An Interview with Aaron Counts & Matt Gano, Co-Founders of Seattle’s Youth Poet Laureate Program
September 29, 2020
By Gabriela Denise Frank
Poet Aaron Counts, co-founder of Seattle’s Youth Poet Laureate (YPL) program, described the power of poetry to me this way: “A great poem helps you understand yourself and how you fit into the world. It’s like having the recipe for oxygen—it’s a survival skill.”
Poetry isn’t frivolous or a luxury, it’s necessary.
Many of us have heard or made this assertion, but it was Aaron’s phrasing that stuck with me. He alluded to the poet as alchemist and, without saying the word, equated poetry with breathing. His metaphor continues to linger in the center of my chest, for in what other year has breathing been so top of mind? The word breathe is everywhere—poems, newspapers, podcasts, common parlance—though the context is anything but common or casual. Then, just as it felt the lesson had been hammered home, weeks of devastating wildfires once again reminded us of the precious necessity, and struggle, for oxygen.
Breathing, like poetry, is a survival skill.
When the human body experiences stress, we breathe high and shallow. Our senses narrow in fight-or-flight. We withdraw, we conserve, we brace. The body channels energy toward escape and defense, leaving few resources for thinking creatively or critically. Deep breathing, like poetry, is a survival skill. It feeds us oxygen that calms our nerves, broadens our view and connects our hearts, lungs, emotions, and mind.
The word inspire can apply to art as well as breath. We invoke breath and creative muses; we draw breath and paint scenes with words. How different, then, is the landscape of a poem from the tableaux of our lungs—500 million tiny sacs called alveoli in each—the site of transfer of oxygen into the bloodstream, which affords us life?
Poetry, like breathing, is a survival skill.
During our conversation, I asked poet Matt Gano to describe the origins of the program he and Aaron co-created—why engage with youth in the practice of poetry? Matt said, “We wanted to offer community and connection, especially for kids who are experiencing the world through the types of feelings and ideas that lead them to poetry.”
This, too, sounded familiar. A youthful surge of emotions and experiences that demand an outlet which, for many, is poetry.
What stuck with me is the nuance Matt inferred, that youth relate to poetry in a special way—that, with age, one’s relationship to passion, vulnerability, and the mystery of living shift. It’s no wonder why. Poetry requires deep work of readers and writers. The mental labor of poetry—What does this mean?!—can feel like too much to bear on top of everything else. Who has time or energy? And therein lies the magic of poetry, which complicates the human condition in a world that pushes us to rush, to gloss over, to simplify. When I feel tired and overwhelmed, when it feels like I have little to give physically or emotionally, I ask myself, Is there a better moment for poetry—or a deep breath?
The good news is, we never lose the ability to engage with poetry though, like breathing, it’s possible to temporarily forget. We can return again and again, buoyed by life experiences that lend greater insight to poems we thought we understood. As adults, we may be able to write poems that were out of reach when we were young.
What gives me hope?
That poetry is valued in our region. That organizations like Seattle Arts & Lectures consider poetry as essential to the emotional growth and psychological development of engaged youth. When the YPL program was conceived six years ago, Matt and Aaron expected to select one laureate. After reviewing applications from many passionate poets, they realized a sole winner working alone wasn’t what they were hoping to create. Thus was born the notion of a cohort working in partnership with the laureate, building community together that would last beyond the program year.
What gives me hope?
The power of poetry to connect us as humans in breath, rhythm, and image. The power poetry gives us to name and channel our feelings, emotions, and ideas as we meet the struggles of our time. The power and responsibility we hold as a community to support the work of young poets as they describe their relationship to the world—not only as they see it, but the future they seek to create. I am so excited to hear the YPL readings this year.
Now that the smoke has cleared, we will, once again, emerge from our homes and rejoice in the deceptively simple act of breathing outdoors. The air has turned crisp, the leaves yellow, orange, and red—my favorite time of year. Our windows will soon close again as the skies turn rainy, but fall is a fine time to open oneself up to other seasonal experiences: brisk walks in the mist, spicy cider doughnuts, and essential books of poetry.
The following conversation has been excerpted from a longer interview. If you’d like to listen to the audio version, click the play button below—or, read a full transcript here.
The following conversation has been excerpted from a longer interview.
Gabriela: What is the Seattle Youth Poet Laureate (YPL) program and how did the two of you come to start it?
Matt: We were at a poetry reading for Roberto Ascalon at Massive Monkees Studio. Christa Bell—a phenomenal poet, playwright, and all-around incredible artist—mentioned that Michael Cirelli, one of the founders of Urban Word, the New York Youth Speaks chapter, was starting a Youth Poet Laureate program across the country. He was looking for pilot cities to partner with. Christa mentioned this to me on the side and Aaron walked by. I said, “AC, we should do this,” and he said, “Yeah, sounds good!”
Aaron and I had connections with Michael Cirelli through Youth Speaks Seattle. Aaron was one of the founders in the early 2000s and I hopped on in 2004. We were early mentors and met Michael through Brave New Voices, the national youth poetry slam. Christa put us in touch with Mike and we started from there.
Aaron: We saw how Brave New Voices lifted up teenage spoken word artists, and we were looking for a way to highlight and showcase and amplify page-based poets in the same way.
Matt: Part of the task was finding an umbrella organization—this was something way beyond what Aaron and I could do ourselves—so we reached out to Jeanine Walker, who was the director of the Writers in the Schools program at the time and a good friend of ours. It seemed like a natural fit for Seattle Arts & Lectures to take on the Youth Poet Laureate program.
Gabriela: How do you select a youth poet laureate?
Aaron: The applications come out in March and April (National Poetry Month), with the idea that the panel will deliberate, choose the winner, and that winner is usually announced at Northwest Folklife Festival over Memorial Day weekend. The first year, we didn’t have an idea that it would be a winner and a cohort, but seeing the strength of all those applications and the multitude of voices, it felt like the right thing to do—to not only support a winner, but extend the reach of the program and the voices of young people. Every year, it’s about eight finalists—the YPL winner, an ambassador or two who take on speaking and teaching duties, and a cohort who build community and support each other beyond the one-year term of the program.
Matt: When we started, there was no plan for a cohort or ambassadors. Our ability to create this came from the freedom to shape this program the way we wanted. The New York version is much different from what we’re doing. In some cities, winners are chosen live and in-person, in poetry slam style. The reading at Folk Life isn’t a contest, it’s more of a celebration of the artwork. The decisions we made for this program were based around the content of the writing itself and on promoting the voices of writers who were not necessarily in the spoken word realm, because we felt Youth Speaks was handling that strongly already.
Aaron: This process allows for a deep discussion of the applicants and their writing, as opposed to, having half a minute after a performance to give their work a score. We spend hours and hours reading applications and the panel debates. Sometimes it’s a very difficult decision. I would not want to make that on the fly at a live event.
Gabriela: Is YPL open to anyone who lives in the greater Seattle area?
Matt: It is. The catch is, they have to be able to attend events in the city. We’ve had a few people from Bellingham apply, but one of the requirements is that the Youth Poet Laureate be present at events and able to maintain that title in person within Seattle and surrounding areas.
Aaron: Yes, a lot of speaking requests, and most of them happen in the city or just outside the city. So, as long as they’re nearby and travel well.
Gabriela: How have you worked as mentors with the YPL and the cohort? What does the program consist of?
Aaron: In the summer, we set a calendar for a series of workshops. For a few years, we did a writing-revising-publishing series and tried to build those steps towards becoming a published author for the cohort. Meanwhile, a lot of one-on-one, coaching, mentoring, and editing with the YPL winner because they have to go from an application of five poems to a full manuscript. A lot of the work is one-on-one with them or two-on-one. The cohort has a separate workshop series we lift up through a number of readings as well.
Matt: The intention is for the cohort and the ambassadors to have some autonomy and build their own program. Over the years, we’ve moved the power of the program towards them. As mentors, we’ve maintained a structure for the Youth Poet Laureate themselves, but part of the idea of having ambassadors was about giving them leadership and drive over what a cohort provides, and we work in support of that.
Gabriela: Was a book always part of the program?
Aaron: That was the most exciting thing about the program. Urban Word, who founded the program in New York, had a relationship with a small press. Very quickly, the program outgrew the press. Now, we have a great connection with Poetry Northwest, which gives us a bit more flexibility with timelines and deadlines. Also we want to keep it in the Northwest.
Gabriela: Why is it important to you to engage with youth in poetry?
Matt: Ah, it’s a big question. I can offer a few insights. Poetry offers a platform and a vehicle for social change. It offers a place to find community and connection, especially for kids who are experiencing the world through the types of feelings and ideas that lead them to poetry. Beyond the artistic or social aspects, it’s in the realm of critical thinking and uplifting voices that are often overlooked or unheard.
Aaron: Art is a great way to explore the world. Poetry especially lends itself to sharpening your insight and focus because of the brevity. A great poem helps you understand yourself and how you fit into the world. It’s like having the recipe for oxygen—it’s a survival skill. Figuring out how you fit into the world and the bravery I see in young people saying, This is the way I see the world, in front of hundreds of people on a stage—or, hopefully, hundreds or thousands of people—it lives forever. That’s an incredible act of bravery. We want to honor the ideas in those voices. I feel like young people understand inherently the muscle that poetry can wield. There’s a level of ferocity in young writers.
Matt: What we offer in terms of craft is to elevate that bravery. This program offers focused mentorship, which a lot of these young writers are not getting. This program was built around creating community—a cohort or salon of poets working in the realm of craft. It’s a next step if you consider yourself a serious writer, to seek mentorship. It’s something we felt was necessary—and missing—in Seattle’s youth writing community, outside of a paid-access format.
Aaron: As opposed to a twelve-week, once-a-week class, we work over a whole year. You can understand the poet and their poetry even better. You develop a stronger relationship working with them and their writing, and figure out what their writing is trying to be. Like Matt said, passing on those tools that can help—I don’t want to call them a diamond in the rough—they’re just a diamond. It’s like, what if the diamond had the tools to sharpen and polish itself? That’s the way we approach mentorship.
Gabriela: Are there memories you can share from the past six years?
Aaron: Every year, there’s a moment where Matt and I look at each other and go, Wow, what just happened? Six writers have been working hard at a manuscript, and working hard on themselves, absorbing all of this feedback—and Matt and I don’t always agree, which makes the program strong. To hear an opinion from two different writers, two different readers, two different listeners of your work. Each year, there’s moment where we’re like, Who wrote this? Where did this come from? because it’s such a break. A switch has flipped and, all of a sudden, amazing stuff happens.
Matt: When the book starts taking shape, Aaron and I print out all of the poems and use a whiteboard to make a giant bubble map of the different titles. We start thinking about the structure of the book. It’s pretty much after that session that we can sit back, look at that board and go, This is your book. That’s a chills moment for everybody. It’s exciting to see the progression of the work and where they’ve each started.
Aaron: Without fail, each of the six past laureates—and, I mean, all of us as poets—it’s the cutting of things that you’ve worked so hard on that’s difficult. Sometimes, you’re throwing out entire poems or big sections and chunks of poems, but in that process, for each of them, there has been a time when they just start crossing things out. I hate that act of destruction, but also it’s something to love in that they’re seeing what’s great about their writing, and they’re not afraid they don’t have more poems or lines in them. Those moments are the among the most powerful.
Matt: There’s a rawness involved with each of the poets we’ve selected. To see that work refined over time, and to see monumental leaps in voice and in craft is so exciting. I think that’s where we find the most joy, those moments you see it pay off—you see the pride and excitement and even the nervousness. The young people we’ve worked with see themselves as serious writers. They’ve stepped up to the challenges Aaron and I have set for them.
Gabriela: How has this program has changed you as writers and humans over the years?
Aaron: I get more amazed every year at the depth of love for the written and spoken word that I see in young people. It’s inspiring to me. Mentoring someone on a full year-long process to develop a book also helps me understand what I do as a writer and why I’m doing. It’s sharpened my eye and my ear as an editor which, then, makes me a better writer.
Matt: I would second that. Aaron and I have been collaborating for a long time. Aaron’s always been a mentor to me and was, when I first started as a teaching artist, one of the people I looked to for advice. We’ve had a connection since 2003—seventeen years. We’ve learned how to work together to build something, and how to mentor and teach together—co-collaborative teaching—it’s a privilege and a huge honor. It’s one of the things I cherish most about this program. It’s amazing that Aaron and I get to hang out and be in a space together, and talk about these things we’re both really excited about, and see the results of our discussions in book form at the end. It’s been a huge joy in terms of development as a teacher, a writer, and an editor, having that lens focused and sharpened, but also as a collaborator, knowing how to play off of each other in really constructive ways.
Aaron: It really has. Matt and I liken it to a medieval guild. We’re just plying our craft and passing it along to whomever wants to learn it. It’s really been great. As writers, we do a lot of work in isolation, unless you have a really good writing group. It’s amazing to bounce ideas off of each other for all of these books that are not our own, then talk about our own projects and have that time to stay connected around the creation of words and ideas.
Gabriela: Aaron, I love this line in your bio, His first publication was on his mother’s old Kenmore refrigerator on Seventh Street in Yakima, Washington. Did you always know you were a poet? How did you each get your start?
Aaron: No, no—not at all. I have a roundabout way that I came to be a writer. I used to be an adolescent counselor and gang intervention person, and ran an education center—a high school reentry program in West Seattle. Every summer, we threw out the traditional curriculum and did personal essays and poetry, and we published it in a chapbook. I would write along with the students. Summer after summer of telling them, You got to tell your story, here’s how we do it, it sort of stuck. When I left that job, I went to work on writing projects full-time, then started as a teaching artist and never looked back. I got started as a poet because of young people. That’s why I continue to make that connection.
Matt: I fell in love with poetry listening to hip-hop in the nineties through a West Coast group called Hieroglyphics. They were all so advanced lyrically, something I’d never heard before. I was growing up in Kennewick and there wasn’t a hip-hop culture or anything, but my friends and I started freestyling and rapping. I fell in love with the music of language. Before that, my first connection came from Shel Silverstein and my dad reading us those poems before bed.
I didn’t have this epiphany of the connection to language until my mid-twenties. The music of language and what’s possible within rhyme and sound was fanned by hip-hop. That drew me to spoken word. I didn’t have beats to rap to, so I started writing these really long, lyrical poems that I would recite. I didn’t realize there was a thing called poetry slam, which started when I was about eighteen. I discovered Saul Williams, who wrote a book called She, that came with CD of him reading the poems, and also his performance in the movie Slam. His poem “Sha-Clack-Clack” was the one that made me say, That’s what I want to do. So, I graduated—I was getting my AA at Columbia Basin College in Pasco—then I moved to Bellingham in search of poetry, open mics, and mentorship, and I found a lot of that and that was the beginning of everything.
Gabriela: What are you reading or listening to now?
Aaron: I’ve been reading a lot of fiction. Also, my daughter is thirteen and she’s musical theater nut, so we’ve been dissecting musical theater performances. That’s been my summer: musical theater and any new hip-hop. At Creative Justice, I get to work with a lot of great artists. We have a longtime local hip-hop legend, Jace from Black Stax, working with us, so I’ve been listening to his music. In the spirit of passing on these skills, we have a group of artists, ages eighteen to twenty-one, who are learning from Jace and the rest of the team how to be teaching artists. All three are up-and-coming hip-hop artists, so I’ve been listening to a lot of the beautiful folks I work with, in addition to musical theater.
Matt: I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I’m really interested in Clarice Lispector, my favorite recently-discovered writer, and Bob Kaufman’s collection of poetry was released recently. A lot of his work was overlooked, and he never really had any major publications until this large collection was published, which resurfaced him in the lens of great American writers.
Aaron: I did revisit Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. And Terrence Hayes. I’m looking at poets who are doing non-traditional things with the text of their poems. Oh, and Fantastic Negrito if you’re into blues and American roots music. He’s out of Oakland and he’s making some really cool blues music that’s been keeping me sane during the quarantine.
Gabriela: What’s next for you both?
Matt: Most of my art is happening in the realm of lyrical hip-hop, alternative hip-hop, over lo-fi type of beats. In 2009, I worked on a project with my friend, Chris Carroll, called the Gold Fronts. We recorded it, but it never really got traction. We reconnected a few years ago and I started working on a project called Entendres. In February, I released a small, three-track EP called the Generations EP, so there’s three songs on Spotify and all the platforms under the title Entendres. And I just finished writing a new album in April and May.
Aaron: I have been spending a lot of time and energy working with Creative Justice, my main job. Luckily, it involves arts. I haven’t been doing a lot of writing, sadly, but I’ve been doing a lot of visual art, some painting and conceptual stuff as we try out new things to implement in the program. I’m looking forward to taking some time off whenever life gets back to normal and really focusing on digging into another manuscript. Crossing fingers for January.
Gabriela Denise Frank is a literary artist whose work has appeared in galleries, storefronts, libraries, anthologies, magazines, podcasts, and online. Her essays and fiction have been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, Pembroke, The Normal School, and The Rumpus. A Jack Straw Writer and Artist Trust EDGE alumna, Gabriela’s work is supported by 4Culture, Mineral School, Vermont Studio Center, Jack Straw, Invoking the Pause, and the Civita Institute. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com