Atlanta Word Works (AWW) is a program offered by VOX ATL that centers on poetry, writing, and spoken word for teens in Metro Atlanta. It was originally started by VOX ATL alumna Natalie Cook and has since become a fundamental part of VOX ATL’s programming.
AWW’s goal is to provide a space for youth poets in the metro-Atlanta area to grow, learn and express themselves. AWW hosts many events to engage with the community such as poetry workshops, open mic nights and slams open to all. VOX ATL also hosts the Atlanta Youth Poet Laureate program and our Youth Poetry Collective.
The Atlanta Youth Poet Laureate is a joint program of Urban Word NYC (National Youth Poet Laureate home) and VOX ATL with support from Fulton County Arts and Culture, the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and the Richard C. Munroe Foundation. Together, we identify young writers and leaders who are committed to civic and community engagement, poetry and performance, human relations, diversity, social justice and education across Metro Atlanta.
When the competition is being held, five talented individuals are selected as Youth Poet Ambassadors to compete in the finals. The youth poet laureate is decided after all competitors perform for a panel of judges. There are four youth poet ambassadors, however there is only one Atlanta Youth Poet Laureate.
AWW is proud to welcome the 2021 Atlanta Youth Poet Laureate Aanika Eragam! Let’s hear from the amazing poet who has impacted us all with her work! Let’s get to know our laureate!
Hi! My name is Aanika Eragam. I’m 17 and a rising senior at Milton High School. I’ve always loved storytelling for its power in connecting me to my cultural heritage, unlocking foreign perspectives, and preserving history. Today, I write a lot about family, South Asian heritage, girlhood, and body image. I currently edit for my high school’s literary magazine The Globe. My favorite poem (at the moment) is Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie’s “On This the 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart,” and reading it always reminds me what I love about writing. Outside of poetry, I enjoy exploring nature and baking.
VOX ATL: Why were you drawn to the competition?
Eragam: When I first found out about the competition, I was drawn to the idea of finding a new community of teen poets. I watched past Atlanta Youth Poet Laureate Nathan Wallace’s performance on the website and was blown away by how powerful it was. The way the audience reacted to his poem and the support of the crowd was so wonderful. The possibility of finding a similar community was definitely one of the big reasons I applied. I also thought serving as a literary ambassador locally, getting to spread a love of poetry among other people, and having VOX Atlanta’s support in publishing a chapbook were opportunities too good to pass up. Even if I didn’t advance in the competition, I figured that creating a poetry portfolio for the application and then possibly performing my pieces live if I advanced would both be good ways to revise my work and get out of my comfort zone.
VOX ATL: What was it like to perform your pieces for such a large audience?
Eragam: I’d never performed in a poetry slam or an audience that large before, so I was definitely a bit nervous. I think being on Zoom made the whole experience a bit less daunting, since the number of people itself didn’t really register while I was performing. It was honestly extremely nerve-wracking in the moments leading up to my performance, but as soon as I started reciting my piece, I fell into a flow. It was so incredible to see people’s reactions and to read their comments in the chat. It was also incredibly empowering. Writing is often a very isolated activity, so it can sometimes feel like you’re putting your words into a giant void. Performing my poetry in front of such a supportive crowd made me feel like my words were actually moving people, which is such a gratifying thing for any artist.
VOX ATL: When you were writing your pieces, how would you describe your creative process? Where do you look for inspiration?
Eragam: My creative process for writing usually begins with reading. On days when I’m in the writing zone, I always make sure to go read some different poets online or watch performances on YouTube. This gets my own creative juices flowing and makes me feel excited to write. I’m a night owl when it comes to creating poetry, so I’ll be sitting with a Google Doc open at 2 or 3 am. First drafts are where you just pour out whatever it is that’s been on your mind. It doesn’t have to be pretty. Most of the time, I wake up and hate whatever I went to bed excited about writing. But that doesn’t mean what I wrote was “bad.” For me, the hardest part about the creative process is always revision. Most of my poems take a good five to six drafts to get where I want them to be, and even then, I’m still usually not completely satisfied. But in the poetry world, there’s the idea that a poem is never really done, and that it’s constantly adapting, so that’s kind of how I approach my pieces.
One of my favorite quotes about the creative process comes from the writer of the shows Fleabag and Killing Eve, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She was asked for three words that describe her writing process and her response was, “Panic. Panic. Hope.” I’d say that sums up my overall process very well too. When I first get an idea or an image, there’s just a scramble to get it all down and flesh it out before it slips away. And then the revision process is a tug-of-war between, “Hey, this could be something” and “Oh my god, this is awful.” When you finally get to a place with your writing where some lines seem to click and the overall cohesiveness of the poem starts to come together, that’s the ray of sunshine in the clouds that keeps me going.
My inspiration comes from a lot of places, but my main sources are my family, cultural heritage, and any experiences with girlhood that I can’t stop thinking about. I think this is mainly because these are the things that I actually have experience with, so it logically follows that they’re what I write about. I also pay close attention to conversations I’ve had with people, and how they’ve made me feel. For example, both of the poems I performed in the slam had lines that were written exactly as they were said to me in real life. There are a lot of times when I can’t stop replaying a conversation, whether out of shock, fear, embarrassment, or guilt. When something becomes so obsessive, poetry is the way I can finally come to terms with my experience and dissect it beyond the initial emotions. I was lucky enough to be mentored last summer by Raena Shirali, an Assistant Professor of English at Holy Family University, who told me to “Write your obsessions,” which is probably some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. Whether it’s an experience, an encounter, a person, a place, an image, a word — if it keeps coming back to you, if you just can’t stop thinking about it, then I think poetry is one of the best places to explore why. These “obsessions” are often my biggest sources of inspiration.
VOX ATL: Why do you write poetry? What connects you to the art of poetry?
Eragam: This is such a hard question, but I think for me it really boils down to healing. A lot of my work is extremely personal, focusing on emotions of sadness, fear, or guilt. When you’re writing a poem, it’s just you and the page. There’s no judgement or pressure. You can be as angry as you want, as self-pitying as you want, as irrational, as sad, as enraged. You don’t have to censor yourself. The freedom that a blank page offers is so healing. It’s your words staring back at you at the end, so it’s you being there for yourself in whatever conclusions you come to. When I write poems, I often end at a place of hope or affirmation. And even if I end a piece without having changed any of my feelings, even if I end on a tone of ambivalence, I still feel that the process of sitting with my emotions is healing. Simply allowing yourself the space to talk about something without feeling rushed is healing. So for me, I write poetry for the purpose of my own catharsis. And I hope that my words will provide the same comfort for another person and remind them that they are not alone in their experiences.
I also want to emphasize that every poem does not need to be about trauma, and we don’t have to mine our awful experiences to create work that is deemed valuable. If poetry is a way for you to heal, then that’s great. But if it’s not, don’t force it. Poetry can be anything you want it to be. You can write a poem in praise of something you find wonderful, whether it be a person or a place. I say this because I often have to remind myself that I don’t have to just write about pain. I can write about love or friendship. One of my favorite poems I’ve written is actually a love letter to my best friend. So, never feel pressured to write about only a certain topic.
As for what connects me to poetry, I think my relationship with words really began at a young age with my mom. As a daughter of immigrants, a lot of the connection I have with my culture came from the bedtime stories she told me about South Indian mythology or her own life in India as a child. I really clung to these stories at a young age, and so using poetry as a way to explore my heritage came very naturally. Poetry is also something that many people in my culture have been writing for centuries in ways that stray from more Eurocentric forms and traditions that we’re taught in school. For example, the ghazal originated in Arabia and is a form that a lot of Indian poets have written in the past. Last summer, I decided to try my hand at one, and it was such a cool feeling to know that I was writing in a form that so many people from my cultural heritage have written in before. I think that this element of ancestry and knowing that the art of poetry has in some way been passed down definitely makes me feel more connected to it.
VOX ATL: Do you have any words of wisdom for future applicants of the competition or anyone aspiring to be a poet?
My biggest piece of advice for the competition is to do your research. Watch the performances of past winners. Go on YouTube. Google slam poetry. Watch for the performers’ body language, for the lines that resonate with you. Ask yourself what works and why. Thinking about these questions will give you a template in creating a similar energy in your own pieces and performance. And of course, make sure to read! I didn’t read very widely when I was younger, and as a result, a lot of my poetry was sort of the same thing over and over again. As I broadened my reading list, I found poets whose work I really enjoyed. I tried to emanate their energy until I had amalgamated a voice of my own. The Poetry Foundation website was really helpful for this, since you can sort by different styles, authors, and genres to find diverse pieces.
As for actually writing your poems, make sure you have somewhere, whether it’s a notebook or the Notes app on your phone, to write down the lines that come to you in the middle of the night or when you’re out. Also, create a notes page for epigraphs. This is something that one of my English teachers has us do, where we were supposed to write down lines from creative pieces, or something striking from a conversation we overheard, or a soundbite we heard on the news. An epigraph is a quote that can intro a poem, and so keeping track of these lines from different sources can be useful in creating that introduction or inspiring a piece on their own.
When it comes to revision, get a different set of eyes on your work. Whether it’s a teacher or a friend, have someone else read your piece and give you some constructive feedback. In addition to thinking about what gaps are in your piece that you need to fill, think about what needs to be cut. This part is truly heart wrenching. Cutting lines that I love always makes my stomach turn, but it’s unavoidable. Maybe you can use them in a different piece in the future.
Lastly, find a community of writers. VOX ATL and Atlanta Word Works are perfect examples of the kind of community you need as a young writer. I mentioned earlier that writing can feel like a solitary act, but like most things, it’s so much more fun and fulfilling when you can share it with others. Working with a workshop group or even joining your school’s literary magazine club and seeing other people’s writing from an editorial perspective will all make you a stronger writer.
VOX ATL: How does it feel to be the Atlanta Youth Poet Laureate?
It feels amazing. I am so excited to be able to join a community of talented poets and spread a love of literature in the community. I truly was blown away by every Youth Poet Laureate Ambassador who performed at the slam, and I am grateful for the opportunity to hopefully work with them again in the future. I think being Atlanta Youth Poet Laureate is such an honor as far as the title goes, but what it signifies— that my voice as a young person is valuable— is what truly makes it so incredible.
Thank you for your answers Aanika Eragam! We are so glad to have you in our community and looking forward to seeing your work! We are so happy to have you as our Atlanta Youth Poet Laureate.