Long Island has a long history with poetry, and has served as the birthplace, residence and summer home of writers and poets from Walt Whitman to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now Ashlee Joly, a recent graduate from Locust Valley High School, has joined their ranks by becoming a finalist for the New York City Youth Poet Laureate Program.
The program is a competition which is meant to support and highlight youth voices by honing their poetry writing and performing skills. The program, which has been running since 2009, is coordinated by NYC Votes, an independent city agency run by the city’s Campaign Finance Board to promote fair and open elections, and Urban Word, an organization which promotes young and marginalized voices as leaders in both the civic and literary fields.
“We use poetry, hip-hop and the arts to promote leadership, civic engagement and social impact as well as literacy,” Shanelle Gabriel, executive director of Urban Word, explained. “What we try to do is just give young people as many opportunities to grew and to have platforms for their work.”
Based in New York and founded in 1999, Urban Word works with 250,000 local students 13 to 19 every year, and thousands more across the country in the National Youth Poet Laureate Program.
The national program began in 2017 and has been replicated and supported in many communities across the United States. The first recipient of the title National Youth Poet Laureate was Amanda Gorman, who delivered her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony.
As part of the New York program, Joly spent the last six weeks working with one of Urban Word’s associated poets, Drew Drake. He has been composing poetry since he was a theater student in 2008 and has performed in national and regional poetry slams.
Drake said that a big part of the process has been teaching Joly and the other finalists how to use art to promote change in their communities, and to not see the artistic world as separate from the “real” world.
“It allows us to focus on the intersection of art and activism and teaches Ashlee and the other finalists how art can be used as a tool of change in their specific communities,” Drake continued. “Ashlee is someone who definitely stood out from the beginning, both in her relationship to home and her community, but also in like the questions she was asking, even around budgeting, like ‘Who has access to certain things, and why are certain communities not given the resources they need?’”
Joly, who is currently attending Adelphi University in Garden City, explained that in her work she tries to tackle and address issues that currently face both her community and the wider world. A child of Haitian immigrants, she said she believes it is her duty as a young person of color to speak her truth to the world.
“Poetry to me has always been a kind of medicine which I use when things aren’t right. Poetry has always given me the right place to go,” Joly said. “But also, poetry is a tool that is used to talk about things around the world, which a lot of youth have a lot to say about.”
She explained that she researches history and modern culture and politics to get a deeper understanding of current issues, which informs how she expresses herself in her poetry, as well as through discussions with Drake and her fellow finalists. Joly says she is also influenced by the writings of Sonia Sanchez, an American poet, writer and educator who was a leading figure in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Joly continued that regardless of the outcome the program has been an amazing experience for her, and that she looks forward to continuing to grow as an artist and activist.
“During my time with Urban Work New York City I’ve found they really value youth voices, and they’re providing a way that young people can be themselves and speak what’s on their mind,” Joly said. “That really got me understanding how poetry can be used as a powerful tool that can talk about things that are happening in the world.”