Oyewumi Oyeniyi said she stared at her cellphone for 30 seconds – mouth agape – after she received a call informing her that she would be Philadelphia’s newest youth poet laureate.
“I was just befuddled and just so grateful and just ecstatic,” said Oyeniyi, a senior at North Philadelphia’s Cristo Rey High School.
On Monday, Oyeniyi, 17, who lives in Lawncrest, officially took on the role at an announcement in front of her family, friends, Mayor Jim Kenney and others in the lobby of the Parkway Central Library.
She told reporters that she began writing poetry in second grade, after learning “roses are red, violets are blue.”
Oyeniyi, who is of Liberian and Nigerian descent, writes about her own experiences and emotions, but she believes the ideas conveyed through her poetry relate to a wider audience.
“Whatever speaks to me and speaks to others, I write about,” she said.
During Monday’s event, Oyeniyi read two of her poems, including “Dear Oyewumi,” which she described as a “love letter” to herself. The piece begins with admonishments – a series of “do nots” – before transitioning to affirmations.
“When you’re a Black femme-presenting person in modern society, you get told you can’t be a lot of things,” Oyeniyi explained. “You can’t be emotional. You can’t show vulnerability.”
Former Philadelphia Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson said Oyeniyi stood out to her as a freshman when Mayson led a one-week poetry residency nearly three years ago at Cristo Rey.
“You are an inspiration to the youth in your school and your community,” Mayson said at Monday’s announcement.
Mayson is part of the eight-person poet laureate governing committee that selected Oyeniyi. The group includes other poets, Free Library of Philadelphia staff and others in the art community.
Youth poets laureate serve as cultural ambassadors who lead workshops and readings through the academic year, and they spearhead a signature project aimed at bringing poetry to young people, organizers said.
The title also comes with a $1,000 scholarship, and library representatives said the city’s adult laureate, Airea D. Matthews, will mentor Oyeniyi.
“The poet laureate program is a city gem, which reflects our city’s vibrant poetry culture,” said Yolanda Wisher, a former poet laureate and current chair of the laureate governing committee.
Oyeniyi succeeds Telicia Darius, who attended Hardy Williams Mastery Charter School, as youth poet laureate.