Oklahoma Teen Honored By First Lady Jill Biden In 2023 National Students Poem Program

The National Student Poets Program (NSPP) was created in 2011 as a partnership of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. The goal of the NSPP is to “encourage young people to explore and develop new creative capabilities."

Monday, November 13th 2023, 10:21 pm



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The nation’s highest honor for youth poets was bestowed Monday by First Lady Jill Biden on five high school students, including Kallan McKinney, a junior at Norman High School.

The National Student Poets Program (NSPP) was created in 2011 as a partnership of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.

The goal of the NSPP is to, “encourage young people to explore and develop new creative capabilities.”

McKinney and the other four young poets representing different regions of the country were selected by a panel of judges from thousands of entries and each receive an award of $5,000.

“I don’t know, I don’t know a word to describe it,” McKinney said, when asked what the experience has meant. “It’s so much fun being with the other four poets and meeting Dr. Biden. Everyone here has been so kind and so supportive of us.”

Biden had high praise for the students, noting that, at various times in her life, poetry has been a “refuge” for her, “a soothing companion that gives voice to emotions I can’t always articulate on my own."

“Poetry feeds our spirit, when we are hungry for something more,” Biden continued. “In a world that asks us to sprint from moment to moment to moment, and meeting to meeting, poetry reminds us to slow down, take a breath and appreciate the celestial beauty that surrounds us.”

The five students each read one of their poems as part of the ceremony at the White House’s South Court Auditorium.

McKinney, who is queer and trans and uses the pronouns they/them, recited their poem, “the shell gas station sign."

the shell gas station sign
floats in floodwater.
the man at the counter calls me street smart because i know what food stamps look like
& how to use them.
he asks if i need air from the pump outside.
thanks, but i have my own.
you’re so down to earth, he says, laughing.
thanks. (the water at our ankles) we all are.
haven’t you noticed?
the hour we give up in spring
returns as autumn.

On the one hand, the poem reads like a simple description of a random encounter following a heavy Oklahoma rainstorm.

“I was trying to show what I saw, and what I see all the time, which is the flooding,” McKinney explained in an interview.

On the other hand, they say, the poem is about so much more. “The ways that the earth is struggling and the ways that people struggle,” they said, “and that we all keep going on while all of these things happen.”

McKinney said, on top of being a great and humbling honor, this recognition is affirming, of who they are and the poet they've become.

“[Poetry] is mainly my way of connecting with people and talking to, and with, people,” McKinney said, describing the important role poetry plays in their life. “That's what it’s done for me. It’s allowed me to say a lot more than I ever thought I could say.”

McKinney is the second Oklahoman to receive the honor of National Student Poet for the southwest region. Deer Creek High School’s Julie Dawkins achieved the same recognition in 2019.

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