One of the first text messages that Ben Lee got after the news of his national poetry award was announced came from his soccer team’s captain.
“He said, ‘That’s awesome, but I didn’t know that was your thing. You should have told someone.’ ”
Lee, 16, laughs as he tells the story, but adds that he’d always considered writing poetry “a very private endeavor.”
Now, though, the Edina teen hopes to work in a very public way with other young people as one of five National Student Poets in the U.S. The award is a partnership between the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Lee, a junior at the Blake School in Minneapolis, received the award this fall at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Virginia McEnerney, the alliance’s executive director, said that Lee’s application stood out in several ways.
“He’s interested in language as a form of expression, but also as stress relief,” she said. “And while he has aspirations toward science, poetry is an art form that clicked with him.”
She was gratified by the response from Lee’s fellow athletes. “Being revealed as both an artist and a leader is really very powerful to kids.”
Lee freely admitted that he once considered poetry as “mostly old Shakespearean sonnets that didn’t really resonate with me.” Then an American literature class exposed him to contemporary poetry written in more inventive forms about more modern topics.
“It was refreshing to see poetry written by people talking about social issues, talking about things I could relate to, things that were — and still are — in the news,” he said.
He found that poetry can help put feelings into words.
“To me, it’s a way to explicate something that’s very hard to articulate by using other tools,” he said. “I think that’s why a lot of poets use nature to construct their poetry, because they can physically see nature and yet relate it to an emotion they’re feeling.”
As many students write in journals to decompress, “poetry plays a role in that for me. It’s a real stress reliever.”
Poetry also enables Lee to address his life as a biracial student. His mother, Jennifer Service, is Scottish; his father, Peter Lee, is Korean.
“For me, growing up biracial was kind of weird because no one really talked about it,” he said. “When I got older, I started reading about people with similar experiences to mine and I could start to question and really form my own words about it. I do draw a lot of inspirations from my heritage.”
That heritage includes a well-known ancestral poet on his mother’s side, Robert Service, a Canadian known for his poems set in the Yukon’s gold rush, such as “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” But he shies away from claiming any predisposition for verse.
“Actually, most of the people in my family are involved in biology and life sciences,” he said, adding that he’s interested in environmental science as a possible career path. “I think this program has taken me out of my comfort zone.”
As a National Student Poet, Lee must develop a service project. He’s proposed one with LearningWorks, a public-private partnership between Minneapolis Public Schools and the Blake School that helps prepare students for college.
He’d like to lead some poetry workshops and public readings to show the appeal of poetry, “and also counter the stigma among some boys that poetry is not cool,” he said. “I want to show that it’s cool to be you, it’s cool to learn and it’s cool to write poetry.”