UrbArts' 2020 Youth Poet Laureate hopes to heal, change lives

UrbArts' 2020 Youth Poet Laureate hopes to heal, change lives

ST. LOUIS – The finger-snapping and conferring is in, and 16-year-old Sarah Abbas, a junior at Marquette High School, is the 2020 St. Louis Youth Poet Laureate, UrbArts recently announced. 

Sarah, a Pakistani American who holds a 4.2 GPA, is the city’s fourth young poet to be honored with the laureateship. 

“Becoming laureate was something I had been thinking about for over a year, so being able to win was relieving to say the least,” Sarah said. 

The honor places Sarah as the lead ambassador of youth poetry in St. Louis for a year. This year’s other Youth Poetry Ambassador appointees are Antigone Chambers Reed, Lara Wulff and Darrius Jackson. 

Antigone is home-schooled; Lara and Darrius are students at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School. 

As laureate and lead ambassador, Sarah is tasked with conducting numerous local performances and open mic events. Near year’s end, she will compete for the coveted Midwest regional Youth Poet Laureate. 

Sarah, who explores societal displacement through written and visual art, said that during her tenure she intended to speak for those who were silenced. 

She also uses her poetic voice to combat the treatment of Muslims in the U.S. 

“The most exciting part of the laureateship is all the people I will be able to meet and all the perspectives I will be able to change,” she said. “Being given this opportunity means I have the platform to heal and impact lives through spoken word.”

There is nothing more she could really ask for, Sarah added. 

MK Stallings, an educator and founder of UrbArts, a youth-centered arts organization based in Old North St. Louis, lauded Sarah’s artistry. 

“Her work is urgent, powerful and necessary,” said Stallings, a leading, longtime spoken-word artist and platform producer here.

In Sarah’s poem “Clock,” she slams: 

America declared war on my body – Signed a Muslim Ban to keep my body locked away— Loaded a bullet for anybody who looks like me – Presses their palms together in prayer like me. I’ve lost count of the crimes America committed against my body. I’ve lost count of the times America made a criminal of me. What is a prophet if not a prisoner? What is a Muslim if not a miracle until proven martyr?

I know what it’s like to wish I could wash the dirt from my body. But my body flows back to Pakistan like the Kurram River: Too ethnic for the whites to drink from – Too saaf suthra for my people who want their water infused with allah subhanallah – A shade not too kala but safe be nay heh -…

As youth laureate, Sarah’s aim is to use words to allow her audience to feel accepted and loved. 

Stallings said he looked forward to seeing what Sarah would do with the laureate this year. 

“Coupled with her story and passion, she edged out her peers for this distinction,” said Stallings. He was also on the committees that appointed all three of St. Louis’ Poets Laureate: the late Michael Castro, the first, in 2015; the late Shirley LeFlore, the second, in 2018; and Jane Ibur, the current laureate. 

The St. Louis Youth Poet Laureate program is a joint effort of Urban Word NYC and UrbArts. The program aims to identify young writers and leaders who are committed to civic and community engagement, poetry and performance, human relations, diversity and education across St. Louis. 

Previous St. Louis Youth Poets Laureate were Bisa Adero, Zack Lesmeister and Camryn Howe.

Sarah is also captain of her school’s poetry team, co-editor and chief of the yearbook and captain of interpretation and events. She was born in Toronto, later moved to England and finally settled in the U.S. Both of her parents were born in Pakistan. 

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