Q&A: Ypsi's first Youth Poet Laureate on her inspirations and aspirations

This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.

On June 9 from 6-8 p.m., the city of Ypsilanti will inaugurate its first-ever Youth Poet Laureate, Ruth Mella, in a commencement ceremony at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Place in Ypsilanti.
Mella, a 20-year-old student of social work at Eastern Michigan University, received a $500 cash prize alongside her new title and will be awarded another $500 to be applied towards a project in support of social justice.
That initiative is intended to further the Ypsilanti Youth Poet Laureate Program’s aims "to identify youth writers and leaders who are committed to civic and community engagement, poetry and performance, social justice, radical inclusion and education across the region," according to the city's website.
The Ypsilanti Youth Poet Laureate Program was created by the Ypsilanti Arts Commission, the Ypsilanti District Library, and Urban Word NYC.
We recently hopped on the phone with Mella to discuss her origins as a writer as well as her plans for the future. An original poem by Mella also appears in the sidebar at right.
To fulfill the social justice component of her term, Mella says she’s planning a combined poetry and art show for which other young poets will be invited to submit their writing. A visual artist will be commissioned to create accompanying artwork.
"We’re youth," Mella says. "When we read, we want to see imagery."
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you first get interested in creative writing?
A: Creative writing was something that I did to support [myself] in getting my thoughts out and releasing tension. I had a lot of experiences where I didn't get along with my parents or even my siblings, so I tried to channel that into writing creatively. Later on, [I] progressed to trying new things [like] writing raps or writing small poems — more haikus, because that was what I was learning at first. Then it progressed to different types of poetry, like more creative poetry. I was part of [an after-school] group called Bright Futures, and they would do things there that involved creative writing. It just kind of started there.
Q: Have you always been a big reader?
A: I would say that I was. I was forced when I was younger to read a lot [by] my dad because he really wanted me to progress in my literacy skills and learn big words, as well. We were pretty big on education. Later on, when I found books that were more interesting, that's really when I started to read more and find my genre of books. I was 13 at the time, or 14.
Q: When you finally found books that appealed to you, what kinds of books were you finding?
A: I like fiction and fantasy books. I really liked the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books. Those are the type of books that I like — books that were pretty silly but had rhymes. I also liked the Dr. Seuss series. When I was growing up, I would read those to [my siblings] and I really loved the rhymes — and it's also pretty catchy. Now the books that I'm reading are more for my profession. I plan to be a social worker in the future, so I'm practicing a lot of skills like writing and doing case work — skills where I can help others. Specifically, creatively journaling has helped a lot with what I plan to incorporate when I do become a social worker. I'm building on those type of things: what else can I incorporate into this profession, and what can help other people in channeling their therapy into different creative aspects?
Q: What kinds of topics do you find yourself exploring in your own writing?
A: Sometimes I write about love. I write about growth. I write about things that connect with my family, like who we are. We're Latinos, so that's another thing that I'm trying to incorporate more into my writing. But I also write about things that I see, too, that inspire me. Sometimes I get writer's block, and that really doesn't help me at all. I have so much interest, but I don't [always] know how to spark the interest in terms of writing.
Q: What do you hope to achieve during your term as Ypsilanti’s first Youth Poet Laureate?
A: I hope to conquer this upcoming commencement. I just hope that I do really well at public speaking in terms of reading my poem out loud, because a lot of the poems were very personal, and then I started to open my poetry up. That was definitely a big step for me, but I felt like it was time — like the work was really good, and other people saw value in it. But in terms of the commencement, I'm just looking forward to speaking in public, and showing people that I really care about the community and creative work. I want to inspire other poets to come out and express themselves and just be free writing.
Q: Do you have any advice for others your age who might be interested in writing?
A: Just write within your heart. Write things that you're passionate about. You don't have to write about what anybody else tells you to write about. I also feel like [writing is] another form of therapy, so if you are looking for an opportunity to [get] things off your chest, these types of tools, like poetry and creative writing — any form of writing — are very therapeutic.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Photo courtesy of Ruth Mella.
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