While most high-school students are fretting over pop quizzes, gym class and homecoming dates, Lusher student and poetic protogy Madeleine LeCesne has been reading her work to some of the biggest players in the American poetry scene…in the White House (her second public reading, in fact).
LeCesne has been chosen to participate as one of five regional ambassadors in the National Students Program, a nationally recognized award that is granted to young poets (grades 9 – 11) who demonstrate their exceptional talents in poetic verse. Through their tenure as ambassadors, the gifted youths not only present public readings to some of the most prominent names in America’s contemporary poetry scene, but also plan and administer poetry workshops across America, aimed at exposing the accessibility of poetry and emphasizing the way verse influences our daily speech.
So how exactly do these youngsters develop the kind of craft necessary to produce work reputable enough to read before Michelle Obama in the Blue Room of the White House?
For LeCesne, the poetess’ knack for verse came suddenly and then developed gradually.
LeCesne’s poetic roots took shape when she was only 6 years old. As many elementary school students are, LeCesne was required to write daily journal logs. However, LeCesne says she simply didn’t have the attention span at that age to sit down and write at length about her day. So her journal entries took the form of single sentences or fragments. Over time, LeCesne and her parents realized that prevailing themes linked many of these brief journal entries together, which is when she realized that she was, in essence, creating poetry.
“My mother read me Metamorphoses [, Roman poet Ovid’s epic mythical narrative,] as a child, [so] I grew up without making a distinction between prose and poetry. It’s really all storytelling.”
As LeCesne first experienced poetry — as an epic sequence of stories — her own work deals extensively with storytelling, or re-telling, rather.
“I like working with Greek myths and stories I know well and then recreating them, producing something new,” LeCesne says. At its core, the young poet’s work serves the function of unscrambling her own identity, translating intangible sentiments into tactile images through language. “If a word existed for what I was feeling, I would just use the word. With poetry, you’re always creating something new.”
The stitchwork-like structure that characterized LeCesne’s earliest work continues to influence her writing process, as well as her works. “Sometimes, in the middle of the day, I have a line, so I write it down.” Eventually, a series of LeCesne’s lines develop into a poem.
“When I write the lines, I’m usually in a certain mindset, so those lines [in a certain period] usually fit together in some way … but if one doesn’t and it means something to me, I save it; I have a collection of lines waiting to see if they fit somewhere.”
One topic LeCesne does not incorporate into her work is the Big Easy. When asked about how New Orleans has influenced her poetry, most of which is topically concerned with identity, LeCesne says that she errs away from writing about the Big Easy.
“When you live in an incredibly historic city, you feel like you can’t write about it,” she says. “Everyone has their own version of what New Orleans is. Choosing one thing to put on a page doesn’t seem like enough. It’s New Orleans’ nebulousness that’s its most sacred thing. Why would I want to change that?”
Although LeCesne seems to possess an innate gift with words, she attributes much of her success to Lusher Charter School’s integrated arts curriculum, which affords students opportunities to concentrate on arts — performing, musical, visual and literary — that appeal specifically to them. LeCesne’s concentration has been creative writing — a program comprised of students writing fiction, non-fiction and poetry — under the direction of the programs co-founder and co-creator, Brad Richard.
“I could not have asked for a better teacher,” LeCesne says of Richard.
LeCesne says that Richard has created a deeply personalized creative writing program, which he customizes to fit the students’ individual interests. For instance, “He asks us what we are interested in reading and creates our reading list from that.”
In addition to public readings and panels, LeCesne’s duties as the young poet ambassador for the southeast region of the U.S. will have her traveling throughout her region through year end administering a poetry workshop, open to all ages, that she designed herself.
“My goal as an ambassador is to help people realize how accessible poetry can be,” says LeCesne, adding that participating in the National Student Poets Program has made her realize how essential poetry is to human nature, how tremendously it influences our daily speech.
“The thing about being a poetry ambassador is that if poetry was at peoples’ fingertips, we wouldn’t need ambassadors. Poetry exists in common places, in our daily lives; people just don’t realize it. And as an ambassador, I hope to expand what people recognize as poetry so that they can share in the art, too.”
Below you can read samples of LeCesne’s award-winning poetry. (Reprinted with permission from the National Student Poets Program)
Things I Think About When There Is a Needle in My Arm
By Madeleine LeCesne
1. The smell of alcohol when they rub my skin with that little white square.
2. The color red when they draw blood.
3. If I really need a bandaid when it’s all finished.
4. If I could be one of those people whose life changes after an injection of a vaccine. One lady got so messed up she can’t even form sentences now.
5. That I’ll eventually have to get used to the feeling of a needle in my arm.
6. That I never want to get pregnant. My mother stuck herself every day to make it happen.
7. The bruises on my arm from that time when I was eight. The nurse’s nails bit my skin as she held me down.
8. My twin brother crying like he did when I did as the doctor took my blood.
9. How my mother called the needle a butterfly. She created my fear of butterflies.
10. The doctor when he told me the blood was like kool-aid coming out of me.
11. When the nurse made the mistake of sitting in the rolling chair. The shot went into my father’s thigh after I kicked her away.
12. Age fourteen when the doctor told me I still wasn’t grown enough to get the HPV vaccination all my friends had gotten when they turned eleven.
13. The time my mother asked me why I was so interested in getting the HPV vaccine.
14. My mother telling me she and my grandmother both had cervical cancer.
15. The hatred for my grandmother that developed after she told me I have child-bearing hips.
16. That a tattoo needle is really still a needle.
17. Why you’d go through sticking yourself with a needle every day.
18. That I hope I never get diabetes.
19. The nurses always saying I have baby veins.
20. My mother always offering to give me the shot herself.
21. My grandfather, the OB GYN.
22. My mother, working in her father’s office every day after school when she was my age.
23. All the reasons I couldn’t practice medicine.
24. The way someone looks when they’ve been shot dead in a movie.
25. How I’d rather face words on a page than an actual human body.
26. How once my mother wanted to be a doctor.
27. How I missed school for this.
28. How I don’t want to be like my mother.
29. How I still punch my mother’s arm until the needle comes out of me.
30. How my mother tells me I’m brave as we leave the doctor’s office.
31. How my mother has known our pharmacist for sixteen years. She made my mother’s pills when no one else would because the prescription was rare. The pharmacist sat in front of her television late at night and put together the pills that keep fetuses alive when their mother’s body can’t.
By Madeleine LeCesne
All I can hear are the things outside of me. They speak so loudly I can’t remember what I was writing.
Sometimes my thoughts will come back to me, but not usually.
My twin brother had night terrors. He wailed every night until I started to scream. Our parents would rise to comfort us.
I still never remember a single dream I’ve had once my eyes open.
Human beings are living longer now: our bodies are withstanding, the bulb takes more time to burn out.
But night descends as it always has. One cannot resist the shamelessness of dreams.
Can one stay awake from only the brightness of light, or
could sleep still reach her even if the lights are not out?
My father’s snores keep me up at night and I wonder if this is what marriage is like.
Tossing and turning.
All forms of transportation inspire sickness in me– distance brings with it my nausea.
I get sick going and I get sick coming back.
There is no pleasant journey. It is possible I am immobile.
I like when others wake me: I blame them when I cannot remember my dreams. If only they hadn’t woken me so suddenly
or else I would have held onto that vision.
I don’t like to believe these things escape me: I am not unable to capture them.
It cannot be my fault.
I dislike sneezing because I can feel my heart stop.
Fleas have a lifespan of two to three months.
I wonder if they ever sleep.
If I could only live for three months, I know I’d sleep every night.
Casualness frightens me– a way of making mankind seem smaller.
Formalness is reserved for infinity.
It must be the only way humans can bear the idea that we are expanding.
Infants and children do not cry because the physical pain of something is so great.
They cry out of the fear that this pain will never end.
I fear I will never know true silence.
How cruel it is when one’s intuition is correct.