BRATTLEBORO—Students in Brattleboro and Dummerston recently received a visit from an ambassador named Juliet Lubwama.
Unlike some ambassadors, Lubwama isn’t a diplomat from another country. She’s a literary ambassador from suburban Philadelphia, and she is traveling around the northeast U.S. visiting schools and community groups to give workshops on poetry.
Lubwama, a high school senior from Downington, Pa., was recently chosen from thousands of young writers to be one of five National Student Poets.
The award is granted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. Her visit to the area is part of her year-long NSP reign.
To qualify, writers must be juniors and seniors in high school, and must first receive a Scholastic Art & Writing Award. By winning this recognition, Lubwama joins a roster of previous awardees, including Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and Richard Avedon.
When Lubwama is back home, she attends the Downington STEM Academy, where she studies neuroscience, leads the speech and debate team, and sings in the choir.
As part of the NSP’s community service requirement, Lubwama started a poetry workshop for volunteers at the local hospital, and she plans to soon expand the program to include pediatric patients.
In the hospital workshop, “we wrote haikus centered on healing,” said Lubwama. “We’re going to hang them in the hallways so the doctors and nurses can see them and have some joy.”
Next year, Lubwama will continue studying neuroscience in the pre-med program at the University of Pennsylvania. Her hope is to continue to combine neuroscience and poetry.
“I want to introduce a poets on-call program at the hospital,” Lubwama said. “If a patient wants to be distracted, the poet can read and write poetry with them,” she said. “I believe whole-heartedly in the power poetry has in healing. It’s definitely helped me in rough parts of my life and I think it’ll help other people as well.”
Lubwama’s future plans also include outreach. “I want to be an advocate for poetry in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes, and I’m so happy I get to have a head start as a National Student Poet,” she said.
Workshops for all
During her visit to the Brattleboro area, Lubwama gave workshops to seven groups of students in elementary, middle, and high schools, presented an all-ages event at the Brooks Memorial Library, and led an immigrant- and racial-justice program at the River Garden.
At one of the student workshops, Lubwama led a group of Brattleboro Area Middle School eighth-graders in a series of poetry-related exercises. She began the program by reading a poem written by a poet she admires, and then she read two of her poems, “Good Hair,” and “Trying to Find Home.”
Both address identity as experienced by African-American people — both those born here and those who immigrated.
In “Good Hair,” the narrator’s aunt is doing her hair. “auntie is a force to be reckoned with/auntie tugs hot comb through hair as if tearing out heritage,” the poem begins. It ends with, “auntie knows the pain of dazed identity, unspeakable/shelters tips of ears to keep the heat/from singeing skin”
“Trying to Find a Home,” is about “how my Ugandan heritage overlaps with my identity as an African-American,” she said.
It begins with, “my parents crossed the ocean/cracking Kant’s and Locke’s philosophies/between their teeth like walnuts.”
Other notable lines include her parents “finding unexpected asylum with strangers,/the familiar lilts in their tones,” and “my family tree is worn and trampled,/sieged by storms, by dictators, by slavery./my kin arrived with textbooks swaying on their heads/and shackles around their ankles.”
In the first exercise Lubwama did with the eighth-graders, she had them use William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just To Say” as the foundation for what she called “basically Mad-Libs, but with a poem.”
Writing on a large paper easel, Lubwama wrote most of the poems, but left out certain nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and called on the students to shout out replacement words.
“So much depends/upon/a red school/glazed with bookshelves/beside the/purple buses,” was the collaborative version.
In describing Williams’s original, Lubwama explained “it doesn’t have a very deep message you have to go digging for. It’s about imagery."
Next, Lubwama taught the students about praise poems. “It gives a compliment or gratitude,” she said. “It’s meant to spread positivity. It doesn’t need rhyme or meter."
After reading “The Gift,” a poem by Li-Young Lee, Lubwama instructed the attendees to write their own praise poem. “It can be about anything you want to give praise to,” she said, and noted, “yesterday I wrote a praise poem about my mom and her cooking."
That poem ended with, “praise to the parents and the bellies they must always keep full."
Friends at the bus stop and oxygen were some of the subjects praised in the students’ poems.
Of all of the art forms available to her, why did Lubwama choose poetry?
“I really wanted to make music out of words,” she said.
“It goes back to Maya Angelou,” Lubwama said. The first poem Lubwama wrote, in fourth or fifth grade, was inspired by two of Angelou’s works: “Still I Rise,” and “Phenomenal Woman,” she said.
Angelou’s work “has a lyrical quality,” Lubwama said.
With poetry, said Lubwama, “you can get to core emotions."
In her work, Lubwama said she tells “stories of my heritage that words alone cannot express. The fundamental structure of poetry works as an emotional outlet."
“I can make my voice known” through poetry, she said.
Her favorite topics are social issues, like immigration and Black Lives Matter.
“My parents are from Uganda. Of course, I’m Ugandan, but I identify as African-American. My poetry gives me an opportunity to make sense of those identities and to honor my culture and my parents’ culture through my poems,” she said.
Lubwama has a wish for the world: “I want people to recognize poetry can have a place in your lives. Take a few moments every day and read a poem. It’s definitely valuable to your emotional well-being.”