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Philly Poet, White House: An Interview with Sojourner Ahebee, National Student Poet |

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Sojourner Ahebee left Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa, when she was 7, moved to Philadelphia, and matured into a fantastic poet. In fact, she was not only published in APIARY 7, but was declared a National Student Poet by the President’s Committee on the Arts and their collaboration with the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences as well as the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. Sojourner now attends Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts where she’s writing lots and lots of incredible poems. APIARY staffer Steve Burns was fortunate enough to interview her about her recent successes, her poetics, and her aspirations.

Burns: How has your concept of what a poet is changed since becoming a National Student Poet, and what do you feel your role within the poetry community is?

Ahebee: A shift in the poet's role really changed for me after coming to Interlochen because prior to coming to Interlochen I was writing poetry and my Mom was encouraging me to write poetry, but I didn't identify with being a poet. It was just something that I did. Once I came to Interlochen my creative teacher said you're no writing poetry — you are a poet. That's really where that shift came in. I started submitting to different literary journals and competitions; I started to become more confident in my own work. I wasn’t just sitting on it. Poetry is a dialogue; people are supposed to go out there and engage with it. I feel like that's where that shift happened. Becoming a National Student Poet, in terms of my responsibility, I'm really supposed to be facilitating a dialogue or shedding a light on history; a lot my poetry deals with remembering home, issues of identity. I'm really interested in working with communities that are trying to figure out those things as well.

I'd love to do workshops with the Native American community. I feel like they have a lot to say about what home means. I'm also going to poetry workshops with Alzheimer's patients at a local facility that my school volunteers at. That has to do with memory and what it means to forget. So, I'm really excited to be a National Student Poet and create those dialogues.

Burns: There's really many different creative avenues you can explore as a National Student Poet. I think your core concept, and correct me if I'm wrong, is to illustrate the human experience through community.

Ahebee: For sure.

Burns: Part of becoming a National Student Poet requires you to serve as a National Poetry Ambassador for one year. What does that responsibility entail and what have you accomplished so far?

Ahebee: As a National Student Poet, there are five, and we represent different regions of the United States. Part of our duty includes interacting with specific communities through poetry workshops. We have to create a Human Service Project, which we are going to enact through the year. I've been working on the planning, the logistics, on how it's going to work, and thinking about what communities I want to reach.

Burns: You said you want to work with Native Americans and Alzheimers patients. What other kinds of communities do you think you'd like work with?

Ahebee: I know I definitely want to reach children because I know some of us encounter poetry too late in our lives. You start in high school and it kind of seems 'out of this world'; it'd be awesome if poetry was in the curriculum when we were younger. I definitely want to work with children.

Burns: So would you like to host workshops with kids, and possibly talk about their sense of displacement?

Ahebee: Yeah, for sure.

Burns: Being a National Student Poet gives you such a leg-up; it offers you such unique experiences. What other ways does it benefit you?

Ahebee: There are so many resources at my fingertips. Their platform helps us become more known. Because I'm part of the program, people know who I am. I can reach a larger audience that way rather than working by myself. I'm really thankful to the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. It's so awesome that they have this.

Burns: I do you feel a certain level of responsibility? Is it overwhelming?

Ahebee: At first, when we were [inducted] in DC, they gave us these packets and were like, "Oh, by the way, you're meeting Michelle Obama tomorrow." We were like, "Okay!" We didn't know that until the night before. It was overwhelming. We were going to meet all these people at the galas; we learned about everything were supposed to be responsible for. When I got home I was able to reflect and figure out what I was going to do with this. Really, the most important thing for me is to remind myself that I'm not trying to I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone. I'm trying to do what I want to do.

Burns: Yeah, focus on your art — that's what you're doing it for!

So, because programs like this exist, what does it say about America’s awareness of poetry? In other words, do you think a program like this is going to make people say, “Oh wow, poetry is pretty awesome!” or “People still write that?”

Ahebee: [laughs] I guess a little bit of both. The whole point of the program is to get a larger audience to engage with poetry. It's such an important medium of expression because I feel like poetry is different than reading a novel; it's more self-reflective. Obviously, you're reflecting when you're reading an essay or a short story, but poetry really asks a lot of ourselves. That self-dialogue is really important on the individual level. This program is really important for that. It's important that people recognize that poetry is as much as a necessity as math or science because you learn to empathize; learn about new worlds; learn about the importance of language and communication.

Burns: How has your attendance at the Interlochen Arts Academy influenced or changed the way you write and where do you see yourself after your time there?

Ahebee: I think their creative writing teachers, specifically, have give me the confidence to say, "I am a writer." On a technical level I'm really aware of my form, what my line breaks are doing, and I've been given that vocabulary — I have more control over what my poem is doing or what my stories are doing or what my plays are doing. On a technical level, I've really advanced and I'm really thankful for giving me that. On an emotional level I'm now identifying as a writer and that's contributed to my sense of confidence as a writer. That's really important for me. After Interlochen, I'll definitely be writing for the rest of my life; it's just been a part of me and its never gonna end.

Burns: What will you receive upon graduating from Interlochen?

Ahebee: When I graduate I'll have my GED and I'll graduate as a Creative Writing major. There are certain things you have to do if you want to graduate as a Creative Writing major, a curriculum. After Interlochen, I plan on going to a four year university. I really want to study Global Affairs or International Relations. I do plan on taking writing classes throughout college, but I don't think that's going to be my focus; it's just going to be something I'll continue to do.

Burns: So you want to carry your passion for human connection over to larger stage?

Ahebee: Yeah, for sure. I've noticed patterns in my work — much of it deals with the political.

Burns: What do you feel like your personal mission is through your writing? If someone were going to talk about you and your work in conversation, what would you like to hear from them?

Ahebee: I feel like my mission, as a writer, starts with myself. A lot of my poetry is processing my own experience. Many times we let things happen to us and we don't reflect on how that has affected us. For me, my poetry is a way for me the process the experience — on the page. Really, I guess I want my readers to find out something new and see the world, and themselves, in a new light. I just want my poetry to spark understanding and discovery.

Burns: There are three reasons why you feel poetry is important to you and I think they're really good, but I wanted to pick your brain about them. You said "that poetry is a great equalizer" and that "it's a universal dialogue"; you also said that each of us carries a poem within us. Some people find poetry really difficult to decipher. So, how can poets make people who are unfamiliar with poetry recognize its power?

Ahebee: I remember, last year, one of the National Student Poets' community service projects focused on the Civil Rights Movement because it was its 50th Anniversary. They conducted a series of workshops at the schools in Alabama and afterwards she asked the kids what they got out of it. This one girl said, "I surprised myself." She didn't know she was capable of doing what she did with a poem. I thought that was so powerful. That's how we get people to realize that everyone is really a poet; you just have to know how to present it on the page. I met this poet who said that everyone speaks in metaphor, therefore everyone is a poet — it's just getting people to realize that they are poets. I think that's where it's essential.

Burns: You've mentioned that writing poetry is a way of finding truth. Could you explain what you mean by that and, if possible, possibly give me one poetic truth you've realized through your writing?

Ahebee: The main truths I've discovered are ones you discover about yourself while you're writing. The content of the poem has truth. So, for example, I’m writing a series of poems on the Roma community in the United States. They're very much a nomadic group who've been displaced for about 1500 years. Their history really connects to my own, having to leave Cote d'Ivoire. In terms of truth I've discovered about myself, I've realized how dependent I am on the theme of home and what that means to me. On the other hand, these poems are a way to shed light on this community. A lot of Romas who come here, because they face so much hatred in other countries, don't identify publicly as being Roma, but it's a lot easier to re-identify in America because there are so many different cultures and ethnic groups. Many Romas claim that they are Indian or they belong to other Hispanic groups as a way to avoid hatred. The poems in this series are about shedding light on those communities and their role in our country. It's much harder for them to hide in places like Paris, or other parts of Europe, because they stick out physically. It's all about hiding, home, and leaving.

Burns: So your truths, then, would be "home" and "identity"?

Ahebee: Yeah, yeah.

Burns: Do you feel at home in the United States? Or do you feel split between two places?

Ahebee: Both. I've spent most of my life in America and I love Philadelphia. Philadelphia will always be my home. I'm living in the same home that my grandparents bought. My friends in America always associate me more with the Ivory Coast and then when I talk to my family they say that "you're American"; that "you don't speak French." They associate me more with my American side. But I do plan to go back because it’s my father's country.

Burns: What inspires creativity in you? What gets you writing?

Ahebee: It starts with things I hear, things I gravitate towards or an image I see in my head. I kind of start with that image and I don't think about what the poem's going to be about. I know that because I noticed it, it's important to me and I'm just going to go with the image. Carolyn Forche came to my school and workshopped one of my poems, "When Ivorian Girls Are Most Hungry." I remember going to the market place in Cote d’Ivoire and getting a chicken and seeing how they would break the neck of the chicken; then you'd take it home and eat. I didn't know why it was important to me, but that image kept coming to me. Eventually it turned into a poem about war, and how I saw the war as a 6 year old compared to how I saw the war now. Forche said because I didn't think about it becoming a political poem, it became a political poem without the agenda.

Burns: What are you writing about currently? What is your writing process like?

Ahebee: Well, I've been writing about the Roma population. I've been exploring a lot of sound poems and hybrid poems — like two or more entities combined. A prose poem would be a hybrid poem. And I guess I have two writing processes. At Interlochen, in a poetry workshop, we're given certain overall theme; we could start with image poems, then sound poems, persona poems. It starts there, and then I consider the image. This really helps me shape my writing process.

Burns: What advice would you give to budding writers who are having trouble revealing themselves in their poems, or maybe writing poetry?

Ahebee: First, write for yourself. That's where poetry starts: with yourself. Don't worry about the audience. Just keep writing and keep developing those skills. Eventually you want to be comfortable enough to send work out. You don't always have to associate yourself with the speaker of the poem. Really, you're just putting it out there and if they don't like it, they don't like it. Just send it out there and do your thing.

Burns: Is there anything else you’d like to say before we end?

Ahebee: I'd like to thank my Mom, Octavia McBride Ahebee, for nurturing my craft. I'm very thankful for all the partners involved with the National Student Poets program. I am so grateful, and so humbled, to have this position.


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