Poetry Inspires Change


By Lisa Autz

Crystal Valentine. Photo courtesy of New York City Campaign Finance Board.

Poetry to some connotes a solitary activity of self-expression. But if you ask Crystal Valentine, the 2015 NYC Youth Poet Laureate (NYCPL), she’ll respond that this form of expression is about building a community.

“When I do a poem sometimes I’ll have people come up to me and say, ‘Yo, that was my story. You told it for me straight out,’” explains Valentine. “For me there is a kind of church in that–a way to open a conversation with other people.”

Valentine, age 20, has been writing poetry since the fourth grade. She won the Youth Poet Laureate Slam at Lincoln Center this past October for her politically themed poems entitled, “On Evaluating Black Privilege” and “A Voter’s Problem” (or “A Voter’s Armageddon”).

As Youth Poet Laureate, Valentine will be working with the New York City Campaign Finance Board voter education campaign, NYC Votes, and Urban Word NYC to speak to young voters across the five boroughs using her poetry.

Crystal Valentine sat down with BTR to discuss her plans with the prestigious title and her belief in the spoken word’s ability to instill civic engagement with those willing to embrace it.

The youngest out of five children, she describes herself as an unexpected slam poet. She reflects on her shy tendencies growing up when she would think, “No one really listens to me, I am just a teenager what do I know.”

That limiting outlook began to change in ninth grade at The St. Raymond Academy in the Bronx, where she found an expressive outlet with poetry.

“I witnessed different things growing up in the Bronx and a lot of things I didn’t know how to express,” admits Valentine, who says she used to bottle up her reactions. “Poetry gave me a chance to change the perspective and let people see it through my eyes.”

To this day, Valentine draws much of her writing inspiration from her community, along with homegrown experiences that continue to influence her identity and work.

“My neighborhood is what I write about, both the good and the bad,” asserts Valentine. “The neighborhood I grew up in played a big part in shaping me.”

She began to attend poetry workshops by the literary arts education group Urban Word NYC and received mentorship from veteran poets. Today, that timid young teen has recited poetry at Mayor de Blasio’s inauguration in January and is NYU’s current Grand Slam Champ. She has also performed at renowned locations such as Lincoln Center, New Amsterdam Theatre, the Apollo Theater, and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

Valentine touches upon sensitive topics in each performance such as race and discrimination, as well as youth civic participation. In her winning poem about voting, she comments on “Obama’s signature on the 8.7 billion dollar food-stamp cut” in a list of deplorable events that don’t seem to be enough to enact action into the majority of the public to vote.

In “On Evaluating Black Privilege”, she speaks to the black community claiming that “Black Privilege is a myth… Black privilege is me standing here with a crowd full of witnesses to my heart beat.”

“[Youth Poet Laureate] really gives me a platform to really talk to the youth and let them know they are not the only one[s] experiencing whatever they are going through,” remarks Valentine regarding her new title and ongoing poetry performances.

Valentine prefers the performance possibilities spoken poetry allows. It’s a chance to be in front of an audience and express herself not just by chosen diction but also by physical delivery.

“When I see someone perform a poem, it’s so raw, the emotions they portray,” shares Valentine. “Their bodies are a poetry in themselves.”

The previous years of Valentine’s hesitation drives her today to connect with peers and awaken them to the true power of their own opinions and actions.

“It’s so important that they [teenagers] know they have a voice and that there are other ways to be heard,” emphasizes Valentine. “One way to be heard is [not only] by speaking but also by voting.”

This kind of empathetic understanding through the written word also reflects the subjects that Valentine is currently studying. Currently enrolled at NYU, Valentine is working towards degrees in both Creative Writing and Adolescent Mental Health Studies.

In addition to appearing at schools all across the boroughs, Valentines hopes to expand her visits to hospitals, as well as channel a better understanding with the city’s mentally ill youth.

“I want to go to so many different places because it’s really in the spaces where you’re least expected that sometimes you can make the most change,” believes Valentine.

She challenges the idea for herself and others to “go somewhere no one would expect a poet to be,” recite a poem, and see what happens.