At age 13, Elana Ernst is the Washington area’s youngest Youth Poet Laureate finalist. She was selected Montgomery County Youth Poet Laureate 2022 by Words, Beats and Life, a Hip-Hop-based arts educational nonprofit.
A Silver Creek Middle Schooler and a member of Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue, Elana says she writes poetry to connect with Judaism and as a method to express her creativity.
When did you start writing poetry?
I’ve been at least making up stories or poems in my head before I was even reading. I started writing actual poetry in a more concrete way in about third grade and it was only snippets and stuff, not anything all that good, but I just kind of loved it. Once COVID happened, I got serious about writing in general and started entering competitions. I wrote longer stories and pushed myself and went on a writing streak of 100 straight days. More recently, I fell in love with former youth poet laureates and how amazing their poetry is.
What does it mean to be selected youth poet laureate?
I’m really happy about it. I feel like I am able to say things and have people hear me. I love poetry and writing and performing and it gives me a chance to do all of those things and advocate for things that are important to me. It’s kind of an amazing experience to put your heart and soul into work and for people to like it enough to recognize it. It’s like I’m starting to find my voice, which is so cheesy, but.
As youth poet laureate I really want to make sure that arts education is available to everybody. I also want to make sure that the kinds of things I’ve missed for Shabbat are available to every kid. I want to spread poetry more, too, and give other people the experience of being heard.
What inspires you?
I’m a very big Lin-Manuel Miranda fan and “In the Heights” has been so amazing for me. Even though the song is about somebody completely different from me, it made me feel so understood because a lot of the things I feel very strongly about my identity, my relationship with language and even just living in America were voiced right there, things I hadn’t realized I could even talk about. And that’s just one line from the show.
My poetry reflects that a lot, as well as the desire to give the experience of being seen like that to other people.How does being Jewish influence your poetry?
My family is observant and Judaism has been a very big part of my life. I went to Jewish private school for elementary school and Hebrew has been important, too. Now that I’m in public school and not just with Jewish people, I understand that things aren’t exactly cut out for observant Jews in the public school system, which has hurt a lot. I haven’t been able to do things that other kids can do because of Shabbat or other things. It’s kind of realizing that I don’t fit and we don’t fit into a mold that a lot of people see and also not feeling seen in that sense either. I feel like Judaism has brought me to where I am and it’s what shapes my world in a lot of ways.
But I also sort of write about everything. I feel like being a poet or a writer in general is just kind of the way I’ve learned to see the world so I can feel like I can write about anything. Good poems come when there’s a big emotion but I feel like I can write about anything.
What are your future plans in poetry?
There are certain competitions that I want to keep working toward, like the Scholastic Awards. I would like to be an author someday. I actually get to publish poetry at the end of this year as the Youth Poet Laureate. I would also love to be a novelist, because stories are what started the writing thing for me. I would also love to get a lot better at performing. I’m taking a free poetry class and would like to get involved in the community.
The Accent Upon My Tongue
By Elana Ernst
I sit perched
behind front row desks
scribbling until my handwriting bleeds into type
twisting my tongue to form sounds
that may be words
that I understand in only crescents, in slivers of the moon
I speak in ellipses
in the spaces between sentences
in the silences that are unbreakable and already broken
My utterance is not America
layered atop the language of my grandmotherʼs lullabies
nor is it of the land that she used to sing about
cradled on a distant shore
it is something in between
There are songs that have been scrawled onto the insides of my eyelids
melodies that have perfect words that turn my tongue helpless
I write poetry in the margins of my school papers
lamentations, epics coauthored with google translate
watch the rubber shavings dance away on windʼs wings
The bits of pink weave themselves into another sunrise
always to another prayer
always to words again
When I was little, I asked my mother
which language to pray in
she said the language of my heart
but I still donʼt know which one that is
sometimes when I am singing
my consonants are perfect
figments of moon in my palms
and in those split instants
my prayers become flags
that meld into my back
wings that fly me home until they fall to half mast again
I speak in ellipses
in the spaces between sentences
in the silences I cannot fill
in the words Iʼm forgetting
in the places I come from
in the land that I long for
in the one that I live in
in the prayers stuffed into crevices
in the silence of summer dew on fields
in the whisper of orchard winds, the olive trees
in the echoes of home
I speak her lullabies
This is the accent upon my tongue