United States poet laureate visits Bay Shore High School

Delivers keynote address at Ethnic Pen Conference

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Since 1996, Bay Shore High School has presented the Ethnic Pen Conference for its students. The daylong event, which takes months to plan, aims to help students celebrate diversity and “prevent and combat prejudice through writing.” Every student in the school becomes involved in the event, in one form or another.

This year, thanks to the Bay Shore Schools Arts Endowment Fund as well as a NEA Big Read Grant awarded to Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja in Bay Shore, students were given the honor of having United States poet laureate Joy Harjo deliver the keynote address at the conference.

“Being able to bring back the event this year is so exciting for us, and then to be welcoming Joy Harjo, the poet laureate of the United States, makes it all the more meaningful, especially for this current group of students who have had to miss out on some opportunities for the past few years just because of the situation,” said Amanda DellUniversita, the director of English Language Arts at the Bay Shore School District. 

The past two years, the district has been unable to hold the event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and since finding out at the end of last year that Harjo would be coming, the district has been hard at work preparing for her arrival. This year, students have been learning and working with Harjo’s book of poetry “An American Sunrise.” According to DellUniversita, students not only read Harjo’s poetry, but watched multimedia reels of some of her recent interviews and performances to get a sense of who she is not just as a writer, but as a performer.

“We really hope to instill a greater sense of cultural awareness within each of our students, to remind them of the power of creative expression and the power of their own writing, and also how the written word can provide the means through which we discover the common thread that keeps us all together,” DellUniversita said.

When the day of the conference finally arrived and students filed into the auditorium to hear Harjo speak, the excitement was palpable. After brief opening remarks, a beautiful rendition of the national anthem and the song “Soon We Will be Done” was performed by the Bay Shore Harmonaires. A group of students also performed the poem “Break My Heart” from “An American Sunrise” for Harjo. During her keynote address, Harjo read poems and excerpts from her books and memoir. The audience also had the privilege to hear a new poem from Harjo that she had written just the previous night in her hotel room. Harjo had never performed the poem before, which she said she was inspired to write after reading an article and seeing images in the New York Times from the war in Ukraine. After her address, some students asked Harjo prepared questions about her life and writing. After being asked how she remained true to herself, Harjo gave a poignant answer.

“That’s a constant,” she said. “That’s constantly evaluating. Ask yourself, Are you on the right track? Because in the end, you come in carrying a story already, and then you come in and take on a story—of your family, your community, your generation, and what are you going to leave with? You’re going to leave with all of your acts, with the songs you learned; you’re going to leave with all that knowledge. And the truth of your journey.”

After Harjo’s keynote address, students went into workshops for the rest of the day, where they learned from other creatives and worked together writing and creating. Harjo’s talk in Bay Shore was in conjunction with a daylong residency she did on April 8. She began the day with her address at the high school, and then in the evening she presented a reading from “An American Sunrise” at the Avram Fine Arts Center at Stony Brook University Southampton, which sits on traditional Shinnecock Land. Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja was awarded an NEA Big Read grant and chose Harjo’s “An American Sunrise” as their book of choice to engage with the community. By working with the Bay Shore Ethnic Pen Conference and the Bay Shore Schools Arts Endowment Fund, Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja was able to include Harjo’s keynote address in the daylong residency.

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