ALYSSA GAINES received her first standing ovation at 13 years old. As a girl growing up on the east side of Indy, she frequently attended poetry open mics and performed in musical theater. But she never expected her first big break to take place at the Library of Congress. Gaines traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2017 to compete in a national poetry slam and earned a perfect score despite being one of the youngest contestants.
“It was a crazy, overwhelming moment where I first realized the power in my words,” Gaines says. “From that moment on, I started honing my technical skills.”
Gaines returned to Washington, D.C., this past May, five years later. Just a 15-minute drive from the site of her first standing ovation, Gaines performed at the Kennedy Center and earned the title of 2022 National Youth Poet Laureate. The night she was named NYPL, Gaines strode across the Kennedy Center stage in a long red dress, stepped in front of the microphone, and squared her shoulders. When she finally opened her mouth, a Spanish song poured out. As she transitioned into English, Gaines contextualized the song as a Cuban bolero playing over the kitchen radio while she cooked multigenerational recipes to cope with the news of Breonna Taylor’s death. Gaines wrote “Lagrimas Negras,” or “Black Tears,” to portray the importance of diasporic traditions as grounding sources for Black women in traumatic times.
NYPL judge Cathy Linh Che particularly appreciated Gaines’s ability to localize complex national issues. “Alyssa’s poems are fierce, wide-ranging, funny, and hopeful,” she says. “They bear witness to the many complexities of growing up in a household that is many-tongued, brimming with beauty and grief.”
A recent Park Tudor graduate, Gaines completed the rigorous NYPL application process (including two essays, 10 poems, a detailed resume, and a video presentation) while applying for college, starring in a school theater production, playing lacrosse, and fulfilling her duties as president of the Black Student Union and Poetry Club. That experience juggling multiple priorities should serve her well as she attempts to balance her laureate speaking responsibilities with her freshman year at Harvard University.
As NYPL, Gaines will develop a civic engagement platform. She plans to focus on increasing youth access to the arts, particularly in marginalized communities. Her family began encouraging her to compete in poetry slams after she brought home a third-grade poetry assignment, but she understands the rarity of that level of support.
“Slam poetry is important because it talks about current events and builds bridges,” Gaines says. “All the things that poetry opened up for me, a lot of people don’t learn poetry that way. I’d love to share that opportunity with other young people who have important things to say.”
Gaines has her own important things to say, which she’ll share on her new blog hosted by the Library of Congress, the same place she first discovered the power of words.