Slamming the Mic: Madeline Hutchinson On Being an NYC and NYS Youth Poet Laureate Finalist

A profile of New York City and New York State Youth Poet Laureate finalist Madeline Hutchinson and her experiences during the program.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

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By Alifa Azad

The New York City Youth Poet Laureate (NYCYPL) program allows writers between the ages of 13 and 19 to present their writing to the public. Focusing on themes such as social justice, cultural tradition, and personal life, the program uplifts and celebrates the voices of young writers and allows them to become immersed in their communities through their literary work.

Throughout this past year, junior Madeline Hutchinson has been diligently writing poems for both the New York State and New York City Youth Poet Laureate (NYSYPL and NYCYPL) contests, both organized by the nonprofit organization Urban Word NYC. Hutchinson was a finalist in the two programs, earning her place as one of 13 finalists in the NYSYPL contest and one of 10 finalists in the NYCYPL contest. 

To be considered for the competitions, students must submit not only examples of their poetry but also explain how they use poetry as a device for activism. “I had to submit a 250-word bio about who I am and what I stand for. And then I had to write stuff about my beliefs and activism because they try to promote not just your poetry, but your capabilities as a young person,” Hutchinson explained. “And then I had to submit two or three poems, and then a video of me rehearsing and performing the poems.”

Many students find poetry intimidating, and initially, Hutchinson was no exception. “I got into poetry because of my freshman year English teacher, Ms. [Annie] Thoms. She did this awesome poetry project that just made me realize that poetry doesn't have to be a chore, like it could be something that I actually enjoy doing. [...] I quickly discovered that I would never be as good as my peers at math or science, so I decided to lean into my abilities as a writer. It was [the] special thing that I knew I could be good at,” Hutchinson said. She found further support and guidance for her poetry through the program Girls Write Now. “It's this awesome program where they pair you up with a mentor, and they edit your work for you. So I did most of my editing for my poems with my mentor, especially because the school year [hadn’t] start[ed] when I applied,” Hutchinson said.

After submitting applications for the NYSYPL competition, candidates must wait for the announcement of the finalists and winner, as there are no official meetings or workshops. However, in the NYCYPL competition, the 10 finalists attend semiweekly meetings at Federal Hall, where she continues to hone her poetry skills. Hutchinson was shocked when she was informed of her status as a finalist in the NYCYPL competition, but she received immense support from her family. “[Urban Word NYC] e-mailed me during my math class, and I stopped in my tracks. It was surreal because I couldn’t believe that my writing was selected out of everyone in the city,” Hutchinson recounted. “My family was very supportive, especially my mom. She has always stressed the importance of [the] humanities in my life.”

The program was led by mentors who held workshops to teach the students how to perform their poetry and ultimately compete in a showcase during the commencement ceremony. “We met on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week for a month and a half to workshop our poetry,” Hutchinson said. “On Tuesdays, we focused on the actual writing aspect with our mentor Danielle Bero, [a prominent slam poet] [...] and then on Thursdays, we worked with [slam poet Anthony] ‘Tony’ McPherson, who taught us how to enunciate and do slam poetry, which is something that I've never done before. It was really scary to talk in a poet's voice because when you're reading something out loud, it's different than when you're reading it in a slam poetry accent.” Slam poetry is a form of spoken word poetry in which poets perform their work in competitions known as “slams,” and is typically known for evoking emotion or thought from the audience.

The program consisted of various activities and discussions that both inspired the writing process and prepared the contestants for spoken delivery. “Each week was focused on a specific theme. One week we learned about eulogies and writing poems in the form of a eulogy. We watched a ton of slam videos together. I thought that was really cool,” Hutchinson mentioned. “We also played a lot of games with speech delivery and vocal stuff; we would pass around a ball and it would inspire you to think quickly about your words because you're trying to make a continuous narrative. And you can't really do that if you hesitate, so it eases you into being more fluid with your words.”

Hutchinson noted that the program is a significant time commitment. “The actual classes were an hour and a half twice a week,” Hutchinson stated. “They did pay me [a stipend of $200] afterwards. So that made it worth it. But it was definitely a time commitment, also because they wanted you to have two poems finished in the span of four weeks. And I write really, really slow [...] So I was definitely stumped. A lot of the work happened outside of the actual program.” Despite this, Hutchinson still enjoyed the experience immensely. “It was a lot of fun. And I'm such good friends with everyone in the program now. I mean, we still text each other,” Hutchinson added.

Hutchinson draws on her personal experiences and traits when writing poetry. “I wrote this poem called ‘Tribulations of a Teenage Hoarder,’ and it started off because my mom hates all of the stuff that I hold on to, but [they] remind me of my family. So I just wrote about that, about what each object in my room means to me and bringing [them] up into different verses and playing with the form,” she explained.

Four judges were employed to determine the 2024 NYCYPL winner: two leaders of the workshop, Eboni Hogan and Janine Simon, as well as Bero and McPherson. “They judged us on not only our poetry, but [on] how we spoke and interacted with our community. I think one of the reasons I didn’t win was because I was very shy and reserved during the workshops. They were looking for a writer who could articulate themselves clearly and concisely,” Hutchinson said.

Because of the length of the program, its commencement ceremony was especially emotional. “They took professional headshots, which is crazy because I've never been treated that professionally before. I was like, ‘Wait, I'm actually an important person,’” Hutchinson expressed. “But I was so scared to present, and then they called my name up to the stage, and I was looking at this auditorium of people, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, like, I'm going to stutter or say something stupid,’ but it was really great. Some of my friends from Stuy were there, and [so were] my parents and my mentor from Girls Write Now—they were all there and they brought me flowers, and [...] even though I didn't win, it was such a gratifying experience.”

Hutchinson reflected on the learning experiences she gained by working with her peers in NYCYPL. “I think that even though the program was very prestigious and kind of scary because we were like the ‘chosen ones,’ it just made poetry a lot more casual to me because it made me inspired to keep a notebook with me and just write whenever I wanted,” Hutchinson stated. “Before, I used to have an exact idea in mind of what I wanted to write, but just talking to the other people in the program, who had these giant notebooks overflowing with poetry that they wrote—[whereas] I came in with three poems and that was it—[that] inspired me, I guess, to write more often and not really care so much about the finished product and more about the progress.”

As a result of this growth, Hutchinson’s passion for writing has been ignited, and she wants to pursue poetry in the future. However, she acknowledges that some aspects of it are not for everyone. “I definitely want to pursue poetry in the future, but I’m not sure if I’d want to be an English major. One of my favorite parts of the program was how it was removed from school and [...] pressure. I think I learned that slam poetry isn’t really my thing. There’s a specific accent and confidence that slam poets have to assume for their performance [that] I don’t ever see myself being able to achieve. I would rather be a page poet where my writing is published in print,” Hutchinson commented.

As a parting message, Hutchinson offered advice to those who wish to submit any of their writing to similar contests. “I just think that you need to have confidence in yourself. [...] People are going to want to read your writing. Even if you get rejected, just keep sending it because you're going to find a niche for your work to fill,” Hutchinson suggested. “It's really good if you share your work with your peers because that will make your writing a lot stronger as well. Instead of just sending in the same thing over and over again, maybe after you get a rejection, you go back and revise and think about what you would have changed.” 

As someone with extensive experience in the realm of youth creative writing, Hutchinson is a force to be reckoned with in the poetry world. In regards to finding writing inspiration amidst a demanding Stuyvesant schedule, Hutchinson stresses the importance of literature and collaboration: “The best advice I can give is, of course, read! For any kind of writing, it’s important that you read and connect with your fellow writers. That’s why I liked working with the other 10 finalists; they had such diverse experiences and writing styles, so that really inspired me.”