A reddish library building
The Berkeley Public Library, North Branch, Aug. 6, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

Berkeley’s first ever youth poet laureate will be appointed at the beginning of next year. A runner-up will be named the city’s vice youth poet laureate. 

The program is being launched by the Berkeley Public Library in partnership with youth literary arts organization Urban Word at the same time the city is seeking its second ever adult poet laureate. Teens 18 and under living in or attending school in Berkeley can apply through Sept. 5 to be Berkeley’s youth laureate and Berkeley residents 18 and up can apply through Sept. 2 to be the city’s adult laureate, which comes with a $10,000 honorarium.

The youth poet laureate and vice laureate will represent the city at library and city events and are expected to lead a community art project and participate in writing workshops. They’ll have a chance to represent Berkeley in the California Youth Poet Laureate Competition and National Youth Poet Laureate Competition. 

The duo will be mentored by the city’s adult poet laureate, who will be appointed on Dec. 6.

“It’s intentionally going to be kind of loose this first year to see what works, what they’re interested in, and how we can work with [the Berkeley Unified School District] and the city to make it really successful,” said Robyn Brown, a teen services librarian at the North Branch who is leading the youth laureate program. 

One impetus for starting the new program was when Brown heard that Nadia Elbgal, a Berkeley High student, had been named Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate in May 2022. “I thought, ‘Why are they the Oakland Poet Laureate?’ We should have our own,” Brown said. “Her work is great, so I’m really happy for her, but we wanted a platform for Berkeley residents and students. There’s no shortage of talent and creativity.”

The library looked to similar programs in the Bay Area — Alameda, Oakland and Daly City — when designing the program, and likewise opted to partner with Urban Word, which provided judging rubrics, marketing materials, application templates, and will hold online workshops for regional poet laureates. The partnership with Urban Word cost the library $2,000, which is funded by a combination of taxpayer funds and Friends of the Berkeley Public Library

See more details on the judging criteria

Applicants for the city’s youth poet laureate program will need to submit a resume and three original poems. The library plans to offer at least two poetry writing workshops before the application period ends to aid teens through the application process. 

To be eligible, you must be between ages 13 and 18 as of Jan. 1, 2024, either live in or attend school in Berkeley, and commit to living locally for all of 2024. Students who will be enrolled in college full time in both spring and fall of 2024 are not eligible.

The youth poet laureate is an unpaid honorary position. Brown said she hopes it will come with a stipend or scholarship in future years, like some other programs. Oakland’s youth poet laureate, for example, gets a $5,000 scholarship. 

“This is just our jumping off point … There’s a lot of room to grow and that definitely seems like something we would maybe offer in the future,” Brown said. She noted that the honorary position would be a boon to the teen’s college applications and allow them to form connections with members of Berkeley’s literary community. 

The first round of judging is anonymous, and applicants will be screened by library staff for their creative voice and craft. The second round, judged by a panel of local poets including Councilmember Terry Taplin and Collin Edmonds, the “Grand Slam Champ” of the Berkeley Slam poetry competition at the Starry Plough, will also take into account “civic engagement and social justice” — applicants are encouraged to share any kind of volunteer work they’ve done, whether it’s taking care of a sibling or friend or helped out around church. Anyone with questions about the application is encouraged to contact the Berkeley Youth Poet Laureate Committee at youthpoet@berkeleyca.gov

The youth laureates will be announced at a kickoff celebration in January 2024 and will serve for one calendar year.

The library plans to offer regular poetry writing workshops throughout the next year, with the goal of fostering a “collaborative cohort” made of anyone who applies, and not just the winners.

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...