by Sue Ann Rybak
Soledad Alfaro-Allah, 16, of Mt. Airy, vividly recalled sitting in her freshman drama class at Science Leadership Academy listening to Denice Frohman, the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, recite three poems.
Matthew Kay, Alfaro-Allah’s ninth-grade drama teacher and the slam league coordinator at SLA, asked Frohman to speak in an effort to encourage students to join SLA’s slam league.
“When I saw her perform I had this immediate awe for her and what she was doing,” Alfaro-Allah said.
“I loved the way she spoke and the energy she gave off. That’s when I knew I wanted to do that.”
The next day she joined the school’s poetry club. Two years later, she would be named Philadelphia’s 2014 Youth Poet Laureate.
Helen Haynes, chief cultural officer of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE), and city’s current Poet Laureate Frank Sherlock announced Alfaro-Allah as the city’s second Youth Poet Laureate during a ceremony at City Hall on June 14. Alfaro-Allah beat finalists Matthew Ridley and Sabrina Slipchenko, both from Northeast High School.
Speaking at the announcement ceremony, Mayor Michael A. Nutter talked about the impact that poetry can have on today’s youth.
“Poetry can foster a lifelong love of reading, make our students better writers and improve their ability to find deeper meaning and think critically,” Nutter said. “It is important that we get our children interested in art and culture at an early age, and the youth poet laureate can play an important inspirational role.”
Beth Feldman-Brandt, executive director of the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation, said the Youth Poet Laureate position was established in 2013 under the OACCE to complement the city’s Poet Laureate program and “to raise the profile of poetry writing for adults and young people.”
She said the Poet Laureate Governing Committee wants residents to discover and experience the “huge range of what poetry means in Philadelphia.”
Feldman-Brandt said the city wants young people to realize there are a lot of different kinds of poetry such as slam poetry. She said Alfaro-Allah’s poetry, presence, performance and curiosity “really captured” the committee.
In a poem entitled “Lullabies,” Alfaro-Allah writes:
Abuela is hiding trumpets in her throat again
trying to scream through broken orchestras
playing symphonies out of tune in her
esophagus if you listen
You can hear her weep over the busted
notes in our lullabies.
Set between the teeth and tears that mangled themselves
through her ribcage and dropped dumbbells
inside of her chest
On mornings that reminded her of home”
“Soledad uses a lot of imagery and a lot of powerful language in her poetry,” Feldman-Brandt said.
“As a slam performance artist, she is able to reach a wide-range of kids who can relate to her poetry.”
Feldman-Brandt noted that Alfaro-Allah is bilingual and writes poetry in both English and Spanish.
“If you read some of her poems, they flip back and forth between Spanish and English,” she said, “but she also writes poems entirely in Spanish, which allows her the opportunity to hear those voices in the community.”
Sherlock, who succeeded Sonia Sanchez as Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate, said “Soledad’s intelligence, talent and activist spirit will inspire young people to realize poetry’s potential in their lives.
“Her work is at once intimate and brave, engaging the world with creative resistance to injustice and an affirmation that we can live differently,” Sherlock said.
Alfaro-Allah said poetry allows her “to look deeper inside herself.”
“It allows you to reflect on who you are because it’s almost like looking in a mirror because your poetry is a reflection of yourself and who you are,” she said. “My parents have always taught me [it’s OK] to have your own world, but make sure you are looking at the world around you and you are observing that. I think that is what makes me the writer that I am.”
She noted that, as a teenager, the weight of peer pressure can often be overwhelming at times. Besides hoping to be a good role model, Alfaro-Allah hopes other young people will relate to her poetry.
“As a poet, when you perform, a lot of the time you get responses back from people, and those responses mean so much to me because you know you’ve touched someone’s life,” Alfaro-Allah said. “It’s kind of a surreal experience.”
So what inspires her?
“Human interaction is what inspires me,” she said. “[It’s important] how we speak to one another, depending upon where we come from and what we think our backgrounds are.”
She added that she often finds herself submerged in social justice issues such as basic human rights.
“It’s one of the things everyone has a right to, but aren’t always voiced,” Alfaro-Allah said.
Alfaro-Allah said she was excited about working with Sherlock, a 2013 Pew Fellow in the Arts for Literature and the author of several books of poetry, including “Journeys South: Evolving Immigrant Histories of South Philadelphia,” a collaboration with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
Sherlock discussed his project “Write Your Block” on WHYY’s “Radio Times.”
On the show, Sherlock said the project “encourages young people to make poems that map out their immediate surroundings, the streets, according to their own experiences.”
“So kids all over Philadelphia can have the opportunity to share the city as they see it,” said Sherlock, a South Philadelphia native. “This is a way to give kids an idea that their voices do matter in the present as well as in the future of a city that they will get the opportunity to shape one day and are shaping as we speak.”
As youth poet laureate, Alfaro-Allah believes her role is to be a voice to young people and people whose voice has been silenced.
While Alfaro-Allah’s story has just begun, her poetic journey does have a detour.
Instead of studying literature or journalism, she hopes to become a neurosurgeon.
“I love science and I love the miracles one can do with science,” she said.
Alfaro-Allah said recently she has become fascinated by the recent scientific research regarding the brain and quadriplegics. In fact, one of the three poems she submitted to the contest, “Mar Adentro,” is about Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic from Spain who wanted assisted suicide.”
“Everything in our body is connected to our brains,” Alfaro-Allah said. “We know so little about how the brain works. It’s a very sensitive and powerful thing. It makes me excited just thinking about how every action starts in the imagination.”
Alfaro-Allah can be seen reading her poetry at www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsXn1vXdIGE.