Oz Leshem, the newly crowned Santa Fe Youth Poet Laureate, only started writing a few years ago, driven to poetry for comfort and clarity. Hip-hop and jazz music are both inspirations for Leshem’s writing, as well as politics and the beauty and struggle of New Mexico and its communities.
For example, an excerpt from the poem, “Word to Everything I Love:”
“to the girl who beat me at limbo last night,
at that party on 3rd, who sipped scotch like a vanilla milkshake.
to the one who leaves the fork in their mouth an extra second,
to savor the flavor, whose hands are softer than kindness itself. word
to my poems before august, word to everything i love.
the abandoned brothel across the street, yelling drum sirens
to the beat of the bell at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish on sundays.”
The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry supports the Santa Fe Youth Poet Laureate Program in partnership with the National Youth Poet Laureate Program and Urban Word NYC. Judges chose Leshem, a 15-year-old who lives in Taos and is a sophomore at New Mexico School for the Arts, from among 42 poets from across Northern New Mexico. SFR spoke with Leshem about their future dreams as well as how they view poetry. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SFR: What do you want to be when you are older? A poet?
Oz Leshem: Definitely something in the writing world, maybe publishing. I definitely like filmmaking. [It] has really caught my attention, and the image and writing scripts, and maybe even producing or directing.
When did you start writing?
About 2018. I started journaling to cope....Some of my friends had lost their lives to suicide. Taos has a really high rate of that. So I started journaling to cope with that. And that’s kind of how....I got into poetry....That’s something that helped me. I think [poetry is] definitely the reason why I’m writing and I’m here.
What inspires you with your poetry?
My community is a really big thing; like, writing about New Mexico and just the beauty and the people. Anywhere I’ve been, I always tend to miss New Mexico. And I think I’m going to definitely come back here. Politics is something big. I feel that when I have a platform through writing, if I can at least make someone smile or make someone think differently than how they already thought, and then I think that’s a success in my book—literally my book.
Do you get writer’s block? And if you do, how do you get out of it?
I always tend to go back to some of my favorite books. I like to go back to Allen Ginsberg a lot. Then this writer from Chicago named Kevin Coval, who is a contemporary writer. I’m Jewish....I’m Jewish and Palestinian, so I like to talk about that. That’s a big influence in my writing….Jewish poets, I like reading them. And that usually inspires me a lot. So I also try to constantly read a variety of people. I always try to read if I’m stuck. That’s usually where a lot of my writings are influenced, from other people.
Do you think the internet and social media contribute to the well-being and propagation of poetry?
Practically all of the readings I attend and all of the open mics and things are always online on maybe like an Instagram live or Facebook live or Zoom call. So I think in that realm, poetry is still alive because of it, and I think new, young writers and people are starting to get careers and opportunities from social media. For example, zines and youth literary reviews are all starting to come up because of social media. And I think that’s really important and really cool to see that transformation.
What do you think all good poems have in common?
I think if the writer can connect with something, or if the writer is passionate about something that they want to say, regardless of how they share it, I think it’s going to connect with someone. Like if you’re really passionate about talking about mental illness or talking about politics, I think someone is going to be like, ‘Yep, I agree with that and I connect with that and I get that.’ Or if you’re talking about trauma or pain, there’s always going to be some form of connection. And I always say this is kind of cliché, but...I remember this quote; [one of my friends] said, ‘Poetry is useless if it isn’t true to you as the writer.’ And that was really a big thing that stuck with me; like when I was trying to find my voice and how I write or what I write or what I want to write about.
What book are you reading right now?
Right now, I am reading Amiri Baraka’s collected poems from 1965 to 2013.
What’s your favorite poem?
I don’t have an answer for that. I can tell you my favorite book...The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Also, hip-hop is a big center of my writing, like adding music and a beat; rhythm and wordplay and all of those types of literary devices really stick out to me when I try to write. And I usually listen to music and I write specifically, like really lyrical hip-hop music and jazz. And so trying to find that deep within my writing is really, really interesting to me. And that’s what I try to aim for. Maybe not songs; I still identify them as poems, but I love the music that comes with poetry.