Is Poetry Too Political?: An Interview with US Youth Poet Laureate Salome Agbaroji

Poetry is a powerful tool for activism. Moreover, creative expression via poetry has consistently demonstrated a thirst for political exploration. For “The Art of Politics,” the HPR sat down with the current U.S. Youth Poet Laureate, Salome Agbaroji, to get her take on the true “politics of poetry,” as well as how she hopes to shape her time as a poet at Harvard. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Harvard Political Review: Poets sometimes face backlash or censorship when addressing political subjects. For example, Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” being restricted. Have you faced any criticism or challenges due to the political nature of your poetry? And what are your views on poetry being deemed “too political?”

Salome Agbaroji: Personally, I’ve been fortunate to not have met much resistance against my work, because I come from California, specifically Los Angeles, and I feel like the poetry scene and even political scene there is much more open to dialogue. I come from a very diverse part of L.A. County where my city is almost entirely made up of immigrants from different parts of the world, and it’s interesting in that way. We have so many viewpoints that interact with and influence each other. My art has almost always had a space to exist, even in the hands of people who disagreed, but those people already had the muscle of taking in and spitting out information that they didn’t agree with — which is a good practice with poetry. Going into the second part of your question, I do think people should practice taking in and spitting out the parts of art that don’t resonate with them. The beautiful thing about our approach is that you can embrace all that you want to embrace and leave at the door whatever you don’t resonate with.

When it comes to banning poetry, Amanda Gorman’s book, and deeming poetry “too political,” I think that doesn’t make sense because poetry is inherently political in a lot of ways, and we’ll probably get into that later in this interview. It’s unfortunate that just in the same way that someone can act on their own agency by rejecting a piece of art, that same freedom isn’t reciprocated to then allow somebody to embrace the agency by expressing that opposite point of view. I don’t agree with bending poetry that doesn’t cause harm, that isn’t hate speech — when it’s simply someone sharing their opinion about relevant topics of today. I think that’s, in fact, what should be amplified, to at least start conversations and allow people to agree or disagree. That’s how discourse begins, and then we start to reflect the world we want to see in our ballots, in our schools, in our libraries. 

HPR: Some people say that poetry’s inherent subjectiveness makes it unfit for conveying clear political themes. What’s your response to this outlook?

Agbaroji: I strongly believe that poetry’s subjective nature is what makes it the perfect ground to talk about politics. Democracy was invented to embrace subjectivity. If there was always an indisputable, objective, correct way to address every issue in society, then there would be no need for voting, there’d be no need for debate, there’d be no need for all of the systems that America prides itself in having and that other countries might not have. Democracy necessitates subjectivity, so poetry is the perfect place for people to, what I’d like to say, cast a ballot in the social space — not politically — but cast a social ballot to almost outwardly vote for what they think should be happening, vote for the world that they want to live in, how society should value people and the interaction between them. Poetry, because it’s so subjective, is the best way to embrace the democratic ideals that America prides itself so much in.

HPR: As the new U.S. Youth Poet Laureate, how do you envision promoting the role of political discourse and poetry among your classmates at Harvard and other members of our generation?

Agbaroji: Since I’ve engaged with poetry in such a meaningful way for almost four years now, I’ve personally experienced how valuable poetry is in so many ways. To go on a little tangent, a teacher was talking about how music is so good for learning. Think of the way we all learned the alphabet through a song. We didn’t just look at a page and go: “A. Okay, what is next? B.” We went: “A, B, C, D, E, F, G.” The melody and the music of it is the natural way we as humans learned the alphabet. Poetry acts in a very similar way, it’s a great window into yourself and the world.

Sometimes I’ve written poetry and just allowed myself to be taken away by whatever words come out. I realize, “Wow, I didn’t even know I felt that way,” or, “Wow, I didn’t even realize that this historical event is very parallel to this historical event,” because I’m writing about both of them, and the same themes and the same story arc is emerging in each process. 

Because I’m a freshman, there’s so much I’ve had to learn. There’s a struggling element in there, so I may be a National Youth Award Laureate, but I’m also just a student. 

When applying for first-year seminars, they’re asking, “What do you want to bring to the class?” I realized that poetry comes up every time, that poetry is relevant in so many spaces. You could be applying for a botany class and maybe you love writing poems about environmentalism. I mainly write poems about humanitarianism, history, and justice, so as I’m applying to political science classes or seminars, I’m always talking about the political implications and how that shows up in art, or maybe my art or the art that others have shared. It’s something that, as a poet, that’s really passionate about what I do. It’ll naturally come up in conversation and a class that I’m in and it’s just the way that I interpret the world, and I look forward to seeing how other people interpret the world.

HPR: Are there specific political topics or messages that you think are uniquely well-suited for poetic exploration? Why do you believe these ideas resonate successfully through poetry? 

Agbaroji: Genuinely, I can’t think of any political topic that isn’t worthy of a poem. I think they all are, because like I said, poetry is subjective — doesn’t matter if it’s obscure: “Oh, they’re cutting down the trees in my neighborhood,” that’s a beautiful poem. It doesn’t even need to be anything grand. Some poets have an inclination to talk about big topics, or the really popular ones, the ones that run like wildfire, like police brutality, institutionalized racism, and microaggressions, and maybe the disconnect between the people and the power and things like that.

Those are some of the popular themes very worthy of poems, but in fact, I do want to hear about how, maybe your local governor did something really weird at his past political event. What does that say to you? What does that foreshadow for you?

If somebody made comments about global warming, how do you see the effects of global warming in your community? What do you project? I can’t think of any political topic that isn’t worthy of a poem. In fact, I encourage more people to write poems about obscure topics in politics that people may not go to first for a poem. Those are very important. Sometimes the poem can simply be: “My high school didn’t have enough books, and that’s upsetting.”

It’s interesting to explore topics that haven’t been very much explored in an artistic form. Those are the ones I think people should run to first, just for the sake of creating original art.

HPR: Particularly for you, how has your identity and experiences informed your poetry’s political shapes and dimensions? 

Agbaroji: I mean, always as a Nigerian American, first generation American, child of immigrants, there is so much there.

There’s not only a semblance of a Black American experience, but a Nigerian experience that is very particular. There’s so much — like my femininity, and the intersections of all those — how my Blackness intersects. I’m still a minority, but among minorities, and then how my Blackness intersects with my explicit African identity and how my African identity informs my femininity — they all connect. 

As I start writing, I’m like, “Maybe a poem about being African and feminine, that’d be a cool poem,” but as I write, I realize there’s some holes and some gaps and uncertainties in my own identity that I wouldn’t have explored or have cared to know about if I didn’t take the time to explore them through poetry.

Not only does my identity help me — it gives me a lot to poke and fry at with my poetry — but I also think since there are so many aspects of my identity that are unrepresented in many spaces, I’m even more encouraged to write about them. There have been many young Nigerian girls to DM me on Instagram and say, “The fact that you’re Nigerian and you are where you are makes me feel super inspired and seen. Thank you so much for doing what you do.” That’s purely my identity, the visibility of my identity on the national stage and inspiring other girls. I feel so, so happy when I get messages like that. I feel so inspired that just sharing my identity creates space for others to feel more empowered to do the same.

HPR: Is there a poem that you believe effectively communicates a political message, and what features of this poem make the political message significant and impactful?

Agbaroji: I don’t think I’ve heard a poem that doesn’t successfully convey its political message if there is meant to be one. I’ll give one example in particular, but generally, I think poets are really good at what they do — even if they don’t think they are — because poetry is pretty simple. Say what you mean, say what you feel, and that’s all you need to do to convey your political message. Even if you haven’t mastered rhyme and rhythm and meter and all these formal metrics of poetry, as long as you’re able to communicate that in its simplest form, then you’ve done your job and you’ve inspired other people by sharing your perspective.

Most of “poetry” — and I’m putting up air quotes — that inspires me most is rap music, and just any type of music. In Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” at the end he has a poem that he wrote to Tupac about a caterpillar and a butterfly, and it’s basically a metaphor of the institutionalization of Black Americans in neighborhoods that don’t allow them to fly, or the redistribution of wealth and how Tupac says, “the poor will eat the rich,” and things like that. If we want to talk about being effective by using poetry, and I consider rap poetry very much, imagine how many people whose ears touched that piece, not only the poem at the end, but Kendrick’s incredible album. Poetry is so effective, especially when it’s put in music form and it’s able to reach so many ears.

You asked what makes poetry impactful and it’s definitely the audience. I would say the audience is what makes it impactful. If I write a poem about Blackness and the intended audience is Black people, that’s gonna be very different from a poem about Blackness with an intended audience of old rich White men who make all of our laws. They both are very valid and important, but you know what informs the direction of a poem is who it’s spoken to. It’s so interesting to see how depending on the topic, some people write poems to their mothers, and others write poems to their teachers with that point of view. I think it’s really the audience that contextualizes the perspective from which a poem is written.

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