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What Haviland Whiting remembers most about the moment she heard her name announced as the 2018 Nashville youth poet laureate was hearing her father in the audience cheering.
“I heard my dad in the back yelling, the very back of the huge Vanderbilt auditorium. He was so excited,” Whiting, 16, recalls.
At the previous year’s competition—an annual spoken word event hosted by local literary and performing arts nonprofit Southern Word, the Office of the Mayor, and several other Metro agencies—Whiting made it to the semifinals. When she didn’t progress to the finals, she told herself she’d work harder and try again next year. So, when she learned last November she would be competing for youth poetry’s top local spot, the pressure was on. She had only a handful of weeks to craft a new poem to perform.
“I’m not the kind of person that can sit down every day and think, ‘Okay. I’m going to add a bit to my poem, work on it, tweak this,’” Whiting, a sophomore at Harpeth Hall, says. “For me, it’s either I sit down and nothing comes out, or I sit down and write the whole thing. So, I was really waiting for that inspiration to strike.”
With only a week to go until the competition, Whiting, who names Sylvia Plath as her favorite poet, was still struggling to make her poem come together. Reports of a sex trafficking tragedy in Italy, coupled with the local and national headline-grabbing Cyntoia Brown case, gave her the framework for what would become her award-winning piece. By connecting Eve from the Bible to the women from the news reports, and adding in a musical element from Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” Whiting finally had it.
“I was editing that poem backstage on my phone before I went out to do it. It was a stressful time.” The audience met her performance with snaps, whistles, and, finally, loud applause and cheers.
Now, as Nashville’s fourth youth poet laureate, Whiting, who recently performed another poem at January’s Martin Luther King Day march and convocation, looks forward to sharing her love of poetry to an even greater audience and spreading the word to Nashvillians about Southern Word. Between homework, ballet, and cello, Whiting is also now at work on her first book of poems.
Learn more about Southern Word and the Nashville Youth Poet Laureate program at southernword.org.