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CEDAR RAPIDS — Prairie High School junior Johnnie Each is representing Iowa as its second-ever student poetry ambassador.
The program, which operates out of the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa, is inspired by poet Amanda Gorman, who at age 22 was the youngest to read her poetry at a presidential inauguration when she spoke at the Jan. 20, 2021, inauguration for President Joe Biden.
Each, 16, was officially named Iowa’s 2022 student poet ambassador during a Friday ceremony in the Iowa Capitol rotunda in Des Moines. She was chosen after submitting her work to the Iowa Poetry Association and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, a national competition for students in seventh through 12th grades.
Each’s poetry is inspired by her life experiences, she said.
“I’m a woman, I’m a Christian, I’m a daughter and a sister,” Each said. There are “a lot of strong women” in her family serving in “beautiful ways,” she said.
Each spends her summers writing poetry, which she edits and rewrites throughout the school year. Writing and editing are “two different frames of mind,” Each said.
“When I’m writing, I just have to let go or I’ll stop myself with self-criticism,” Each said. “All I do during the school year is go over poems again and again, combine them, dissect them.”
Poetry submitted by the top three Iowa winners of the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards went on to be evaluated by a selection committee. The Iowa Poetry Association is a nonprofit organization that aims to promote interest in and appreciation of poetry among Iowans through educational opportunities, poetry writing contests and the publication of an annual anthology of Iowa poetry.
Each earned multiple gold medals at the regional and national level in this year’s Scholastic competition for her poetry. She also won the 2021 Paul Engle essay contest, sponsored by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature.
Debra Marquart, Iowa’s Poet Laureate and distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at Iowa State University, said Each’s poetry has a “distinctive voice.”
“There was a strong feminist message in her poems I thought was really brave and strong,” Marquart said.
Each’s poem “Where I Learned The Word Woman” includes vivid details about Each’s grandmother, which Marquart said reminded her of her own grandmother.
“Every stanza has more information about the kind of things they would do together,” Marquart said. “‘Shucking corn in the summer kitchen,’ ‘Pruning, picking and pulling produce from the garden,’ ‘Setting the table with fresh linens and paper plates.’ For me, it was a real trip down memory lane.”
Another of Each’s poem, “Man’s Excuse,” is about the “timeless problem” of men blaming women for the mistakes of men and not being able to take responsibilities for their actions, Each said.
Janice Warren, assistant director for student services at the Belin-Blank Center, came up with the idea of naming an Iowa student poet ambassador every year in April, which is National Poetry Month. Each was a “clear number one,” Warren said. “She has so much energy and enthusiasm for poetry,” she said.
Each recalled reading last year about Iowa’s first student poet ambassador, Iowa City West High student Shreya Khullar.
“I thought ‘Wow, that’s so cool. That would never happen to me,’” Each said. “That thought distinctly ran through my mind. I’m blown away.”
Each said serving as the Iowa youth poet ambassador is the “perfect” way to spend her senior year of high school. She is looking forward to helping students understand the powerfully profound affect poetry can have.
John Kenyon, director of the City of Literature program in Iowa City, said Each has a “real grasp” of the value of poetry and an appreciation for it as a reader and a writer.
“Being able to sit down and appreciate a well-written poem can be difficult to do,” Kenyon said. “Kids are absorbing so many new things, and having a peer share an excitement and love of poetry can go a long way toward making them understand important expression and dialogue we have with one another and our world.”
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