OPRF grad is the new U.S. Youth Poet Laureate

Kara Jackson is moving up the literary ladder

May 14th, 2019 3:18 PM

Career move: Kara Jackson's budding poetry career recently got a big boost when the OPRF grad was named the new Youth Poet Laureate. | Submitted photo

By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

Sometimes it starts with a title. Or a framework. But no matter how it forms on the page, writing poetry for Kara Jackson is intentional. The 19-year-old's work has captured the attention of significant poets across the nation. She is the new National Youth Poet Laureate, awarded the honor at the Library of Congress last month, only the third in our nation's history, and she is from Oak Park.  

Prior to that, Jackson became the Chicago Youth Poet Laureate in September, kicking off her gap year after graduating from Oak Park and River Forest High School in June 2018, a distinction awarded by Young Chicago Authors (YCA). Chicago poet, Louder than a Bomb founder, and YCA artistic director Kevin Coval made the final decision, according to Peter Kahn, Spoken Word coach and OPRF instructor.

Part of being the Chicago Youth Poet Laurate is penning a chapbook of poetry. Jackson's book, Bloodstone Cowboy, will hit the shelves mid-July and is about "feminism and womanism from someone who is not a stereotypical woman," Jackson said.  

"It explores my southern ancestry, my northern upbringing, and how my body and my womanhood are a testament to a kind of uprooting," she said.

Jackson, who previously attended Whittier Elementary School and Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, said she has always been a writer, but was not serious about poetry until freshman year at OPRF. 

After attending the Fall Spoken Word Showcase to see her friends perform, Jackson recalled, "this might be something I want to do, and I felt like writing poems afterwards." She joined the after-school club in time to be part of the Winter Showcase.

"Around that time was when the slam team trials are," Jackson said of the OPRF students preparing to see who would attend Louder than a Bomb, a Chicago-wide competition. "There was this group of four senior girls who were such a powerful force, I was like, 'Whoa,' I want to audition next year. So I made that my goal."

Kahn said Jackson did not make waves in Spoken Word as a freshman, but by sophomore year, "something clicked with her confidence." He could see how she was incorporating what she was learning into her writing. Most importantly, "How she looks at the world can't be taught," he said.

By Jackson's senior year, team OPRF made it to finals at Louder than a Bomb and placed second overall. The poetry slam begins with 120 teams and approximately 1,200 participants. Jackson received the Literary Award, given for the best piece in the entire competition and to a poet on a team at finals. Three other OPRF Spoken Word students have won the award: Nicholas Barry (2019), Natalie Richardson (2013), who was also Midwest Youth Poet Laureate, and Raven Hogue (2011).   

Jackson said her time in Spoken Word made her a better poet and also redefines what it means to be taught, as students coach teammates.

"When people would ask me for edits, I felt like I was completely qualified even though I was so young," Jackson said. "That helped me become a better writer. It allowed me to trust myself and that's a bulk of what writing is — trusting the words that are going to fall out of you." 

 Her writing is also informed by what she reads. Early on, Jackson said she was exposed to "the standard black poets," that her parents had available and read in the house — Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks. 

But, she said, "I didn't know what poetry was outside my basic education of Edgar Allan Poe and dead white people. I enjoyed them, but that's not me. I don't see myself in that work. 

"It wasn't until high school and engaging with Mr. Kahn and the poems he would provide that I would start taking it quite seriously," she said. From there mentors made further reading recommendations. 

"The way I pay attention to language is different now that I read other people's language and see how they use it," Jackson said. "I pay more attention to the actual craft of writing. ... If I'm trying to approach a poem that's sad, what is the language of sadness and what structure can you give sadness?"

Whether it's written as a rondel, sestina or sonnet, her own poetry is now read by poetry greats. Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latinx U.S. Poet Laureate, and Elizabeth Acevedo, National Book Award Winner, were among the judges selecting the National Youth Poet Laureate, Kahn said. Pulitzer Prize for Poetry nominee Patricia Smith has agreed to write a blurb endorsing Jackson's chapbook. 

But that doesn't mean she is ready to introduce herself as the National Youth Poet Laureate every time she walks into a room. A self-professed introvert, she said her singer/songwriter side is her way of presenting herself to people. Jackson performs folk and jazz music, which she started earlier than poetry. Her first recording is due out the same time as her chapbook.  

But first, a trip to London is scheduled for an International Poet Laureate Showcase at the British Library and other events for her, Richardson and previous U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate Patricia Frazier, from Chicago. They join three young adult poet laureates from the United Kingdom, who traveled here this month.     

As for what's on the agenda as National Youth Poet Laureate, Jackson is pondering, "What would it look like for me to create an ally-ship with different organizations? What would it mean to support them or do performances with them or create events with them?"

While Jackson said she'd rather be at a protest than writing about it, she's interested in advocating for queer women of color and considers herself a prison abolitionist. 

"Sometimes that appears in my poems pretty explicitly, but for the most part, having the audacity to write for myself and take up space in a way that has not necessarily been encouraged historically is always going to complement my activism," she said.