Young Poets Write into the Future


For the last four years, I have taught creative writing courses with students at the CAPE school in Pima County Juvenile and Adult Detention. This fall, I was thinking of them as I read news about COVID-19 spread in carceral facilities. I worried about their health, safety, and wellbeing. I worried about how they were handling the tremendous stress of this global pandemic and time of political strife while also being separated from their families and communities.

I really wanted to know what they feltabout this period of grief, uncertainty, and further separation, about the presidential election and its impact. I was curious to hear how they were dealing with the intensity of this time. I wondered what they were thinking about our country, what it has been, what it is, and what they want it to be.

The lesson plans I crafted out of these thoughts center on poems by writers asking questions and offering critiques about the country, its people and its legacy, as well as visions, hopes, and possibilities for its future. Students read the poems “Let America Be America Again” where Langston Hughes questions the rhetoric of America through the lens of race and the history of slavery; “You Are the One I Love,” which Aracelis Girmay composed, at the invitation of Split This Rock, in response to the 2017 presidential inauguration; and “A New National Anthem” where Ada Limón offers perspective on “something brutal snaking underneath” the national anthem and wonders what a new anthem would sound like.

I asked students: What is America to you?

I asked: Who are the ones you love?

I asked: How would you write a new anthem for this country?

Here are their answers:

Adrian V.

Let America Be Native Again

Let America Be Native Again
Let It Be The Dream Land
Let It Be The Land We Once
Called Home. Let The Sunshine
And The Moon Be Our Light
Let American Be The Home
Birth of Our People. Let America
Be the America I Dreamed
It Would Be As A Kid. America
Ain’t The America I Dreamed
It To Be. Let It Be Known
As A Place of Peace. Let
America Be Native Again.
Let America Be Known
As the Home of the
Braves And the Land of
The Free. Let It Be Known
Let American Be Native

Jesus D.

What Does America Mean to Me?

It means the rich and white
looking down on us colored
and poor. It means that 85%
of prison population is Black
or Chicano. It means hatred, disgust,
stereotypes, revenge, gangs,
shootings, murder, rape, drugs,

It means a corrupted system,
corrupted judges, corrupted
guards and corrupted children.
It means everything bad you could imagine.

But it also means Freedom
and rights, choices and ability,
opportunity and strength.
It means sunshine, fun,
playgrounds, and kids running

It means working, religion,
movies, plays, fairs, football,
basketball, soccer, love, family,
friends, FOOD!
And that’s what America means to me.

Tomas C.

You Are Who I Love

You are who I love, listening to our problems no matter the severity
You talking to the youth about how his mother left him unloved with no home
And how he or she deserved and deserves much more than he got and is getting.

You who slaves two or three occupations to keep your children fed and happy,
Back aching like they’re holding the weight of a mountain.

You who stays up all day and night hustling and bustling
over endless homework and staying up to fund your dreams.
You are who I love.

You who trains and trains to pursue your goals that
everyone said is unrealistic and unachievable but
you ignore all the odds.

You on your feet all day stitching up cuts and mending bones, icing bruises.
You are who I love.

You fight fires and are the one who responds to emergencies first,
not caring that you’re staring danger in
the face.

You who loves but is still unloved, not receiving
but always giving.

You who put they feeling out over a rhythm
or on a paper for masses to interpret.

You who slaves in a kitchen over a stove
feeding kids and adults in a soup shelter.

You who gives all they have to the needy
But is needing the most but has none.

You who is bitter and is sweet, is loving
and unloved. the grateful and the hateful.
You who helps the balance between good and evil.
You who saves the unsavable.

You are who I love.

Frankie M.

I love you because when I feel down, you remind me of good times outweigh the bad

I love you because you’ve come from living in a van to buying a big house for our family, because when all we had was tomato sauce and noodles, you made it the best meal.

I love you because even though you were going through things in life of your own, being a mother of five and losing a son, you still managed to raise us to be strong. Because you never gave or give up during tough times.

I love you because even though sometimes I didn’t follow the rules, you helped me learn to follow them. Because when I was small, you helped me climb the monkey bars even though I couldn’t reach. Because you helped me get muscle when I wanted to be big like you.

I love you because you worked in the hard-beating sun almost every day to provide for us kids. Because you taught me to cook, clean, and be strong in the toughest of times. I love you because you taught me to be a man. Because you never gave up or give up during tough times.

Daniel M.

National Anthem

Corrupt government,
Corrupt presidents,
Secrets being kept from citizens.
Terrible Nation,
No equality,
Cops kill innocents,
The courts sentence
according to race.
Government acts like they care,
but they only worry about the Whites.
Minorities stuck in cells, no freedom, no rights.
America, the land of the lies,
Only the wealthy survive.

No more locked doors.

Xavier M.

The way I would approach writing a national anthem would start off with me talking about
how everything isn’t equal. How people have that White Christmas, that one Christmas that families have nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, you have families worrying about their
next meal or their next paycheck so they can keep a roof over their head. When I once mentioned that I think this life was mean to be set up this way, I meant that drugs were
brought into the ghetto to destroy our kind. Most of us are set up for failure, growing up
in areas where all we see are people living that fast life. People have a choice to go
to school and worry about their family struggles and stressed about whatever they’re going to wear and what they’re going to eat. Many people have life easy for them.

I would talk about America being one of the most ugly and disgusted places, but yet one of
the most beautiful places because it made me who I am and makes me see things for what
they really are. I would talk about everything that’s never being noticed and not benign talked about but turn it into a National Anthem somehow. I would speak on what people are now dead and didn’t get to do what they were trying to do in the first place. I would want anyone’s voice who can relate and who sees my perspective. I would want their voices to be heard. I would make the National Anthem something like, “Set up to Succeed and Set up for Failure.” Because it talks about both sides and both of their points of views. I know that my national anthem would be deep.

Luis N.

Oh say can you see!
The Red, White, and Blue flag!
For only the brave hold and fight for
To stand strong for its people.
The land where they care and nurture one another.
Where you find help given in the most needed of time.
Where one goes to live like a king or queen.
Oh the land of the great!
Where there is no greed nor any hate!
Where its people know its neighbor and help when its needed.
Where people are all looked at equally no matter what.
Oh say can you see!
The Red, White, and Blue Flag!
Where everyone is worthy of holding
and fighting for.

Lisa M. O'Neill is an essayist and journalist who writes about social justice, politics, and popular culture with an intersectional lens. She is the founder, host, and producer of The MATRIARCHITECTS, a podcast and platform which highlights change-makers who are building a culture that respects, values, and celebrates women. Lisa received her MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Arizona, where she taught writing in the English Department for a decade. She teaches in-person and online community writing workshops and designs and leads classes as a teaching artist in juvenile detention. She also works with writers as an editor and creativity usher, helping them discover their stories and usher them onto the page. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Media, Bustle, Diagram, Edible Baja Arizona, Everyday Feminism, The Feminist Wire, GOOD, Good Housekeeping, The Guardian, Salon, and The Washington Post.