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Speaking with Greer Nakadegawa-Lee, Oakland’s 2020 Youth Poet Laureate

Multi-talented Oakland Tech junior Greer Nakadegawa-Lee excels at both visual art and poetry. While regularly publishing her work on her Instagram, she has also been in the habit of writing poems every night before going to bed for over three years now. Her passion for poetry paid off last summer when she was named 2020’s Oakland Youth Poet Laureate (OYPL). 

During our conversation, Nakadegawa-Lee recalls her experience with poetry. She tells me about her love for the medium: “[Poetry] can convey a message in a way that’s more emotionally resonant with people. Like sometimes, when you’re hearing something in class or in a speech, it could be really powerful. But the idea…isn’t reaching you because it’s packaged the wrong way. I think for some people, poetry is the right path.”

Nakadegawa-Lee remembers writing one of her first poems back in third grade. However, she truly fell in love with poetry as a sixth grader, when she met John Oliver Simon, a poet-teacher from California Poets in the Schools. She recalls translating and composing poems under his mentorship. “I really liked his class. We mostly did…poetry translations,” Nakadegawa-Lee explains. “But sometimes, we wrote original pieces, which I really liked. Afterward, he started an afterschool class at the Temescal Library. I went to that for a very long time, but unfortunately, he actually passed away in 2018. Since then, the class has been taught by somebody else, but I still go there.”

With Simon’s support, this 16-year-old student eventually came across an opportunity to present her poetry to the world. In 2019, Nakadegawa-Lee submitted a manuscript of her chapbook called A Heart Full of Hallways to Nomadic Press. It was later published in early 2020.

Meanwhile, Nakadegawa-Lee was also performing her poems. She brought her words up to an open-mic, where she saw Samuel Getachew, the 2019 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, performing. “I just thought he was so incredible and I was super intimidated,” Nakadegawa-Lee laughs. 

At the same event, she met Peggy Simmons, the co-coordinator of OYPL. “Peggy Simmons came up to me [after my performance] and said, ‘You need to apply [to] this program.’ And so I did. That year, I was a Finalist, and Samuel was the Youth Poet Laureate,” says Nakadegawa-Lee. After her experience with OYPL in 2019, she decided to apply again in 2020, where she was then named the Youth Poet Laureate.

Throughout the three pieces that were required in the application of the 2020 OYPL program, Nakadegawa-Lee wrote about her mixed cultural identity and advocated for social justice. One of her poems for the 2020 OPYL called “Didn’t You Learn?” talks about her sense of disconnection with her ethnicity and culture. Her all-time favorite poem to share is “Dear America,” which calls attention to police brutality. “I read that one a lot because it is unfortunately very relevant… basically wherever I am performing,” Nakadegawa-Lee explains. “[Police brutality] is something that is always happening in this country.”

As the Laureate, Nakadegawa-Lee has come across even more opportunities to expand her voice. Recently, she worked with the Oakland Symphony on a video tribute for Kamala Harris, our first woman and woman of color Vice President. Nakadegawa-Lee continues writing poems on a daily basis, too. In her latest poem, “From the Director’s Chair,” she calls out the misrepresentation that people of color are subjected to in modern media. 

Nakadegawa-Lee hopes to soon take a step further and publish a full collection of her poetry. She has plans to attend an art school for college as well. While poetry plays a big role in her life, she also enjoys illustrating during her free time. “It’s just something I really latched on to… There’s this artist I really like. Her name’s Tillie Walden, and she does this book called On a Sunbeam…I’d love to illustrate graphic novels like that,” Nakadegawa-Lee tells me.

The Laureate encourages anyone who is interested in the OYPL to apply. Nakadegawa-Lee gives her advice to other writers: “To [those considering] Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, or just any poets out there…I would like to say…don’t put too much pressure on yourself. I applied and didn’t think it would go anywhere. It’s still a really amazing community to be a part of as a Finalist. You shouldn’t feel pressured to be a great public speaker or anything [because] I’m definitely not. I guess something that’s helped me is making poetry into a habit…If [you have] been writing for a while and you’re reaching a [writer’s] block, then it might help to change up your medium a little. Just writing with literally a different material, like a marker or a bigger piece of paper can really help you see things in a totally different [perspective]…and start getting things flowing again.”

To apply to the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate 2021, check out their website for more information: https://www.oaklandlibrary.org/teens/events-programs/youth-poet-laureate-program.

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