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Way with words: LI teens create community with @YoungPoetsUnite Instagram

Sneha Singhi and Sanjana Lodha, both Herricks High

Sneha Singhi and Sanjana Lodha, both Herricks High School students, talk about what inspired them to create @YoungPoetsUnite on Instagram during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in March and a dozen Long Island students are huddled in a Zoom meeting.

There’s a rhyme and a reason for the get-together, and it emerges as the conversation courses from Emily Dickinson and Maya Angelou to Robert Frost, Gary Turk and Amanda Gorman.

"Amanda is young, like us," one attendee says. "She’s paving a way for young minds."

Another teen unmutes and gives a thoughtful shoutout to Dickinson’s poem, "There Is Another Sky." "She’s trying to show that there’s a happy place in everyone’s mind," she says. "In a bad time, you can go there."

Welcome to Young Poets Unite, a youth organization launched last summer by two students at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park.

The weekend meetup was their latest "poetry night." The fact that the "night" was held at 3 p.m. wasn’t lost on the two co-founders and co-presidents Sneha Singhi, 16, and Sanjana Lodha, 15, who are also cousins. They chalked it up to poetic license.

A bridge with poetry

While other shut-ins baked sourdough and banana bread and sewed masks to keep productive during the pandemic, Singhi, a junior, and Lodha, a sophomore, cooked up the organization on their own from scratch.

"We decided to take our love of poetry to another level," said Singhi, who lives in Roslyn Heights.

It was a way for them to build a bridge to span the physical and emotional distance of isolation using words, creativity and self-expression.

"Community and connection have always been important to me," said Lodha, who lives in Albertson. "I’m a Girl Scout, and we always find ways to connect people across Long Island, the state and even across the country. Our group is about connecting through poetry."

The mission of Young Poets Unite is noted at youngpoetsunite123.weebly.com. It’s a place "where teenagers can spread and celebrate their love for poetry."

Those celebrations happen through online workshops and gatherings sponsored by the group as well as on Instagram at @YoungPoetsUnite, where poems are posted on a nearly daily basis. Contributors are typically high school and college students.

In January, the organization published an online book, a collection of many of the poems so far. It’s free to Kindle users, otherwise it’s 99 cents.

The group is pledging income from downloads — so far there’s been about 15 — to NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness. YPU has stickers for sale in the works, and proceeds will go to the same good cause.

The arrival of Young Poets Unite has come at an opportune time. Poetry is having a moment, thanks to 23-year-old poet Gorman, who ascended to rock-star status after delivering her work, "The Hill We Climb," at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Long story haiku-short, Gorman made poetry cool.

Instagram poetry, or Instapoetry, which grew out of social media and typically consists of bite-sized works and accompanying artwork, has also clearly influenced Young Poets Unite.

The group’s posted poetry tends to be brief and set against backgrounds with delightful illustrations. Themes covered by YPU poems run the gamut from whimsical (sea horses) to serious (COVID-19 isolation).

"I’ve always had an affection for poetry, starting from fourth grade," said Lodha. Her interest has grown thanks to high school English classes and her own independent reading.

She believes poetry gets a bum rap. "People are always saying, ‘Oh, poetry, it’s so stupid.’ ‘It’s hard to understand.’ Why do we even have to study it?’"

'A way to calm down'

But before the pandemic and especially during the isolation of COVID-19, poetry offered solace and escape.

"Poetry allowed me to access my more creative side," she said. "It was a way to calm down and just exit all of the craziness from the world, to be honest." That chaos included the death of her uncle from COVID-19.

"I can’t leave my house. I can’t see my friends," she said. "But I can write down my feelings and express myself." And others can tap into them.

"There’s an emotional quality that makes poetry one of the best ways to connect," said Jackie Braje, program director for the Poetry Society of New York, a nonprofit promotional organization based in Manhattan. "This is a great time for kids to be exploring poetry."

Along with Gorman, a singular writer who has shone her own brilliant spotlight on poetry, Instagram poetry is another "modern day phenomenon that kids are into," Braje said.

To be posted at @YoungPoetsUnite, contributors send poems via direct message that are vetted by the administrators. Poets can sign their work or post anonymously. They can create their own design or Young Poets Unite will tackle that task for them.

That’s where Sydnee Pai, the organization’s vice president and designer, works her creative and graphic design magic with Canva.

"We give people the option to choose the design," explained Pai, 16, a junior at Herricks who lives in New Hyde Park. "Some people have their own interpretation of the poem. When I give a poem a certain look it takes on my interpretation of the poem."

Pai says she came to really enjoy reading poetry in high school. Like the group’s co-founders, she contributes work on an occasional basis. That means when she can squeeze time for creative writing in between the demands of physics, history and math classes.

Herricks High School English teacher Tom Mattson, who’s not directly involved with the student organization, expressed enthusiasm about it and its mission.

There are so many forms of poetry and poets out there to discover. Instapoetry can be a gateway to a deeper dive into poetry and lead someone to explore the likes of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman or Theodore Roethke, to name a few, acknowledged Mattson. "That has value," he said.

"The thing about poetry is that it can inspire a visceral reaction," Mattson said, adding that that initial attraction can reverberate.

"I’m 45, and what got me interested in poetry early on was Jim Morrison," Mattson said about The Doors lead vocalist, songwriter and poet. "Looking back he’s not a great poet, but he got me interested in poetry even so."

Young Poets Unite hosts online workshops.
A video shares the mission of Young Poets
Young Poets Unite released a digital book in
Clockwise from above: Young Poets Unite hosts online workshops. A video on @YoungPoetsUnite's Instagram explains its mission. The youth organization published a digital book in early 2021, pledging proceeds to a mental-health nonprofit. | Photos by youngpoetsunite via Instagram

A two-way connection

The link between song lyrics and poetry isn’t lost on Ayesha Nadeem, a 16-year-old junior at Herricks High School who contributes to Young Poets Unite on an occasional basis.

"I’ve always had a love of music, and poetry and music go hand in hand," said Nadeem, who lives in Roslyn. "What makes it unique is the way you can express yourself in it. You can use the words and the rhythms of the words. Plus it’s creative, it’s a stress-reliever."

Her favorite poets include Rumi and Dickinson. Although the former, a 13th century Turkish-Persian mystic poet, and the latter, a 19th century American poet, seem worlds away from each other, Nadeem points out their overlapping themes about human connections.

She covers the same subject in one of her Young Poets Unite poems. It begins: "Somedays are more difficult than others, somedays a fake smile is the only smile …" It concludes: "Somedays you’ll meet a true friend, somedays you’ll feel whole again."

She said her plans are to continue to contribute works "to see how I’ve grown in poetry."

At Young Poets Unite, the founders are monitoring growth of the group. There are currently more than 1,100 followers and nearly 250 poems. About 12% are from Herricks classmates. Authors have a showcase for their work, while readers get to savor it. It’s a two-way connection.

"When Sneha and I were talking about this in the beginning we both decided to create a platform that lets people come together," said Lodha. The co-founders figured that they could spark interest close to home and with the friends and fellow students.

Thanks to the power of social media, the reach of the group has extended beyond Long Island, they say, to include India, the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and South America.

Saurabh Singhi, 47, who works in finance, said that he is "pretty impressed by the way" his daughter Sneha and Sanjana have created and nurtured YPU. "I give credit for people for taking initiative. They created it from the ground up."

While not a "poetry die-hard," he grew up in India reading William Wordsworth and appreciates the power of poetry. That’s amplified during a pandemic. "When you’re not able to interact, they’re even more valuable."

Sneha agrees. "I feel like poetry is such a personal thing. We didn’t know people would share their work," she said. "We’re definitely very pleased. We’re also really surprised."

Sydnee Pai, left, is the designer for @YoungPoetsUnite,
Sydnee Pai says that designing poems for Instagram
Sanjana Lodha, left, and Sneha Singhi want to
Clockwise from above: Sydnee Pai, left, is the designer for @YoungPoetsUnite, which was founded by cousins Sanjana Lodha and Sneha Singhi. Pai says that designing poems for Instagram lets her share her interpretation of the work. Sanjana Lodha, left, and Sneha Singhi figured that they could spark interest close to home and with their friends and fellow students, but they have also gotten contributions from around the world. | Photos by Yvonne Albinowski

Raves for faves

Ask the Young Poets Unite team to name poets they can’t get enough of, and Rupi Kaur, an Instapoet whose works are “minimalist and filled with positive messages,” says Sanjana Lodha, comes up often. Here, they share three more favorites.

Sanjana Lodha

Poet pick: Mary Oliver

Read this: “The Summer Day.” “She allows readers to see beauty in the simplicity of the world. It made me want to look more deeply into things that were around me.”

Sneha Singhi

Poet pick: Maya Angelou

Read this: “Still I Rise.” “Her poetry is so inspiring. I love some of her work, especially her activist poems.”

Sydnee Pai

Poet pick: William Henry Davies

Read this: “Leisure.” “He really focuses on the details of nature. This poem makes me makes me think about my grandparents’ house in Australia.”

— Joe Dziemianowicz

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