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Meet Chicago’s First National Youth Poet Laureate

“I cried,” says the Columbia College sophomore. “And then I gave a really bad speech.”

Patricia Frazier   Photo: Courtesy of Urban Word

Three decades ago, Gwendolyn Brooks became Chicago’s first United States Poet Laureate. This year, another Bronzeville native—nineteen-year-old Patricia Frazier, who grew up reading Brooks’s work—became Chicago’s first National Youth Poet Laureate.

“I was shocked,” Frazier says. “I cried. And then I gave a really bad speech.”

From 1998 and 2009, Frazier lived in a Bronzeville public housing development, the Ida B. Wells Homes, until the second Daley administration demolished her building and forced her family to relocate to Englewood. Today, she’s a second-year student at Columbia College Chicago, studying film and creative writing.

Like Gwendolyn Brooks and many of her mentors at the poetry nonprofit Young Chicago Authors, Frazier’s work is often grounded in place. “Normally when people want to go back to where they’re from, they can go back to a house, or a specific place like a store or building where they spent their childhood,” she says. “But I can’t. There are no buildings I can go back to.” A lot of her poems are meant to “act as a landmark or a monument” for people who want to remember a lost neighborhood.

Frazier is the second-ever National Youth Poet Laureate (Amanda Gorman was the first), an honor founded in 2008 by Urban Word in partnership with the NYC Mayor’s Office and NYC Votes. For the past two years, Young Chicago Authors has nominated a “Chicago Youth Poet Laureate” to represent the city among 40 other regional finalists across the country. Last year, it was E’mon Lauren, and this year, Frazier moved on to the final-five performance at Federal Hall in New York City, where she became the national winner.

“Patricia’s poetry is really phenomenal,” says Michael Cirelli, Executive Director of Urban Word. “The judges were impressed with the quality of her craft, but they also considered her commitment to social justice and youth development.”

I spoke with Frazier over the phone about growing up in Chicago, her poetry, and her plans for the future—including a debut collection from Haymarket Books later this year.

How does it feel to be the second-ever National Youth Poet Laureate?

It’s surreal, but I attribute a lot of it to my mentors who have helped me edit my shitty poems until they weren’t shitty anymore. People like José Olivarez, Kevin Coval, and Jamila Woods. I think about it not so much as a win for myself, but as a win for Chicago. This award belongs to all of us.

Can you tell me a little bit about your poetry?

When I first started writing poetry, I was writing about stuff that I witnessed right outside my front door: my story with gentrification, living in Bronzeville, being pushed out when my projects were torn down, and then moving to Englewood and seeing how the culture there contradicted things that were said about Englewood in the news and on TV. Now, my poetry has navigated towards talking more about the people in my neighborhood and telling their stories—the plight of black women, racism, and what it’s like to be a queer young person in a homophobic family.

I just finished a book called Graphite that’s coming out in September, and it’s basically an ode to my grandmother. I use her to tell these stories about the Ida B. Wells apartment complexes when they were torn down. We moved to Englewood, and yeah, they were shooting in our backyard, but there were also these black businesses in people’s apartments, where women would do hair for $20 because they knew the girls couldn’t afford to pay anything more. We had restaurants in houses where people would sell tacos. We had candy stores. My writing tries to explain that there are many different facets not only to a person, but also to a neighborhood.

And a lot of my poetry is inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, when she says the danger of a single story is not that they’re untrue, it’s that they’re incomplete. A lot of my work is just filling in those gaps in the story. You have to get the story right about our people, because the media isn’t going to do it. It’s on us.

Who are some of your influences in poetry?

The biggest one is Gwendolyn Brooks. I feel like she’s followed me throughout my life, even when I didn’t want to read poetry. I lived in Bronzeville, I went to Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep. Her books were always around. She’s what inspired me to say, “Okay, my story matters.” And then Nikki Giovanni, Zora Neale Hurston, a mentor I had named Mama Brenda who passed away a couple of years ago. I like to read a lot of people. My absolute favorite, go-to poet is from Sudan, and her name is Safia Elhillo. I always go back to her work when I’m stuck.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your debut book, Graphite?

It’ll be published in September by Haymarket Books. It tells a story of loss — the loss of my home, the loss of the matriarch in my life. But it also tells a story of rebirth — of who can you become once you’ve lost some of the negative ideas about the places you’ve lived in. And it’s kind of selfish, but it also investigates how queer people change after some of their family members who they really, really loved pass away, and they’re not worried about, “What’s my grandmother going to think? What’s my grandfather going to think when I bring this person to dinner?” Getting at the ugliness of being selfish in those ways is very important.

Why is it called Graphite?

It’s inspired by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and a Zora Neale Hurston quote, “I feel most graphite when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” It relates to my grandmother being “graphite”— something that’s erasable, something that’s black, something that’s supposed to be erasable and is doing its job by being erased. How black people and people of color or marginalized people in general have always made survival out of erasure.

But there’s also the double entendre, like the lead in Chicago’s water. It’s about how our liberation is more than just “Don’t shoot,” it’s also “Can we get clean water? Can we get some clean soil? How can we become self-sustaining people in places where there are no grocery stores?” That’s definitely my jumping-off point for the book.

Tell us about your plans for the future.

I’m super positive about literacy and I understand that being able to read is a privilege. We talk about youth from my neighborhood who don’t “enjoy reading,” but it’s not that they don’t enjoy reading, it’s that there aren’t that many stories they can relate to. So I definitely want to get out into neighborhoods and do workshops, especially in places where [programs like] Young Chicago Authors aren’t as accessible.

I’m also passionate about the prison industrial complex, and I do a lot of that work with [activist group] Assata’s Daughters. I’m planning on teaming up with an organization called Free Write Arts & Literacy to do writing workshops in juvenile detention centers.

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