Maya Eashwaran, Gopal Raman Recite Moving Poems at White House ceremony
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, September 8, 2016 – First Lady Michelle Obama honored five top student poets from different regions of the nation, including two of Indian origin: Maya Eashwaran of Alpharetta, Georgia; and Gopal Raman of Dallas, Texas.
It’s an incredible achievement: two Indian-American whiz kids were appointed as National Student Poets for the first time, at a White House ceremony, hosted by the First Lady. The National Student Poets Program is the country’s highest honor for young poets, grades 10-11, presenting original work.
Maya and Gopal, together with the three other budding poets – Stella Binion of Chicago, Illinois, Joey Reisberg of Towson, Maryland, and Maya Salameh of San Diego, California – will now serve as literary ambassadors for a year.
Surrounded on stage by the Class of 2016 National Student Poets, the First Lady turned to Maya. “You put it best”, she told the delighted teen and proceeded to quote her: ‘On the stage, there is no way to leave unnoticed’.
Maya touched many hearts in the erudite audience with a recitation of her poem, ‘Linguistics’, dedicated to her dear ‘Ma’ (mother), and mother tongue, Tamil. In the poem, she laments, “Ma, I haven’t spoken Tamil in three years…. Mother, maybe I’ll lose the syllables of my name next, ancient and observing…. This is how a daughter loses the weight of her tongue in her mouth, replaces it with a borrowed accent…. Ma, we were Indian until we weren’t. Meanwhile, I pretend I am cultured, I read Dickinson, structure culture around the linebreaks of my own ignorance…. Ma, I’m losing parts of myself everyday…. I’ve lost more than I have ever lost in sixteen years. I’ve started shedding ethnicity like hair: Mother, I fear I’ll go bald”.
In an interview following the White House ceremony, Maya told us, “My poem was a recollection of not being able to speak my mother tongue as well as I can speak English. Our family is Tamil. I have realized that I gravitate towards English more often and I’ve stopped speaking my mother tongue which is a very sad thing because you are losing part of your culture. So, I thought that the best way for me to express this (was through the medium of poetry which made her) realize even though I can’t speak Tamil, that doesn’t make me any less of an Indian-American. So, it reaffirmed my sense of culture and taught me, it’s okay, I will get through it”!
An avid reader, Maya has been writing poetry since she was eight years old, about half her young life. “I write poetry because it is a very important medium for young people and because I feel I can express my thoughts in the most concise and beautiful way possible”, she said.
“Everything inspires me to write – other people, other people’s experiences, my own experiences, little things like the clouds or trees. I just find so much beauty in the world. I cover up all the ugliness in the world with all the beauty that I find. That is why I write poetry”.
About her experience at the White House event, Maya gushed, “It’s amazing! It’s the most incredible day that I’ve ever had. It’s really inspiring for me to meet so many super talented poets”.
Gopal Raman, 17, a senior at St. Mark’s School of Texas, informed us that while most of his inspiration comes from nature, he has written poems that focus on social issues. At the White House, he read from his poem, ‘Scores killed as Katrina pounds states along Gulf Coast’, written in 2005, in the aftermath of the natural disaster which is among the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States.
“This piece is really close to me”, he disclosed. “I wanted to try something different with this poem that I wrote. I wasn’t affected much by Hurricane Katrina, but I know a lot of people who have been and I wanted to tell their story”.
“I can’t write with tight skin”, Gopal recited from his work. “I leave the paper soaking, graphite shading the dripping shadows. The paper just sits, pruned and not wanting to dry off. And that must be enough, to feel the earth crackle, but to not fear the water creeping through the cracks”.
We queried Gopal about his experience of being appointed a National Student Poet. “It’s been awesome”, he enthused, pointing out how so many people from the organizing committees have put in so much time and effort to invest in the student poets. “I’m really grateful to be part of this Program”, he said.
In her remarks to 120 guests in the elegant State Dining Room, the First Lady recalled how she and President Obama “wanted to use this incredible platform of the White House to inspire our young people to dream really big for themselves, to think about what their lives could look like beyond what their everyday existence is like. We wanted to ignite their ambition and also celebrate their talent, because there are so many talented young people all over this country. It just blows my mind”, she said.
The First Couple are poetry aficionados. “My husband considers himself kind of a poet”, said Michelle Obama, to laughter from the audience. “But, we’ll see”, she added. “Maybe, when he’s done, he’ll write one for me. You hear that, honey?, she said, to more laughter.
The White House ceremony was unique evoking emotions of joy and sadness, juxtaposing humor with sadness!
The poetry recitals – by the Class of 2016 National Student Poets, distinguished guest poet Q-Tip, and some fourteen alumni of the Program in a grand finale poetry slam – were profoundly moving to say the least. “I am going to cry”, said an emotional First Lady. And she did.
“This is the last time that we’re going to have the pleasure of welcoming a class of National Student Poets to the White House at least under this administration. So, I’m feeling a little melancholy here, because this has truly been an honor and a privilege and a joy”, she said.
The National Student Poets Program is in its fifth year, established in 2011 to showcase the work of young poets for a national audience. The goal is to inspire other young people to achieve excellence in their own creative endeavors and promote the essential role of writing and the arts in academic and personal success.
The Program is presented by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.