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Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, Laurel Nakanishi received her M.F.A. from the University of Montana. She is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Nicaragua, and a Wrolstad travel award. She is the author of the prize-winning chapbook, Manoa Makai, and her work has appeared in Black Warrior, Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. She currently teaches poetry in Hawaii and studies non-fiction at Florida International University.

After proposing the Sunroom Project to the Oh, Miami Poetry Festival last year, Laurel Nakanishi founded an initiative that in short time has become one of the most ambitious poetry workshops in all of South Florida. Working with middle schools and detention centers throughout Miami-Dade County, the Sunroom Project (supported by the Children’s Trust) instructs burgeoning poets across a whole curriculum that includes monthly workshops, communal poetry readings, and the publication of chapbooks featuring participants’ verses. During SER’s recent chat with her, we learned much about the Fulbright fellow’s tireless work with her students in Liberty City’s middle schools and the day-to-day process of realizing the Sunroom’s ambitious, community-focused mission. We also spoke about her own poetry, which includes the Epiphany Editions’ prize-winning chapbook, Manoa Makai (Epiphany Editions, 2013).

Hector Mojena: Could you tell us about your background as a poet? How did you initially conceive of the Sunroom Project?

Laurel Nakanishi: I’ve taught poetry in Montana, Hawaii, and Nicaragua, so when I came to Miami I really wanted to teach poetry here. I got my start, I guess, in Montana. They have a really established writers-in-schools program there, the Missoula Writing Collaborative. While I was working on my MFA in poetry at the University of Montana, I got involved with MWC and was just really excited with the work that was going on there in the school. I sought to bring programs like that to my home state of Hawaii, and then to Nicaragua. When I moved to Miami about a year and a half ago, I proposed what is now the Sunroom to Oh, Miami through their open call, [which] they do every year during the festival. I proposed it last year, and we did a short session in April of [2015]. [Oh, Miami Poetry Festival founder P. Scott Cunningham] and [Operations Manager Melody Santiago Cummings] really loved it. They had been looking to do a more sustained relationship with the schools here, and so that’s how Sunroom’s school projects began. Last fall, we expanded it to another school, so now we are in Orchard Villa Elementary and Poinciana Park Elementary, both in Liberty City. We set up this model where we work with students when they’re in third grade and then follow them to fourth grade. So we work with them for two years of their schooling. It’s been really great.

One of the things that I find most fascinating about the Sunroom is the focus on inner-city schools and detention centers as spaces for teaching poetry. Obviously, there is some precedence here, with examples like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe that have historically provided a forum for minority voices in literature and art. I’m wondering how the Sunroom builds upon the legacies of minority-driven workshops like NPC. Has your work with the Sunroom significantly altered your own thoughts about poetic writing?

Part of what we’re trying to do with the Sunroom is exactly that: help give these [students] the opportunity and the space to express themselves and tell their story. That happens not only in the workshops, but (because Oh, Miami is so awesome at thinking about poetry outside the institution) we’re now using the students’ work in the festival itself. We’re not just helping kids write poetry. By placing the students’ poems in the festival projects, we are saying that theirs is an essential voice we need in Miami. Everybody needs to be hearing these stories and so that’s one of the reasons we feature [their work] in the Poems in the Sky project, on broadsides, and in various other projects. It’s something Miami needs.

That relates to my own work as a poet because I am really interested in broadening my point of view. This is something that I really found working on my latest manuscript. I got a Fulbright to Nicaragua to write a book, and when I went there I was really interested in the lines between my culture and other cultures and also the places where they cross over. So, [I was fascinated by] the borders I carry within myself and the ways they play out and become blurry. That’s part of my work in general, and it’s fun to work with these kids. I feel like they’re always stretching me and broadening me and helping me see some other points of view.

The mission of Sunroom echoes Oh, Miami’s emphasis on exposing as many people as possible to poetry over the course of one month. What’s so great about this project as well is how these students have the opportunity to publish their work for a larger audience and give voice to their own communities. How do you think projects like the Sunroom and Oh, Miami foster a community-driven approach to poetry?

It’s a joy to work with them. I come home after school, and I’m exhausted but also exhilarated. Also, what they write is really exciting and fresh. These kids are still really new to English. They haven’t been drilled as to what a poem is and by that kind of rhetoric of, “this is a poem, these are all the parts of a poem.” That’s really exhilarating to me.

I think that speaks more to Oh, Miami’s other work, how they approach different communities to create poetry. The Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, visits communities to work on large collaborative poems. And he actually visited one of our schools, and the kids were part of that, which was very exciting. What we’re doing in the Sunroom still focuses on the individual kids writing poems. Of course, they’re still writing in a group. We’re working together to foster that voice and listen to each other’s poems and comment on them. It goes to the heart of what we want to do. So much of the way our academic world is built is that knowledge rests in one person, the authority of the specialist. You’re a specialist poet and you’ve been published a lot. That’s where authority lies. But we want to open up the conversation so that it includes a lot more people. At the basis of that is that we see poetry as really important for everybody, and not just a small group of people who are in a position in their lives where they can make that their center in an MFA program or in academia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in an MFA program, and they’re great [laughs]. What we’re looking at here, especially in the Sunroom, is opening up that conversation and involving these kids because we think their voices are important as well.

How are the students’ poems assembled for publication?

It’s funny. Just when you called I was typing up some poems. There are a couple of levels of publication in the Sunroom. The first is that we make a chapbook after every semester of each kid’s work. Throughout the semester, after every class I go through and pick what we call the “star poet of the week.” The star poet’s poem gets framed and placed in the classroom. It’s a very coveted position at this point. So as this semester continues, I try to find those poems that really stand out because of originality of voice, a really stellar image, that show they’re taking the prompt and running with it in really interesting ways. And each kid has their personal best. Some of the kids I just wait for: “Next week is going to be the poem!” And some kids produce amazing poems week after week. We do a community reading at the end of each semester, give the kids a chapbook, and have a pizza party.