Long Beach now has its first youth poet laureate.

The new city program, which has been in the works for more than four years, celebrated its inaugural cohort Thursday evening. The title of youth poet laureate went to 16-year-old Wilson High School student Claire Beeli, who performed a piece on the high rates of pollution in Long Beach and its impact on the city’s residents.

Her work has been published or is forthcoming in “Block Party Magazine,” “Polyphony Lit” and “Chinchilla Lit,” among others. She has also been recognized by institutions including the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and the New York Times Learning Network.

Helena Donato-Sapp, 13, Kieran Lundy, 13, Matilda Iem, 18, and Sofia Uribe, 15 were all chosen as poet ambassadors.

Together, the selected participants will work together over the next year to create a youth-centered literary arts initiative, said Kiana Martin, Youth Poet Laureate Coordinator with the Long Beach Public Library.

“In addition to that, we also want to help them grow as poets and to really pursue this as a viable means of working,” Martin said.

The program, which is a collaboration between the Long Beach Public Library, the Arts Council for Long Beach and Urban World, aims to uplift youth poet-activists through workshops and performance and publication opportunities. It was first initiated by then-Councilmember Rex Richardson and co-sponsored by Councilmembers Jeannine Pearce, Dee Andrews and Roberto Uranga.

After an unanimous approval by City Council in April 2019, the program was initially planned to begin in 2020, but the city put a pause on the process due to the pandemic.

Long Beach then officially opened its applications in January of this year to youth ages 13 to 18. Application requirements included submitting a portfolio of five poems along with other materials noting applicants’ civic and social engagement experience.

Of the applications received, 10 youth poets were recognized during Thursday’s event at The Green Pines Creative Collective, all of whom performed a live poetry reading, followed by the announcement of the first poet laureate along with four poet ambassadors.

Audience members are applauding.
Audience members applaud as the inaugural youth poet laureate is announced on Thursday, June 1, 2023. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.

Beeli, the poet laureate, will receive a $1,500 scholarship, while the four ambassadors will each receive $500 scholarships. Selected students will also receive mentorship from local poets and will have various opportunities to practice their craft, from performance to publication, Martin said.

Following the program, current students will also be able to serve as mentors to the next cohort, allowing the program to be youth-led and self-sustaining, Martin said.

“This is really helping them to find their voice, to articulate well, to kind of share more of who they are, and find out more about themselves as young people and as they continue to grow,” said Lawrence Clinkscale, senior librarian for Long Beach Public Library and program judge. “We’re all students, you know. We’re students of life. … It just gets them ready in a structured way to experience life and prepare for things.”

A woman and young boy hold their phones up, where the image of a girl standing at a podium is visible. The girl being recorded is out of focus in the foreground.
Audience members recorded high school Matilda Iem’s poetry performance on Thursday, June 1, 2023. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.

Each of the 10 finalists are heavily involved in their schools, based on their portfolios, said Griselda Suarez, one of the judges and Arts Council executive director.

“I think this is a good start in their civic engagement, like using poetry and the arts—they are now public artists, they are civic artists, and that’s really quite amazing,” Suarez said. “They can take that anywhere. … I think it’s really great to have the city say, ‘You’re creative. You’re amazing, and we’re going to show the whole town.’”

While Long Beach has a deeply rooted arts community, and there are many existing opportunities for adults, a program for youth was needed, Martin added.

“How many opportunities do kids get to actually voice their opinions, speak their mind through language—especially a medium that’s as elastic as poetry is? It’s very rare,” Martin said. “What these poets are writing about, like family, school, issues that they wouldn’t normally have a vehicle or a way to express themselves.”

While young creative people can sometimes let their art fall by the wayside as they get older, Martin hopes that the 10 finalists will all continue with their craft and keep practicing.

“Especially for certain groups, you know, the arts is considered superfluous,” Martin said. “So if they’re presented with an opportunity to turn that into a livelihood, then that’s fantastic.”