Rio Santos named Northampton’s first youth poet laureate

  • Rio Santos, 14, Northampton’s youth poet laureate, divides her time between Northampton and Hadley; she’s seen at her Hadley home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Santos, 14, Northampton’s first youth poet laureate, divides her time between Northampton and Hadley; she’s seen here in her Hadley home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Santos, 14, Northampton’s first youth poet laureate, divides her time between Northampton and Hadley; she’s seen here in her Hadley home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2021 7:00:23 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Poetry has had an honored place in the city for over two decades, ever since Northampton began appointing a poet laureate every few years, with some of the most notable poets in the Valley — Martín Espada, Lesléa Newman, Richard Michelson, the late Jack Gilbert — taking on the role during that stretch.

Now the city has its first youth poet laureate: Rio Santos.

Santos, who’s 14 and will be entering ninth grade at Northampton High School in September, says she’s been writing poetry “for about as long as I could write” and is thrilled she’ll now be in a position to try and raise interest in poetry both in school and the community overall.

“It’s such an honor to be chosen,” said Santos, who divides her time between Northampton and Hadley. “I’m really excited about the opportunities this gives me.”

She also writes short stories and has tried her hand at a few novels as well. She enjoys writing short-form poems, including haiku, because of the challenge of creating a direct, concise form of expression.

“I tend to write free verse, and sometimes I include rhymes, sometimes not, depending on how the poem goes,” she said.

Santos also noted that even if some of her classmates may think poetry is “boring” or “too hard to understand” at first, she’s also seen that once they try to write their own verse, “They think it’s a lot more fun and interesting. I want to encourage that.”

As the city’s youth poet laureate — her one-year term begins Aug. 1 — she’ll receive a $500 stipend, and she’s also expected to develop a poetry project at NHS or a community-based one in the city, as well as take part in some community poetry readings or events.

The effort to appoint a teen poet laureate was headed by Northampton’s current poet laureate, Karen Skolfield, and the city’s Arts Council, as they considered the excitement generated by Amanda Gorman, the national youth poet laureate who gave a reading at the inauguration of President Joe Biden in January.

“We were in the process of getting this underway, and then we saw [Gorman’s] reading,” Skolfield said. “What a great confirmation that was to push ahead with our plan.” 

In spring, applicants or nominees for the program were asked to submit samples of their poetry, including aural or video readings, and ideas for how they might promote the art form. The posting was open for students in grades 7-12 who live in Northampton, Florence, or Leeds and attend school here (or are home-schooled here).

Skolfield said all the applicants submitted good work and ideas, so it was a challenge for her and three members of an Arts Council subcommittee to select five finalists, who then all took part in Zoom-based interviews with her and the other panelists.

Choosing one person from that group was even tougher, Skolfield said, but in the end, “We were all really impressed with Rio’s energy and ideas, and just her excitement about poetry. She was so engaging … the ideas just came pouring out of her. She was ready to roll.”

One of those ideas, Santos said, is to develop a writing prompt at NHS. She envisions collecting small collections of “favorite words” from friends and classmates, creating a spreadsheet for them, adding some additional words of her own, then typing them out and posting them on bulletin boards in the school, where students can try to arrange them into poems.

She also plans to seek input from Skolfield for some of her own work and for developing further plans for community-based poetry events. Both she and Skolfield say they’re talking about doing a joint reading at the Northampton Senior Center this fall, and Santos will also read Oct. 9 at the Art Council’s Art and Poetry biennial poetry reading, at Forbes Library.

According to the Arts Council, Northampton is just the third city in Massachusetts to appoint a youth poet laureate (the other two are Worcester and Boston). Nationwide, the movement is slowly growing, as young laureates have been appointed or are being considered in Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York City, Philadelphia, and other cities.

Skolfield, a writing instructor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whose poetry has won a number of honors, including a 2020 Massachusetts Book Award, says it’s a pleasure to be involved with young poets like Santos “to see the topics that interest them and that are important to them. It offers a nice snapshot of what a new generation of poets is thinking about.”

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