CHICAGO – National Youth Poet Laureate Patricia Frazier said the written word — particularly that of fellow black female Chicago writers and activists — has always found her: She grew up in the Ida B. Wells Homes and attended Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy.
A film major at Columbia College, Frazier spent the last academic year as the first Chicago Youth Poet Laureate, and writing her debut book “Graphite,” out this month. The poems explore her grandmother’s death and gentrification.
With her newly minted national title, she not only wants to share her experience of being a queer, black woman from the South Side of Chicago, but also encourage others to write their stories.
Her passion for spoken word began when she realized the limits of her musical abilities. She was planning to sing at her fourth grade talent show, but a friend said her voice wasn’t up to par. Instead, Frazier performed a piece, inspired by the teen movie, “The Cheetah Girls,” about not needing a boyfriend. She joked it was “super feminist” for that age.
“Poetry made me feel heard because I was super introverted and was always afraid of speaking,” she said.
An avid reader, Frazier spent so many hours in her high school library that the librarian asked if she’d like to join the poetry club. She also became part of Young Chicago Authors (YCA), a training ground for many of the city’s brightest talent.
Frazier writes of the “little system of capitalism” in the neighborhoods where she grew up: her cousin who sold tacos or the people doing hair out of their apartments, fluidly combining the negative (living in food deserts and walking a mile to get to a park) with the positive (the strong sense of community and the “hidden gems” that she said often get left out of stories of the South Side). As she wrote in “A Black Girl’s Attempt At Escaping Gentrification”:
“I pray y’all make my name a good poem
A liquor store lacquer
A flash mob crip walk on Garfield
I pray somebody writes an ode to englewood
Turn my name into a city of God in gold
A black hole of black girl resurrection.”
She has experienced the changing Chicago landscape firsthand, moving out of the Ida B. Wells Homes when they were demolished, and by being pushed farther south as rent prices increased.
She said activism makes her think about how poetry can raise awareness of both injustices and joys.
“Poetry serves as another form of organizing, as another form of activism, because if I reach up to somebody and I open their eyes to a new world, that could change their ideas.”
She didn’t understand the full impact of gentrification until her grandmother, a woman who once picked cotton, died last fall. About a week later, she was named Chicago Youth Poet Laureate. She said she found herself sitting between two houses of loss and rebirth, a space in which she conceived “Graphite.”
The title was inspired by poet Claudia Rankine’s book, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” and a Zora Neale Hurston quote: “I feel most graphite when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
“When I sat down initially to write the book, I thought ordinary people deserve biographies too,” she said. “Ordinary things deserve biographies too. So that was my way of not only writing this biography for my grandmother, but also this biography for this childhood that I can’t go back to anymore.”