Seventeen-year-old Ella McGrail, the first New Hampshire Youth Poet Laureate, talks about the power and pain of poetry.
Ella McGrail’s reaction to being selected the first New Hampshire Youth Poet Laureate can be described as a fairly standard teenage reaction. “Oh, this is a joke,” the Portsmouth High School senior recalls in an interview about her new appointment. “Are you kidding me?”
But her tender age and surprise at the honor don’t do justice to her deep credentials in the New Hampshire writing community. She’s a published poet and youth activist who writes a blog called Civic Teen for Seacoast Online. She’s also a public speaker, and was personally selected by New Hampshire Poet Laureate Alice Fogel for the new post, which she will hold through August. Future Youth Poets Laureate will apply for the position.
Fogel says the idea behind the position was to pick a high school-aged student who has shown commitment as a creative writer and thinker, is an advocate for others, and can give a voice to the concerns of young people. “Ella is a remarkable young woman who fills all these criteria in her own unique, humble, and strong way,” says Fogel.
Given that McGrail has been writing “as long as I’ve been aware of myself” and wrote her first novel by the age of 13, she seems a good pick to provide direction for the program and give other young writers an example and role model. But her technique and work ethic could be an example for adult writers as well.
“The more you write, the better you become,” she says. “I’m largely self-taught, but I read a lot and love to read so I know how it’s supposed to sound. I write every day or at least journal every day. I carry a notebook everywhere.”
As a teenager, McGrail has strong thoughts about a writer’s life. Take writers’ block. “I’m skeptical of writer’s block; it seems like an excuse for people that just don’t feel like writing,” she says with a laugh. “I mean I love it, but you’re not going to always be in that golden stage. The rest of the time is slogging through what sounds right and that’s where the real mechanics come in.”
McGrail says her poetry—a cross between political activism and fantastical imagery—owes its style to New Hampshire. “I love living in a state where people care about big issues and defend them,” she says. “Much of my writing and definitely some of my poetry has been inspired by the passion of New Hampshirites defending their beliefs. It is also a state of incredible natural beauty. I spend most of my time on the seacoast and find a bottomless source of inspiration in both the ocean and the beauty of the Portsmouth area.”
While McGrail writes enjoys other kinds of writing, she finds poetry’s dual nature particularly alluring. “Wonderful poetry and fun poetry can be written about things that aren’t your beating heart in your hand,” she says. “But things we love and things that make us scared are likely the same things. With love comes fear. Along with something you’re deeply passionate about comes fear of having it taken from you. Pain and love can be interchangeable.”
I would have been an impressionist painting
Resting in a field, perhaps
Or looking out through a kitchen window,
Fingers curved and head tilted
As I let myself slip from the task at hand
Into church bells and distance
I would have to be an impressionist work
Because I appear so unfocused to myself
Features and convictions unclear
Truth ripples from water lily into reflection
Much better then, to be unsure
Where my hair ends and the clouds begin
Where my apron melts into grass
Checkered cloth becomes shadow
Villages fade into light and mist
Yes, emotions are best described by these unsolid brushstrokes
But it is comforting
This message in the softly painted smiles of blurred women
That I may remain beautiful
A better artwork for my uncertainty.