Ramya Ramana, 18, received the honor last month after winning a competition run by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. According to its website, the Youth Poet Laureate program is “designed to energize youth voters through spoken word poetry.”
Two poems won her the title — “Miss America,” a response to the racist Twitter backlash following Nina Davuluri’s victory at the Miss America 2014 pageant, and “It Is Not Your Problem,” a voting themed poem with a message about civic engagement. Watch Ramana’s performances of both poems below, taped on October 17 for the Youth Poet Laureate Slam at Lincoln Center.
A first year student at St. John’s University in Queens, Ramana is currently studying philosophy, government and politics. She was awarded a full scholarship through the Knicks Poetry Slam program. Ramana says she aspires to be a social and political activist advocating for human rights, social equality, and fighting against injustices. In an email interview with The Aerogram, she shares her plans for a book, what drives her creative work, who she dreams of performing her piece “Miss America” for and more.
How and when did you get started writing and performing poetry?
Writing poetry has always been something I sought refuge in and I can not really remember when I started, but I began taking it more seriously in my sophomore year of high school. I started performing after joining an organization called Urban Word NYC which taught me how to nurture and build my poetry and also facilitated slams and performance workshops.
Do you ever get nervous before performing your poetry in public?
I am a nervous wreck. I shake every time I perform. I’m always in fear that I will mess up or forget the words. Throughout the years, I’ve become more of an introvert and am shy so it is a fight and an altar call every time I perform my work in front of people. It is me breaking out of my bubble and looking beyond myself — which is a very scary thing.
Did you watch the Miss America pageant on TV? What did you think?
I actually did not watch it on TV and wasn’t even aware that it was on until afterwards I heard about an Indian American woman winning and I was really surprised. I ended up watching it on YouTube and then I thought to myself “Something tells me people are not going to be happy with the fact that she’s not white.” and then I saw all the tweets. It was disappointing but the hardest part of coming to terms with it was that I expected it. My hope is to fight to get to a place where ignorance and the notion of Caucasian hierarchy is not what is expected.
Did you write “Miss America” with a certain audience in mind? Who should listen to it?
I actually did not have a particular audience in mind. I wrote the poem for Nina, so it would be my dream for the poem to reach to Ms. Davuluri and to have the opportunity to perform it in front of her or be able to have a conversation with her.
The Youth Poet Laureate receives a book deal opportunity. What are your plans and ideas for your book?
I feel as if there are a lot of people who are marginalized and oppressed that we are so very quick to forget about. I believe God wants me to speak for them and be the voice for the voiceless so I plan on dedicating my book to the oppressed and to a dear friend of mine, Francine Hendrickson, who has taught me a lot about internal beauty and selflessness.
You’ve also been awarded a scholarship through the Knicks Poetry Slam program. What did you perform for that program and what was that experience like?
The Knicks Poetry Slam did not require anybody to perform — we had to submit up to five pages of poems. I was in a blur when I found out to the point where I did not really react because I could not believe it. I’ve been to a variety of different schools throughout my high school years and was not expected to even graduate, so to see God’s power manifest in my life is truly humbling and convicting.
Can you tell us about your upcoming collaboration with Asha Sing?
So Asha Sing and I will be producing a series of Christmas and Gospel themed videos on Instagram throughout December and it will be me doing a poem and her singing in the background. When Asha and I spoke, we talked about how there are plenty of people who do not have the fortune of being with their families or loved ones on the holidays and there are thousands of people who find Christmas to be one of the loneliest times of the year. Our project’s goal is to uplift and encourage those people and shed light on the fact that no matter where we are or where the people around us are, God will always be inside of you and will never lose the love He has for you.
What drives your creative work?
God. Nothing fuels my heart like God. It is the reason why I am here. It is the reason why I breathe. It brings me to places I never even dreamed were possible.