She stood behind the podium, eyes lifted just above the microphones. She had performed this poem so many times.
But this time was different. She had never read her poetry in front of the first lady of the United States before.
Chasity Hale, 16, from Miami Arts Charter School on Biscayne Boulevard was honored as a National Student Poet Thursday morning in the White House Blue Room.
“I was so shocked,” said Hale. “Me? I am one of the National Student Poets? I was amazed.”
First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a poetry reading for the five students to honor their achievements. Other students were from Ohio, New Jersey, Arkansas and Alaska.
Obama individually mentioned Hale’s work when beginning the event.
“I think Chasity said it best,” Obama said. “This is something she said in one of her poems. She said, ‘We’ll use every rusted coin to purchase blessings, and buy plane tickets to destiny.’ ”
After being announced by the first lady, each student read one of their poems to the intimate crowd.
‘What if the rain drops get so bigthey swallow the sky?’ she asks.Could we use the papersin the glove compartmentto start a fire and illuminatethe liquidated skies?—We’ll use every rusted cointo purchase blessingsand buy plane tickets to destinywhere we will find a milk carton childand wish her home to voicestainted with ‘we’ll find her’ and‘It gets worse before it gets better.’We’ll get our names in the newspaper.
(Excerpt reprinted with permission from the National Student Poets Program)
Hale read her poem, “What If?” The poem had also been quoted by the first lady.
Hale was first inspired to write poetry in eighth grade when one of her school friends performed “The Golden Shovel” by Terrance Hayes, winner of the 2010 National Book Award for Poetry.
“It was so beautiful,” Hale said. “I . . . wanted to create poetry and use language in the same way.”
Since then, Hale has discovered herself in poetry.
“For me poetry is the only way that I can really understand what’s going on,” Hale said. “It helps me make sense of everything. Poetry is sort of me looking for myself.”
Much of Hale’s work examines the idea of home. She moved to Miami from Las Vegas at age 11.
Her work compares and contrasts the landscapes of the two cities.
“Everything about them is just different, although they have their similarities,” she said. “So I talk about how life was then living in the desert. Then, I talk about all of the different things I experience in Florida.”
The National Student Poets are selected from a pool of silver and gold medal winning poems from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, a national competition for young artists founded in 1923. This year, about 200 poems won silver and gold medals.
Hale is the southeast representative for the program and will tour to libraries, museums and schools reading her work.
The National Student Poets Program is designed to promote poetry and the arts.
“I have an assignment for you guys,” Obama said to the poets. “I want you all to be ambassadors for the arts, all right? You are now chosen to go out there and spread the word and to share your gift with as many people as you can.”
As part of the program, each student does a major service project. Hale hopes to work with younger students – possibly junior high school age – for her project.
“I want to get out into the community with kids that are younger than me and introduce poetry to them,” Hale said. “I hope that can show them that poetry is a wonderful platform to overcome obstacles in their everyday lives.”
Jen Karetnick, 47, Hale’s creative writing teacher, said she has had other students who were finalists for the National Student Poets Program. But Hale is her first winner.
“It was kind of a tremendous shock and a thrill,” Karetnick said when she heard the news. Hale, she added, “is super humble, and she was bursting at the seams.”
For her part, Hale said that Karetnick is one of her biggest inspirations as a writer.
“(She) has taught me everything that I know,” Hale said.