Sarah Lao, Winner of the Sixth Annual Narrative “Tell Me a Story” High School Writing Contest,
talks with Javier Zamora and Carol Edgarian

Carol Edgarian
Huge congrats, Sarah, on winning first place in our Sixth Annual “Tell Me a Story” Writing Contest! In this year of pandemic and unprecedented challenges for teachers and students alike, with 90 percent of classrooms being online, we were thrilled to receive submissions from nineteen countries, thirty-nine states in the US, and 174 cities. Whoa, right? I like to think of that virtual community of poets gathered around this digital campfire, all conjuring, writing, and sharing their versions of escape! And in that mix, your poem stood out. It says, “Here I am.” It took the theme of escape to a whole new level.


Javier Zamora
Carol’s right. “Triptych” is just so impressive. What does it feel like for you to be recognized by and published in Narrative? I mean, since we were reading blind, with no idea where anyone was from, or what their gender or race was, the work had to proclaim its place. Once we’d decided on the winners and finalists, and the names and schools were connected with the poems, we discovered that you’re also the teen poet laureate of Georgia. That is so dope!


Sarah Lao
Well, it was shocking. I’m so honored that you both liked my poetry. I mean, I’ve always loved reading Narrative’s high school contest winners; I love reading the 30 under 30 winners and the other writers you publish; it’s really cool. I love going through the Narrative site. But you know, I never really had the guts to submit anything. But this was honestly such an amazing opportunity. I emailed my English teacher. I was like, “Hey, can we really do this?” Then we were scrambling. I was sending her draft after draft. In between classes, we talked, and she was like, “Okay, we’re gonna do this; we’re going to do it together.”


CE
That’s wonderful; your teacher gave you the gift of her belief. Teachers do this every day on every part of the globe, and for that and so many other reasons, they are the unsung heroes. It just takes one teacher to turn on the lights, to say, “Yeah, Sarah, you can do this. You have a voice; you have a brilliant poem in you.” It was a high school teacher who got Javier on the path of poetry as well.


JZ
That’s right. I didn’t want to be a writer; I wanted to be a soccer player, a professional soccer player. Then again, I was also an immigrant and undocumented at the time, and poetry for me was where I could control something. It made me feel better, having to think about words instead of my family’s situation or the politics of the day. My teacher introduced me to Narrative’s work when I was eighteen. It took many tries, but finally, two of my poems got accepted. That showed me that my voice mattered. I continued to submit more poems. And when I won the Narrative Prize, I couldn’t help but remember that eighteen-year-old, full of doubt and fear about revealing his immigration status. It took me nine long years of working on my first collection, Unaccompanied. Along the way, the editors at Narrative supported me and allowed me to feel comfortable revealing my secrets.


Sarah, I want to know more about you. Have you written all through school?


SL
In my freshman year, I started writing when my English teacher had us write some poetry as a project. Since then, I’ve been writing by myself. What I write about has changed a lot. When I was younger, I always made sure that the next poem I wrote was something different from the last. So if I already wrote an ocean poem, no more oceans for me. Now I don’t deliberately pick. Because I do sometimes think poetry is just me enjoying myself and not thinking that, you know, this has to make sense and do something for other people.


CE
That confidence comes through. The complexity in your work is striking. I often see a kind of hesitancy or mimicking in the work of younger poets, but you have a unique authority, twined with a sense of play with sound and language that is all yours and utterly specific; it’s a modulated performance. I love that you bring both your head and your heart to the page.


JZ
Carol’s right, Sarah. You are a poet. You’re not an almost poet; you’re not a developing poet; you’re a poet. And let’s pause with that for a moment. Really, it’s beautiful. I mean, is writing what you think you want to do?


SL
I think part of the appeal of writing is that it is a form of escape, right? I don’t want to force myself to be a creative writing major in college and then be concerned about a teacher grading my poem because then I know that I’m not going to like it anymore. Next year in college, I’d like to study linguistics. I love history and languages. Greek. Latin. Subjects that would make me open my mind a bit and make my poems more exciting and different.


JZ
The best advice that a mentor gave me was to carry a notebook, and when you hear something like a cool phrase or when you see something, write it out. That’s not going to be a poem; it’s just that you’re practicing every day. Even when you’re not writing, that doesn’t mean that you can’t write in other ways; reading is writing and revising is writing. You know, you’re not always creating, but as long as you’re in conversation—again, having that little notebook is being in conversation. I grew up as an athlete, so it’s like we’re practicing every day; you have to practice if you want to be dope, and the goal is always to be dope.


CE
That’s it. Study widely, deeply. Study what sparks you. The job of a writer is to be open, to feed the imagination. I never know when something I’ve read or seen will show up down the road, in the work. Sometimes it is many, many years later and time has worked it into a new shape, a new meaning. My new novel Vera was sparked by some things I read several decades ago. Nothing is wasted—and that goes for life experiences you’ll have in college too. Live, love, laugh deeply, approach the study of craft with curiosity, read everything, tear it apart at the seams to see how it was made—and love, if you can, the notion that it is a long apprenticeship—a lifetime of learning and pushing beyond what you comfortably know. That’s the joy.


JZ
Narrative made me feel seen for the very first time. I hope this contest keeps encouraging teenagers to write, to believe that their minds, their feelings, are valid and crucial for the world to read. So don’t question yourself too much or think that you don’t have a gift or that nobody will want to read your stuff, because we do. Trust yourself.


Another thing, Carol and I had no idea that you were from Atlanta, and now this shit happens, I mean the shootings and the anti-Asian violence. What goes through your mind? How is your family feeling? Do you guys feel safe? I almost feel bad asking this question because everybody asked me the same shit like, oh, with Trump, as an undocumented immigrant, do you feel like safer or less safe? I’m like, I always feel unsafe.


SL
I think, sadly, it’s not a huge surprise. I mean, I think it’s terrible that people can still refuse to accept it. That it was driven by hate. It’s scary because this was the first thing that’s happened really close to me, in my memory. It’s scary to see Atlanta be on national news for something like this. It’s shocking, heartbreaking, but in terms of day-to-day life, it hasn’t changed how I feel because it’s always been going on, you know, and it’s just really been frustrating not to see anything change.


CE
That goes to my next question, and you’re going to get this question all the time: What is the role of politics in poetry? Should a poet feel obligated to talk about what’s going on in the news?


SL
I think it should just be up to the individual poet. If we forced every poet to write about politics, there’d be a lot of bad political poetry out there. And no one wants to read that. I think that writing itself is political; you know, you’re using your voice to talk about whatever you want. And that’s, I believe, powerful by itself. Political poets are great, but not every poet can be a political poet.


CE
Who are you reading right now?


SL
A favorite would have to be Ocean Vuong. Also, right now I’m really liking Justin Phillip Reed and Leila Chatti.


JZ
The theme of the contest was escape. And clearly, you gave us one of, I suppose, many answers for that. I can’t even imagine what it’s been like; the whole world has shifted for everybody. But as a student applying to colleges during COVID, what has that been like? And what is escape to you, outside literature? What do you like to do, or is it only poetry that lets you escape?


SL
Music has been my escape. Since I was six years old, I’ve been playing piano, and music still influences how I read and write poetry in a lot of ways. I’m talking about rhythm, that sort of stuff. Other than that, all the regular stuff—my dog, food, sleeping a lot—to relax outside of school, you know? With this news about being published in Narrative, I’m going to be really high in the clouds for a month at least.


CE
You deserve it. Go hang in the clouds. Maybe a poem will come to you there.


And Don’t Miss:

Read Sarah’s work as well as the other winners of our Sixth Annual Narrative “Tell Me a Story” High School Contest
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