Sep 28, 2022

First Lady Jill Biden Honors the Class of 2022 National Student Poets Program at the White House Transcript

First Lady Jill Biden Honors the Class of 2022 National Student Poets Program at the White House Transcript
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First Lady Jill Biden Honors the Class of 2022 National Student Poets Program at the White House. Read the transcript here.

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Jill Biden: (00:00)
Well, welcome to the White House. In so many moments of my life, when my heart was bursting with emotion that I can’t quite describe, and when I laid awake in the early morning hours, worry running through my mind, when I felt lost and utterly without a map, I turned to poetry. In the words of others, I found the contours of my own joy. I found a place to lay down my fears. I found a compass that would lead me through the darkest of woods. And on the page, tangled and hurried lines in smudges of ink, I found myself. So it’s truly special to be able to welcome the 2022 National Student Poets, along with 10 years of alumni, to the White House.

Jill Biden: (01:14)
As many of you probably know, I teach writing at a community college. I just came from there 10 minutes ago. And every semester I start by reading a poem to my class called Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon. Do you know it?

Ada Limon: (01:31)
Yes. I love that poem.

Jill Biden: (01:33)
Thank you. Ada knows it.

Ada Limon: (01:34)

Jill Biden: (01:36)
Okay. Its verses tell the story of the author’s hometown, not in locations, but in sensations and experiences and memories. So I use that format to model for my students some of the things from my life. So the things I say to them are, “I’m from ribbons of pasta drying on the linoleum counter in my grandmother’s Italian kitchen, tomato sauce bubbling on the stove. I’m from five sisters, glued together, messy rooms and borrowed jeans and standing up to bullies who lived on our block. I’m from running through the yellow street lights on hot July nights, feeling like summer would never end.”

Jill Biden: (02:30)
And then I say to my students, “Okay, now it’s your turn.” And yes, the sheer terror washes over many of their faces at the thought of writing their own poem. And I can almost hear them screaming internally, “No,” but I show them other students examples and then we walk through it. And when they come back the next day, not only do they have finished poems, beautiful poems, then they’re competing with other classmates because they want to read them. It’s truly astonishing. And the structure helps them find their voice and take risks. And overnight, my class of nursing and paralegal and automotive techs becomes a community of poets.

Jill Biden: (03:32)
Anyone can be a poet, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Now, kn fact, it’s anything but. It takes faith to ignore the critics who surround us or swirl in our heads, the voices that ask us, “What makes you think that you deserve to be heard?” It takes nerve and strength to pull those words out of our hearts and pin them down on the page. It takes courage, I’m sure all of you know this, so much courage to dig into the dark and messy depths of ourselves with curiosity and humility to hold what we find up to the light, to open our throats and say something true. It isn’t easy, but it’s essential to help us see the beauty that we often pass by, to untangle the meaning of this twisted life, to remind us that we are never alone.

Jill Biden: (04:48)
And so those with enough nerve and strength, with faith and courage, we follow Mary Oliver’s, “Instructions for Living a Life: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” We celebrate with Lucille Clifton, what she, quote, shaped into a kind of life, “Here on this bridge between star shine and clay, when doubt creeps in and we question our voice.” We remember the words of another young poet, Amanda Gorman, quote, “Like light, We can’t be broken, even when we bend,” end quote. And we vow to live by the words of Roomy and, quote, “Let the beauty we love be what we do,” one of my favorite lines.

Jill Biden: (05:51)
That is why we’re here today, the students on this stage, all the poets in our audience, the parents and everyone who makes this program possible, and I can’t wait to hear your work. So now, I’m proud and honored to introduce our emcee for the evening, one of my favorite poets and the poet laureate of the United States, Ada Limon. Ada.

Ada Limon: (06:23)
Thank you. Those remarks were so beautiful. I feel so honored to be here. It is such a gift. And there’s a few reasons I feel honored, but I will say that one of my favorite things to celebrate is poetry because, to me, the celebration of poetry is a celebration of humanity. And I feel like, this evening or this afternoon, we’re not just celebrating poetry, but we’re celebrating the future of poetry. Emily Dickinson once said, “Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.” And I keep thinking these poets here today are opening every door. With their variety of voices, their intricate stories, they’re creating the lyrical landscape that makes up where we are right now, this moment in time.

Ada Limon: (07:28)
And I feel like sometimes we think that younger poets need us to guide them, but I think, in reality, we need them to remind us that poetry is alive and flourishing because that means that humanity is alive and flourishing. So I’m going to allow them to take the stage and begin to read their beautiful poems. And I will do my best to just sit and listen. One of my favorite things about being a writer is that most people think that what we do is always put words into the world, but in reality, most of what we do is sit and listen and receive. And so I get the luck of receiving today. So first up, are you ready, dear?

Diane Sun: (08:20)

Ada Limon: (08:21)
Yes. Okay, She is ready. First up, we have Diane Sun, who’s from Bellvue, Washington, born and raised in Houston, Texas, founded her school’s art and literary journal and enjoys debating. Here you go. Thank you, Diane.

Diane Sun: (08:42)
Hello, everyone. Today I’ll be reading my poem, A Recipe for Steaming Almost Dragon. Before I begin, there are two translations that’ll be relevant. First, longmen, which means the dragon gate. In Chinese mythology, carps that leap over a waterfall through the dragon gate become dragons. Second, [Chinese 00:09:07], which means steamed dragon. With that being said, A Recipe for Steaming Almost Dragon.

Diane Sun: (09:15)
Every few centuries, when the carp gathered at the base of the longmen and thunder clouds, riled with legend and youth, we waded into the brinks of the waterfall and waited. That night, we would feast upon [Chinese 00:09:28]. First, check for freshness. Its scales should be taught, a bow string still drawn long after the arrow has departed. Its eyes should be clear, a divine glimmer of a future once promised. Its gills should be stark red, the intrusion of fate into viscera.

Diane Sun: (09:50)
Second, dress it to your liking. With a blade, furrow its body into angles, such that its exterior still lays neatly. Only you should be aware of the aromatics buried in its torso, of the ginger rooted in its nervous system, the scallions that replaced arteries. Third, steam for seven minutes. In death, we replicate glory with an opiate haze. Here, we unwind the dreams tucked in little carp skulls, the lacy hem lines of cascades, the rumble of cast iron gates opening, the pale heat of the heavens. Taste, flesh cleaved from the mountainside, skin sheened in gold, and bones that prickle at the roof of the sky, still with the slight tang of thunder. Thank you.

Ada Limon: (10:39)
So I get the pleasure of asking them one question after each poem. And I promise to make them very easy, but one of the things I loved about this poem when I first read it was that it has a formal quality to it because it has the first. It’s like first, second, third. I was wondering, did that come very early on when you made the poem or did you find that as you went?

Diane Sun: (11:13)
I think I began this poem thinking of a recipe as a series of steps, just the way that we progress through life or like a fish’s life cycle. And so the recipe was part of the beginning structure when I first started drafting it.

Ada Limon: (11:28)
Beautiful. Thank you so much. And next, we have Vidatri Kita from the Bronx. Her work has been influenced by mythology and folklore. Hopes to use poetry for activism for the unheard. Hobbies, art, drawing, music, and reading. Welcome.

Vidatri Kita: (11:53)
Thank you. So I will be reading my poem, Generations. You take your hands and fold them together, tear them apart, and feed them to the fire. I usher you out, tell you that your skin is not paper, that the flames do not care for pain. They won’t liberate you, won’t designate purity or godhood. You won’t stop, won’t listen. You say the writhing flame has long stolen your soul, enlivening the lost pulse to your vigor. Later, we sit there together underneath the stars, grounded by mats and the earth in promise of our predecessors. Piles of sticks lie before us, burning into themselves. Your hands blacken as the night stirs in her anger, pouring shadows across our movements.

Vidatri Kita: (12:44)
The moon is lightless tonight. No sliver of truth is left to guide us. I am sorry for having to leave you here to become prey to snakes and parasites, but I have nothing else left. I can’t continue living so close to the earth, can’t fathom a life dependent on cycles of sun and rainwater. The monsoons no longer beckon my heart. The child within me has become a wanderer. She frequents the desert sands and lifeless valleys of her mind. Will you forgive her this once for dreaming the night sky, for wishing to emulate the warmth of stars, the depth of their innocence, their intangibility? I hate how I reach up and you don’t even try to stop me from burning myself, like you do. Thank you.

Ada Limon: (13:43)
These poems, we’re so lucky, these poems. Ugh. I just want to say that I’m moved by the mythology in this poem and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how both the imagination and mythology play a role in this poem.

Vidatri Kita: (14:02)
This poem in particular, I think, draws on the idea of generations, well, as the title says, and generational trauma in particular, but also the act of having, I suppose, a familial connection to the land and a familial connection to mythology and storytelling.

Ada Limon: (14:23)
Beautiful. Thank you so much. And next, we have Jesse Vige from Albuquerque, New Mexico. And Jesse was born and raised in the Navajo Reservation, is a two-time national medalist at the Scholistic Awards, Scholastic Awards. Scholistic, that was strange. Scholastic Awards.

Jesse Vige: (14:53)
This poem is called Land of Healing. When Lemiol drives, the truck spits gasoline along his fingers, the ethanol onto his hair, and lets the snow seep through the metal so he can catch each snowflake on his tongue. Let’s not split hairs. Before he killed himself, a storm blew through our neighborhood. There are still prints of frostbite held like trophies, despite daylight. He is still there, beneath the bleachers, beyond the sunset tourists don’t cross, body held together like icebergs, his home scattered in [inaudible 00:15:28] blots of sun-deprived bleach.

Jesse Vige: (15:31)
Before I left, I saw his parents cataloging what was left of him. His skin, a neiman hide, thinly weaved, modeled after group home blankets, and set aside to shield the daylight. His fingertips, bottleneck tips and all, concise in their damnation, a weaving for each hand. His feet, they’re stepping stones to the sky behind his paperweight boots and coyote paw transplants left behind to quell his sister’s disbelief. When he died, his body was wrapped with deerskin, the muscle that sheared his father’s vein cut away and left in the space between his teeth and his hair torn away from the root.

Ada Limon: (16:15)
Wow. I was really moved by this poem the first time I read it, myself, and hearing you read it out loud is even all the more powerful. I was curious about how you use poetry to process grief and if it brings any kind of healing. I know the title has healing right in it, but I was curious to hear your thoughts on that.

Jesse Vige: (16:47)
It was very healing to be able to share that grief in a way that was able to be processed by people who weren’t me in a new way, through poetry.

Ada Limon: (16:57)
Beautiful. Thank you so much. And next, we have Winslow Hasty. He’s from Charleston, South Carolina. Inspired by South Carolina low country, he frequently uses nature as a theme in his poetry. Hobbies include boating and fishing.

Winslow Hasty: (17:23)
Okay, So today, I’ll be reading a poem, To Dissect a Pine. After the first frost, when the mosquito larvae freeze and the reptiles hide away, buried in the mud, we reenter the wood. Recruited many winters ago by my father, we hike deeper each year, stepping over our past discoveries left stripped and rotting. We navigate down shallow gullies, past deer antlers, caked and dried duck weed, and hollow turtle shells nestled in the cypress knees. Steeping into its dark purples and golden oranges, the wood ages in its own sap, crystallizing. We crack them like geodes, taking hatchet to wood, fileting the golden flesh threaded with purple veins. We carve strips from the backbone, laying them out on red embers. They hiss, sweat bubbling up from the cracks. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve explored the woods. The swamp left undrained has seized our searches in which we would hack away at the petrified wood, long, drawn out silences interrupted by each swing of the ax. Thank you.

Ada Limon: (18:33)
So beautiful. Thank you. One of the things that moved me about this poem immediately, and I was reminded again as you read it, was that sound of the ax against the silence of the woods. And I was wondering if you could talk about how you use silence on the page.

Winslow Hasty: (19:03)
Well, that was a part of my memory. This is poem mainly from my memory of going into the woods and collecting firewood for a winter fire. And I don’t know, the silence of being in the woods and just hearing the little animals and the rustle of the leaves and just the nature outside, it’s just the most peaceful kind of quiet that you can really achieve.

Ada Limon: (19:33)
Beautiful. Thank you. Next, we have Emily Igwiki from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, daughter of Igbo Nigerian immigrants. Her love of poetry comes from her mother’s stories and she hopes to be a role model for all other black girls.

Emily Igwiki: (19:57)
Today, my poem is My Mother Prepares [inaudible 00:20:00]. “Where are you going? Where have you been?” My mother asks I glide through the door, feet swollen from traversing these infinite deserts, dry air turned to oxygen bleeding into veins, searing at my heart, no longer in accord to her. Gray matter in a shawl, silent space that sits across from me, she, aware of my absence and the presence of this heavy weight, reaches pulling, pulling my hand a million miles reconvened. A single step turned to silent truths, silent praise for the return of a prodigal. A steaming pot of [inaudible 00:20:45] fills my void and this space in this quaint kitchen. Her smile is weathered, our past trodden.

Emily Igwiki: (20:53)
A mother once young sees herself in this shattered mirror. Piece by piece, she picks me up, puts me back together, offering her blood in the process, even if her nimble fingers are cut. She says, “Ada, tell me what’s wrong.” Tears swimming in her eyes, she knows, she fears, the paths we’ve taken have now diverged, an ocean separating our pasts, our stories. I offer a smile, weak and abashed, tugging on fleeting hope, trying to be a daughter to this shadow of a woman. Inching towards the bowl that sits patiently between us, my fingers graze upon the dyam, breaking the syam, this silence, I tell her I was lost. Drowning with time passing like the wind, she asks me where I am going. I dipped the dyam in the soup, lifting the burning bite to my lips. “Here,” I say. “Home,” I say.

Ada Limon: (22:14)
These poems. Oh, my gosh. I just want to … one question, which is that I feel like we talk about poetry as connection, and this poetry feels deeply connected to me. And I was wondering if it feels like an offering of some sorts or were you searching for connection on the page?

Emily Igwiki: (22:30)
Yes. I used this poem as a way to reflect on a very small, but significant moment of connection between me and my mom that I think is so profound.

Ada Limon: (22:39)
It’s beautiful.

Emily Igwiki: (22:40)
Thank you.

Ada Limon: (22:48)
Thank you. Thank you all. That was such incredible, incredible poetry. And I feel like just all of us in this room right now have really been reminded of what it is to breathe. Mary Oliver has that quote, “Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” And I think we often do that. And I think it’s so wonderful to sit here and actually have a moment of breath together. I often feel that, when I can’t find hope, I can at least find wonder. And I feel like, right now, I am both filled up with hope and wonder. So thank you so much. Thank you. Without further ado, I will bring up … This is how every poetry reading should end, by the way. And now, Dr. Biden. Okay. So we are going to … the pinning ceremony. I think we’re starting over here. Yes. So Diane Sun, congratulations.

Speaker 10: (24:13)
[inaudible 00:24:13].

Ada Limon: (24:17)
Congratulations. Thank you.

Speaker 10: (24:20)
[inaudible 00:24:20].

Ada Limon: (24:22)
Yeah. Clap, applause. Yes. I love this. Okay. Yes. And now, Vidatri Kita. Beautiful. Congratulations. And Jesse Vige. Congratulations. Winslow Hasty. Congratulations. And Emily Igwiki.

Jill Biden: (25:32)
[inaudible 00:25:32]. I don’t feel any pressure, by the way. [inaudible 00:25:54].

Emily Igwiki: (25:53)
It’s fine.

Jill Biden: (26:03)
There we go.

Ada Limon: (26:03)
There we go. It’s beautiful. Congratulations.

Jill Biden: (26:13)
Aren’t you going to speak?

Ada Limon: (26:15)
[inaudible 00:26:15].

Jill Biden: (26:17)
Why would I speak when we have Ada Limon here? I mean, really. Anyway, I just want to thank you and congratulate you. And I have to agree with Ada that, really, sitting there, I felt such hope because these times are so tough, I think, sometimes, but when you see our young poets and what they’re doing and what comes out of their hearts and their souls, you do, as Ada said, you have to feel that wonder. So thank you and congratulations to all of you.

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