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Sonoma County's new youth poet laureate inspired by her grandfather, current events

As a little girl, Ella Wen would sit with her grandpa under towering trees in her family’s backyard, reading and writing Chinese poems with him.

Those quiet afternoons listening attentively to her grandpa, Feng Wei Peng, left a lasting impression on her. They are one of the reasons poetry is the Rincon Valley teen’s greatest passion.

Now, California Poets in the Schools, a nonprofit that amplifies young creative voices in California, has named Wen as Sonoma County’s new youth poet laureate.

“Poetry is expression,” said Wen, 16 and a sophomore at Maria Carrillo High School. “It’s a way to speak a volume that’s not attainable in day-to-day conversations. It speaks volumes for those that can’t.”

Wen was officially selected on Oct. 17 for the role after a panel of poets and teachers across the county evaluated her application and three original poems.

One of three poems she submitted was “Written in Words” which explores racism, prejudice and bias, she said.

Wen views poetry as a way to confront such -isms: racism, sexism, ageism and misunderstandings between generations.

And this poem reflects exactly that. A sample:

“And the more I feel this array of alphabetical assault seeping down within my skin, aimed

at me like antagonistic arrows, telling me to say less

and then to say more, to dress less, and then to dress more, to be less, and then to be more.

It’s then I begin to realize that words are powerful

and they hurt

but they can heal, too.”

Wen wrote the poem in her bedroom late into the wee hours one night as a way to process the emotions she felt during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

As the protests intensified, she took a closer look at our current social ills and put pen to paper.

“All these issues sprang out from the surface, and then all these movements and activists moved to the forefront. It was inspiring,” Wen said. “It showed me that if you have the ability to say something, you should act on it and say it.”

It was then her poetry turned into “a megaphone” for topics she cared about. She would no longer sit back to simply observe but capture her thoughts on paper and share them with her community.

A passion for reading

As a child, Wen moved with her family from Minnesota to Florida and finally, when she was 12, to Rincon Valley in Santa Rosa.

“For every move, reading, writing, art and literature was always a big part of my life,” Wen said. “Literature and art has always been a big focus in my family. ... We were never the scientific type,” she added with a laugh.

Wen’s passion for reading and writing solidified in English classes at school and in libraries, where she read vibrant adventure stories with close friends. She took a creative-writing class in middle school and loved it.

“I spent a lot of time in the library,” Wen said. “I grabbed onto every opportunity I could. If it involved reading or writing, I wanted to be a part of it.”

Her grandpa, who raised her, would read her Chinese poems containing life lessons: Never lose sight of what’s important in life. Live with direction and purpose.

Other times, the poems were simply about the moon and trees.

“Those poems taught me about the endeavors of art and poetry, about individuality, about the importance of diving into your passions, about life philosophies” Wen said. “Those moments were pretty defining.”

Writing poetry is akin to tying together melodies and the sounds of instruments, she said.

“The way I write poetry is like composing music. It’s not confined by grammar, by paragraphs or punctuation. It’s about how you feel words should flow,” Wen said.

“The way I write poetry is like composing music. It’s not confined by grammar, by paragraphs or punctuation. It’s about how you feel words should flow,” Wen said.

Her late-night poetry-writing habit eventually produced poetry collections. Eventually, Wen began entering her poems into poetry competitions.

This year, she became the 2021 winner of Sonoma County’s Poetry Out Loud recitation contest for reciting “Sorrow Is Not My Name” by Ross Gay and “We Are Not Responsible” by Harryette Mullen.

Poetry speaks volumes

During Wen’s one-year term as Sonoma County’s new youth poet laureate, she’ll lead readings and workshops across Sonoma County. Through those, she hopes to connect with young students to advocate about the importance of poetry.

“Poetry speaks volumes for people who feel like they don’t have a voice,” Wen said. “It raises awareness, empathy and challenges us to realize there are all kinds of people living around us all the time. Perhaps, poetry can heal.”

“Written in Words” by Ella Wen

“And the more I feel this array of alphabetical assault seeping deep within my skin, aimed at me like antagonistic arrows

telling me to say less

and then to say more

to dress less

and then to dress more

to be less

and then to be more

it’s then I begin to realize that words are powerful

and they hurt

but they can heal too

and I, we

I know words too

I too have a pen

my pen is infinite

the ink seeping within pages

I know how to write, I just didn’t know until now

My body, my mind, my soul is so much more than what you wrote your narrative

so clothed with ignorance and facades of apologies

I, experience, am experiencing all the pain there is

don’t write my story

for me.“

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at mya.constantino@pressdemocrat.com. @searchingformya on Twitter.

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