Houston personalities: Meet Houston’s 2020 Youth Poet Laureate

Madison Petaway (Dabfoto Creative)

Sixteen-year-old Madison Petaway was selected from applicants across the Houston area to become the city’s 2020 Youth Poet Laureate. Petaway is a junior at Westbury High School. Her poems often grapple with topics including mental illness and education.

The Houston Youth Poet Laureate is a joint program of Writers in the Schools, the Houston Public Library, and The City of Houston.

We caught up with Madison to talk about about her poetry.

Who is your favorite poet of all time?

Blame my indecisiveness, but I don’t have a favorite poet of all time. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing either! Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou have been great traditional poetry teachers along with Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare. But then there’s more modern poets like R.H. Sin and Courtney Peppernell, as well as spoken word poets from across the globe. I like to think I don’t have a favorite because I have so many teachers.

What’s the last great poem you read or heard?

Funny enough, I have a private playlist on YouTube titled “Great Poems”. I went back through it to answer this question! It’s a poem called “All Lives Matter: 1800’s Edition” by Anthony McPherson.

What moves you the most in a great poem?

The use of metaphors and personification. Anyone can tell a story, but poetry is the heart of it all—you must breathe life into it. I’ve written poems about automatic toilets and boba tea and vending machines...they might’ve not been the best but it’s the life I brought into my story by giving everyday objects a voice. I also think tone is a big factor! My favorite thing to hear from spoken word poets is the use of tone in their voice. Even the overused speaking soft, then yelling, yelling, then a quick drop back to soft. It shows me they have passion! Passion is important for a poem.

When you write, what do you draw on for inspiration?

My inspiration is anything and everything, recently it’s been inanimate objects or other poets, but it changes as my interests do very often. I’m currently studying American Sign Language in my free time and playing with the thought of incorporating it into my poems. My style also comes from other spoken word poets. When I was on the youth poetry team, Meta-Four Houston, I studied my teammates’ poetic style and expression regularly and I think that has helped me try to break my own boundaries.

Was there a poem or poet in particular that inspired you to write poetry?

I don’t remember what poet inspired me to write traditional poems, but I came across a spoken word video on Youtube called “To This Day” by Shane Koyczan and I remember having it on replay and thinking “This is what I want to do with my life.”

When did you begin writing poetry?

I started writing poetry in first grade. My poems often started out as songs because I was surrounded by family members who liked rap. As I started reading more poetry by Edgar Allan Poe and Langston Hughes I developed my own rhyming schemes and diverged from the music songwriting patterns I tried to copy.

What does your writing process look like?

My writing process, though I’m partially ashamed to admit, is wildly inconsistent! But I guess, there’s some beauty to it. Some days, it’s binge watching spoken word videos before jotting down my thoughts on a similar topic to what I watched. Other days it’s pacing back and forth and recording myself so I can write thoughts down later or even waking up in the middle of the night after a dream to take notes!

Did you read poetry as a child?

I don’t believe I read poetry—most notably Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Edgar Allen Poe, etc until fourth grade. Though I was writing a few years before then. Again, I’m not sure what made me start reading poetry as my earlier influences had come from the rap songs I’d hear family members listening to.

How has poetry impacted your life?

Traditional poetry gave me an outlet when I felt like I was alone in the world. Meanwhile, spoken word gave me a new purpose in life, a family through my Meta-Four Houston team and in the poetry community throughout Houston, and it instilled in me a confidence I never knew I had.

How do you hope to help others with your work?

My work centers on mental health, specifically anxiety and depression, and how that relates to my family, friends, and education. Being a teenage person of color there’s a lot of stigma regarding mental health and I want to bring awareness to the stigma. At times, it’s uncomfortable to perform, but the comments I get from people telling me they relate is always worth it—knowing I can explain what others have been scared to say. I hope to continue using my voice for those who have been pushed to the side.

What does it mean to you to be Houston’s 2020 Youth Poet Laureate?

It means being the person I never had a chance to look up to. I am an imperfect teenager who struggles with the daily issues of life but I still go out and do things with my awkward nature, and that’s okay! I want teenagers in Houston to see me and think, “If she did it, why can’t I?” It also means spreading my love of poetry which it has been great so far to see my friends talk to me more and more about poetry and how they can spit their story at the mic.

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