She’s 17 and a wordsmith, a change-maker, and a fierce advocate for students having a voice and for gender equality. Meet Meera Dasgupta, the 2020 United States Youth Poet Laureate.
Last May, Queens, New York-born Dasgupta, currently a senior at Stuyvesant High School, became the youngest national youth poet laureate in the history of the country. She is also the first Indian American and the first from New York (or even the northeast).
But that’s not all. Dasgupta is a member of the National Youth Poet Laureate Program, which identifies and celebrates teen poets who use their artistic excellence to be leaders in bringing about civic engagement and social justice. A 2020 United Nations Global Goals ambassador, a Federal Hall fellow, and winner of the Climate Speaks program and the Scholastic Arts and Writing award, Dasgupta has performed at several prestigious venues around the country. In a Zoom call with Seema, she spoke about her role as a Youth Poet Laureate, her activism, her future plans, and about Amanda Gorman, the young poet, who dazzled the nation with her rhythmic speech and graceful gestures during President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Life as a National Youth Poet Laureate
“I definitely feel like the youth poet laureate has many opportunities, and there’s definitely some leeway in terms of what we can do, which is why no one’s tenure is the same,” Dasgupta tells Seema. Among other things, Dasgupta has published a book, writes a blog, publishes poems, holds workshops and gives interviews on different platforms.
However, some of her engagements have had to be affected by the pandemic.
“I feel that there’s both benefits and negatives of being a youth poet laureate during the pandemic,” she says. “Of course I can’t perform in front of people.” One of the disadvantages is not having a live audience.
“A lot of spoken words are getting feedback from the audience – people snapping and clapping alongside – when you are speaking,” she says.
While building a virtual community has been “different” for Dasgupta, she notes that performing virtually has had its advantages.
“I have been able to speak with people who I wouldn’t have been able to speak with before,” she said. She said has spoken to people from across the U.S., and mentored a girl in South Africa in public speaking, adding, “That’s definitely something that I value because I know that I wouldn’t have been able to focus on that global perspective that I now have.”
There have been “many different sides to the virtual space,” she says. “I am still adapting, but I think it’s moving forward and evolving in a way which is awesome.”
The Intersection of Poetry and Activism
Talking about her transition to poetry, Dasgupta says she’s always been a performance-based person. She’s been in her school choir for 10 years and has taken acting and theater courses.
“But as a political body in the United States and beyond that, I really utilized my activism in spaces with womxn, empowering women within these spaces, and also within the intersections of my identity, not only as an Indian America, but as an Indian American woman in New York City – and in America.” That’s something that pushed her to work in different spaces, “not only in the women’s movement, but also in climate justice, racial justice, different social justice movements in addition to that.”
Calling herself “erratic” in her activism, she explains, “If I see something that I feel is an issue in the world, I would send an email a second later.” She gives an example: “I saw someone on Facebook talking about mental health being affected by the pandemic. I emailed a senator a minute later, just randomly, to discuss that issue and to see if some positive change can come from that.”
Before she was a poet, Dasgupta was involved in activism; she participated in various advocacy groups.
“I feel like there’s an intersectionality to poetry,” she says. “And for me a lot of my poetry intersects with my advocacy work and my activism, which is why for me it does interact with my public speaking.”
It was in elementary school that Dasgupta says she first realized that she likes to help people.
“I would always help people excessively, she says. “And when I say this I mean when someone would drop a pencil or a scissor across the room.” She was always the first person to raise her hand if anyone needed help – if they needed a monitor, someone to do some extra work after school, or to arrange papers.
“All I knew was that in the future I want to help people. It was such a simple phrase and such a simple idea but it was something that I carried into my high school years as well,” she says. “So my activism definitely started as a result of that experience in elementary school. … Having an intersection of identity and seeing all these experiences within the world prompted me to work with other people.”
The Power of Poetry
So what does poetry mean to Dasgupta?
“Poetry is very much story-telling in a way,” she says. “And I know in some forms of art, the art itself, and the performance allows people to take a different form of identity.” In Dasgupta’s case, she’s been told that when she performs on stage, she’s a different person.
“I close my eyes and suddenly something else happens,” she says.
Dasgupta says poetry can be used in different ways. She says that there is a misconception that the words are for an audience, but that it could also be a way of being vulnerable and learning more about oneself and healing.
Poetry comes in handy with her activism as well. When she is writing, Dasgupta says she learns “how to utilize certain words and lyricisms which can evoke a certain meaning.” The same applies to when she’s speaking.
“It has helped me in raising awareness in civic engagement, uplifting youth voices in marginalized communities, within my local space and globally,” she says.
Dasgupta found her true calling for the spoken word as a member of the Stuyvesant Speech Team, interpreting and performing spoken word poems. She started writing poetry, or spoken word poetry, less than two years ago before becoming the youth poet laureate.
“That was so fast,” she says. “In terms of finding my passion and working, but also accomplishing so much in terms of the mental space and gaining the confidence to speak on the stage.”
She recalls being at a performance soon after she had begun writing, when a young girl in the audience asked if she could perform. She was not on the lineup, Dasgupta explains, but she still was given an opportunity. She read a poem she wrote about her time in the foster care system, and how that related to empowerment.
Dasgupta says, “It was so powerful and it was one of the most powerful moments of the night.”
That was when she realized how important poetry was. “I was writing by then, but it was still something I didn’t realize in terms of the power of just words,” she says.
“More than what I am going to be doing in 10 years, I think more about who I am going to be,” Dasgupta says. “I want to be the person who continues to push boundaries, and continues to try to change the world. I definitely want to continue to learn about global and international perspectives.”
She believes that being in New York City is “a bubble in terms of that there are a lot of progressive values and a lot of boundaries already being pushed within the city as I have seen.” But she is aware that there is so much work that has to be done, “within traditional values and trying to find intergenerational conversations” And to do that she wants to to talk more people, “not only in the 50 states, but in other countries to learn about this network of people who’re already doing the work and how I can help in terms of helping them in uplifting their voices.”
In college, she wants to major in political science, to continue to pursue social justice. “I am going to be a political science major in college because as I was talking about the intersections of my poetry and work, I also feel it is important to understand that how the world is governed, or how the nation is governed – and in order to implement that into poetry – I need to know represent people accurately.”
On Amanda Gorman
Dasgupta says she’s not surprised with Gorman’s “sudden assent” after the performance on Inauguration Day. “It was definitely not shocking to me, in terms of seeing her get that recognition, because I knew she had deserved it and earned it as well.”
She says it was heartening that Gorman was recognized for work she’s done. “She’s been recognized for a long time by so many leaders within our community, but no within the general population,” she notes and adds: “It’s also something that I found that not a lot of people knew what a National Youth Poet Laureate was. Or even what spoken word poetry was before Amanda. I would tell people about the title and they would say ‘what is that.’”
On Being Compared to Gorman
“I try to consider myself unique in that way,” she says, “but I definitely look to Amanda as an inspiration.” In April 2017, Gorman became the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate.
Dasgupta says that Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem was able “to instill hope within so many people during a time which has definitely been a transitional period, not only in America, but globally, not only in terms of the pandemic but in terms of unification and acknowledgment of history.”
To see someone on the stage, who resembles so many in her neighborhood and has allowed her “to find spaces within my own circle and spheres.” She continues: I feel that perhaps one day I will be at that stage as well … and I’ll be someone who can inspire others…. Rather than see who I’m going to be, I try to find people who I want to stand besides someday. And it’s people like Amanda and Kamala Harris” – the first woman, the first African American and the first Indian American vice president – “and that’s so interesting to see.”
Her Advice to Young Womxn
“When I was younger, I never saw people like me or who look like me in positions of leadership,” Dasgupta says. “And because it was something I never saw, I never thought that I could be in a position that I am in today – or even in the trajectory that I am envisioning for myself and the community in general.”
She feels that it is “the concept of Americanism and cultural hegemony that has caused me to be definitely different. She believes it is important to rewrite the narratives of what it means to be both American and Indian American.
She urges Indian American girls to find their passion.
“Really try to educate yourself and foster that curiosity, and read the words of people who came before but also of people who are from other countries and what they have to say too,” she says. “I feel like, being in this bubble, it is kind of difficult to get out of that mentality. I would definitely say, find all these aspects for yourself.”