JFK Student, Zoe Leonard, Named 2022-2023 Riverside County Teen Poet Laureate

Meet Zoe Leonard, 2022-2023 Riverside County Teen Poet Laureate

ZoeZoe Leonard remembers the first time writing a poem as a 2nd grade student in the classroom of Mr. Prather at Foothill Elementary School in the Corona-Norco Unified School District. 

Mr. Prather taught his students about all different forms of poetry like haikus, free-verse poems, and rhymes. Consequently, it came as no surprise that when he also provided blank notebooks for students to write in once they finished their work, Zoe began an exploration of creative expression.

“I think Mr. Prather was just trying to stop us from running around the classroom,” Zoe said. “But, I remember my first poem was about a tree that had hair, and a face, and I drew a picture to go with it.”

More than a decade later, now an 18-year old student a John F. Kennedy Middle College High School in the Corona-Norco Unified School District, Zoe’s love of the poetic form of expression has led to the honor of being named as the 2022-2023 Riverside County Teen Poet Laureate.

When Zoe transferred to another school, making friends was a struggle.

“One thing I did to keep occupied, was to take my notebook from class and write poems during lunch,” Zoe said. “Even in middle school, I took a creative writing class and got into Shakespeare. I loved the structure and how the words that he wrote flowed from one into another.”

Zoe first heard about the Teen Poet Laureate program during junior year when a teacher, Ms. Ellis, encouraged students to submit their work by posting the event flyer in Google classroom. Zoe was a finalist that year in 2021, and submitted additional poems for consideration for the 2022 competition.

“Our school has an hour-long lunch period,” Zoe said. “I had a lot more time to write because it can get really boring, really quickly if you don’t have something to do.”

Life as a Teen Poet

“My most interesting topic to write about is people. I love any medium that is a study of characters, and how people interact with each other and the world.”

As Zoe matured, so did the writing skills that began to appear more experimental—deviating from established conventions of order in words and sentences.

“I like to use words that play with time and space—to explore concepts like the world itself,” Zoe said. “I like trying to understand the connections between people and the world.”

One of Zoe’s literary adventures includes serving as an editor for Dear Asian Youth, a youth-led, global organization that promotes intersectional activism, solidarity with other marginalized communities, and equality and equity. Zoe reviews poetry submissions, helps edit Instagram posts, and has been published in their print magazine and website.

Zoe has a message to teens who can only see poetry as boring, old, or inaccessible for these modern times.

“I understand not being interested in poetry. In schools, you tend to read about the old poetry and it’s often about topics that you can’t necessarily relate to at our age,” Zoe said. "We read a lot of Robert Frost, and, I can understand why some people read his poems and wonder why he is talking about two roads that are diverging.”

Zoe’s belief is that anyone can write poetry, and that it can be newer and more interesting. 

“It can be in many different forms because there’s no set algorithm,” Zoe said. “It’s limitless, and doesn’t have to be Robert Frost.”

A Backpack Full of Poetry

“The world is limitless. There are so many things I want to do, but, more than anything, I just want to live. I want to live, not just survive. There is a difference.”

For Zoe, the necessary artistic trial and error, stops and starts of creative expression, and the imaginative surges of ideas, oftentimes end up as half-finished prose that gets stuffed into a backpack in the closet.

“I have so many poems stuffed in the bottom of old backpacks, dozens of them, and I know some of them are bad,” Zoe shared. “Occasionally, I go and grab them out of there and start working on them again. But, I am getting tired of having to dig them out of my backpack, so I have an ongoing Google Doc going now.”

Now, Zoe tries to write things down as soon as possible—whenever, and wherever she can find a place to record the creative bursts.

“I have all these school notebooks and workbooks, and in the margins, there are random ideas and thoughts that actually have nothing to do with the textbooks,” Zoe admitted.

American Dreaming

“I like to keep the reasons behind why I write what I write a secret. One reason poetry is special, is that it has a meaning that’s different for everyone. A person might think it is about something different than how I wrote it.”

The theme behind Zoe’s poem, American Dreaming, may have roots in a lesson from English Language Arts class, but it sprung to life from stories of Zoe’s mother’s family who came to America in search of their own dreams, and were relocated into internment camps during World War II.

“During a unit on the “American Dream”, I heard a bunch of similar stories of families promised something or believing in something,” Zoe said. “They got here and found that the dream was almost lost in translation.”

Crafted over multiple lunch break poetry sessions, Zoe’s poem is artfully crafted to engage the reader with the intentionally-positioned layout of the words in each stanza.

“I tried to make poem visually parallel by lining up the end of each stanza to be parallel with each other to show the idea of cycles of generational problems because it wasn’t just one family being let down in this way,” Zoe said. “It was many families. Many generations. Many years.”

The narrative arc of the poem started with Zoe writing about the concept of falling, but it morphed into the idea of how something falls in the first place—that it must be elevated in some sense before it can fall at all.

“The poem starts with how you can be up in your dreams, full of promise, but the falling happens over time,” Zoe said.

At the Teen Poet Laureate awards ceremony, an original art depiction of American Dreaming created by Pablo Damas was presented to Zoe.

“It is such a beautiful artistic representation of the poem, and I love how different people interpret poetry differently,” Zoe said. “It was interesting to see how they interpreted my poem, but converted it into a visual.”

Teen Poet Laureate and Beyond

“Some people say ‘Zoe, you’re so talented, I could never write like that.’ But, my answer is that poetry and writing are for everyone. You don’t need to buy paint or expensive paintbrushes or pencils to create. It’s for everyone. Anyone can write poetry.”

Over the next year as Riverside County’s Teen Poet Laureate, Zoe will give presentations to students, educators, and the community. Zoe’s work, and that of all 24 finalists in the 2022-2023 Teen Poet Laureate competition, is featured in a new chapbook published by the Inlandia Institute and the Riverside County Office of Education, and is available for checking out at all branches of the Riverside County Public Library System and the school libraries of each finalist.

“When I was younger, I struggled with communicating with people. I believe there is a connection between everyone, but it seemed tenuous or weak for me. Being able to express myself through writing helps me strengthen that connection between me and other people.”

Zoe Leonard, Riverside County 2022-2023 Teen Poet Laureate