obama. The workshop was so successful that the program was launched, a joint initiative by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, in coordination with the Library of Congress and the U.S. Department of Education.

Winners are selected from those students in grades 9-11 who have received a national Scholastic Art & Writing Award for poetry through the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. Among the people serving on the selection jury are poet Terrance Hayes and Alice Quinn, executive director of the Poetry Society of America.

Luisa writes narrative poetry — a form of poetry that tells a story but with poetic devices (see one of her poems below) — and one day may turn them into short stories. “I love the idea that there is enough mystery in a poem that the reader can make it something personal on their own, and what they read is not exactly what the poet intended to write,” she said. “I think that is okay. That there is that ambiguity.”

April is National Poetry Month, and Luisa appeared at various events to promote poetry. At a conference in Birmingham that focused on the power of words in affecting change, she drew students into the world of poetry by giving them lines and asked them to arrange them into a poem. Then she had them take one or two lines that they really liked and use them to complete a poem. “At the end, after they had written their poems, I asked them to share, and I was surprised at what they had created. Just about everybody raised their hands to share,” she said.

Luisa’s experience working with students was so rewarding that she is now considering going into teaching, she said.
You can follow the program on Twitter @PCAH_gov and learn more about the program at the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers and the President’s Committee Web sites.

Along with Luisa, the other members of the first group of National Student Poets were Miles Hewitt of Vancouver, Wash.; Claire Lee of New York, N.Y.; Natalie Richardson of Oak Park, Ill.; and Lylla Younes of Alexandria, La.

The five student poets named Sunday are:

* Sojourner Ahebee, 17, of Interlochen, Mich. She was born in West Africa before moving to Philadelphia at age 7. Her culture inspires her poetry while she explores social issues.

• Michaela Coplen, 17, of Carlisle, Pa., is an aspiring actress with character-driven poetry and is the daughter of military parents. She has moved 11 times and found grounding in the arts in each location.

• Nathan Cummings, 18, of Mercer Island, Wash., is an athlete who can be inspired while running and finds poetry the perfect outlet to explore topics he wouldn’t otherwise experience.

• Aline Dolinh, 15, of Vienna, Va., is a science-fiction lover – particularly time travel — which heavily influences her poetry, often inspiring sparks that allow her to build upon stories from her own life.

• Louis Lafair, 18, of Austin, Tex., is a social entrepreneur who co-founded TEDxYouth in Austin and encourages his peers to write, having started a creative writing program in his school.


Here’s a poem Luisa Banchoff wrote to commemorate her year as a National Student Poet:



I drive, middle lane, New Jersey Turnpike,

searching for the tollbooth I chose last time,

never realizing I have not taken this road

before. I clamber for a quarter and a dime

like the Fates for their thread, like a scholar

guarding the first truths he ever came to

know, the words he has already defined. Time:

a September ago, half an inch of height,

the number of minutes it takes to give your life

to an idea, the number of weeks it takes to write

this poem. Space: something taken, filled with birds

and beliefs, hipbones and handlebars, testimony

and tense, and, if there’s any room left, words.

And yet, when the cartographer pencils in his

borders and shorelines, he stows away the

lead that remains for bays and backlands

still unnamed. Perhaps the librarian knows

what he does: dictionary margins hold the

words we have yet to discover. I can find no word,

she tells me. I can find no word for the time it

takes to walk into a room and shake the hands

that will sculpt you. No adjective to describe the

woman whose eye cream has rubbed off from a day

pacing through overheated conference rooms,

sorting through half-eaten sandwiches and stray

fliers all for the sake of a word her parents had marched for.

No verb for what the teachers do when they open

their schools every morning despite the need

to close for repairs. No noun for a place that is at war

with its past but demands that its children lead,

blindfold off, through the doors they carved into the

walls of their houses. I have no word for a city park in

October or a reunion over barbecue on the first day of June.

I have no word for the phase of the moon

as it surveys these things. I salvage one last coin and drive on.

The little white hyphens form a strand where the lane

shifts. The horizon itself becomes a spool, unraveling from tree to plain and back, threading time through space

through the lines of this poem. Take this thread

and tie your mouth to mine.

Draw me in the direction the words take you,

push my fingers through the unbaked dough of the page,

thread them through, add another letter.

One day you’ll find this word on a receipt or on a tombstone or in the narrowness of a dictionary margin. One day

I’ll read it back to the librarians and teach it to my parents.

One day we will pull the thread loose from our lips,

open our mouths, and say it together.