7 questions with DC's Youth Poet Laureate—and Ada Limón superfan—Sophia Hall

Milkweed Staff — 08/15/2023

On Thursday, September 29 of 2023, Ada Limón was inaugurated as the 24th U.S. Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. Milkweed Editions was represented there by CEO & Publisher Daniel Slager, and as luck would have it, he would soon learn he was standing in the room amidst another future poet laureate who had dedicated her life to showcasing the power of the written—and spoken—word. Enter seventeen-year-old Sophia Hall, a devoted fan of Ada’s, brought to the ceremony by her mother for a chance to experience the magic of the new poet laureate’s charismatic-yet-commanding voice. By chance, the pair would meet Slager just before the ceremony began, and would stay in touch in the months to come, long enough for Slager to witness firsthand how Milkweed Editions’ literature has literally and figuratively worked to transform the life and career path of an up-and-coming young poet determined to change the world.


Sophia Hall represents her hometown, Washington DC, as the 2023 Youth Poet Laureate. She was recently selected to represent DC as a 2023 Presidential Scholar by President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, and her writing has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Library of Congress, Button Poetry, and several other organizations. Her poem “Multiple Choice,” won grand prize in the Sixteen River Press’s Youth Poetry Contest and was subsequently nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In 2022, she won the Smith College Poetry Prize for High School Girls, selected by Leila Chatti. Sophia is also the Art and Social Justice Fellow at Strathmore and Woolly Mammoth Theater. She will be teaching a workshop at Politics and Prose later this month about the power of response poetry, and she will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, where she was recruited for creative writing.

Milkweed Staff (MS): You were recently selected as the Youth Poet Laureate of Washington, DC—congratulations! How did you feel when you first heard the news, and what does it mean to you to be a younger person holding such an esteemed role?

Sophia Hall (SH): When I first found out, I was in shock. I submitted six poems and later received an email notifying me that I was a finalist. When I completed the follow-up interview, I was asked specifically how I would use my poetry to engage with the community. Now, I’m honored to be representing and giving back to my hometown of seventeen years. I’ve performed at the Kennedy Center and taught workshops at the DC Public Libraries–– both institutions that have taught me the value of the arts and have transformed me into the thoughtful, engaged, and creative person I am today. The platform has also given a sense of legitimacy in my work. I’ve often been the youngest person in workshops, but poets can come from all ages. I hope to show people that you can write brilliant poetry at age ninety or age nine. That’s why it’s so important to ensure my poetry and the workshops I offer are inclusive and accessible.

MS: How old were you when you first began reading and writing poetry?

SH: When I was in first grade, I was given the assignment to find and share a poem with the class. I remember spending a whole afternoon after school reading a book of Shel Silverstein’s poems and picking the perfect one to read aloud, and I’d come to write my first poem a year later. At school, my classmates and I planted a cherry blossom tree and were encouraged to write haiku about the blossoms. Then, I wrote another poem about gratitude, which is a major theme in my life and work. It came full circle this year when I wrote the poem “Ode to Gratitude,” a more evolved form of that childhood poem.

One thing I can’t stress enough is: children’s books—especially poetry books for kids—are so important. It’s crucial to learn from a young age about the power of language and the critical process of self expression, and to have the process of learning about it be fun.

MS: Walk us through your creation process—do poems begin for you as images, sounds, sentences, or some combination of the three?

SH: I think my writing process can be somewhat unorthodox. A poem can be rattling around in my brain all day, and I’ll have no idea how to even start writing it. The method I’ve developed to help unlock poetry is to sit with a blank page and try to come up with a list of images and words that evoke whatever feeling I’m trying to convey. These first drafts can end up looking a lot like prose poems or even flash fiction. Once I have all the words down, I begin to distill the poem down to its most essential elements, and then after the poem has been refined, I let it sit and breathe on its own. I may decide to submit it to contests or perform it at readings, but I rarely alter a poem once it’s complete.

MS: According to your website, you create work across more than just forms and genres, but across mediums, too. Is there an overlap between your poetry, plays, flash fiction, and visual art? Does each form require a different element of creativity or do you pull from the same inspirational well across forms?

SH: I feel like I have so much creativity and inspiration, and the beauty and challenge of my artistry is finding the form that works best for each story. The forms I play with are dance, film, painting, drawing, and, of course, spoken and written word. If I want a piece to be more community-focused, I’ll write a play, or consider choreographing a dance to a poem. Poetry is still such an essential form for me, though, even when I create in different forms. Economical language, imagery, symbolism––all defining aspects of poetry––create powerful writing that transcend genre. My plays, flash fiction, memoir, film, and paintings (which I first developed with the Marchutz School of Painting and Drawing), are all still rooted in poetry.

MS: What impact has poetry—and art in general—had for you in your life, and what impact do you hope to create with your poems in the lives of others?

SH: Poetry is the most powerful agent of change because it has the power to not only touch the heart but also change the mind. It can capture moments—small snapshots—but it can also encapsulate a whole lifetime.

For me, poetry is a way of life. The practice of reading and writing poetry is an act of mindfulness. It’s an inhalation and exhalation. Poetry is all around us, in the air, the ground, the water. It’s something we can become attuned to. This ability to string words together in unique and insightful ways has yielded so many opportunities for me to connect with people. It’s also an opportunity to return to gratitude, to reflect on all the good and the bad in life, and think: Wow, I’m still here. I’m still alive, and I’m so grateful.

I want my art to help others feel seen. During my Art and Social Justice Fellowship at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Strathmore Arts Center last year, I developed my first collection of poetry, and I also wrote and produced a play for the stage. Since then another one-act play has been produced off-broadway at the Tank Theatre. I’m also the current EIC of Turning the Page, Writopia Lab’s social justice literary committee which hosts nation-wide roundtables with other teens discussing important issues such as mental health, climate change, racial justice, immigrant justice, and autonomy. We publish annual anthologies and just released our 2023 anthology “We the Free” about both bodily autonomy and the autonomy of sovereign countries.

MS: Who—or what—are some of your biggest creative influences?

SH: One of my biggest influences is definitely my mom. She’s the first person who believed in my ability as a poet, and she always encourages me to take workshops and continue writing. I write all of my poems for her—I’m grateful to have a gift that allows her to have an emotional response to art, to read poems that resonate with her and make her feel seen.

[From a craft perspective] my other main influences include the poets Ellen Bass, Richard Blanco, Dorianne Laux, Linda Pastan, and Marie Howe. And most of all, Ada Limón, who is published by Milkweed Editions. Another Milkweed author I love is Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass. I recently went on a backpacking expedition in the Rockies with the High Mountain Institute, where I learned more about the environment and climate change through reading her essays. Her words encouraged me to think about how my own writing can discuss larger issues in order to affect social change.

MS: Tell us more about the special affinity you have for the poetry of our 24th U.S. Poet Laureate, Ada Limón. You were moved to write a poem called “MULTIPLE CHOICE” which is a response to her poem, “A New National Anthem,” and you’ll be teaching a workshop for Politics and Prose which uses The Carrying as a central text. How has Ada’s poetry in particular enriched and informed your trajectory as an emerging artist?

SH: Ada’s poetry has served as the launching pad for my career as a poet. In 2021, I discovered a contest run by Sixteen Rivers Press, that allowed me to receive their anthology, “America, We Call Your Name,” filled with some 200 poems responding to social issues from the lens of resilience and resistance, and to submit a response poem to one of them. I read the book cover to cover searching for a poem that spoke to me, and I felt myself particularly drawn to Ada’s poem, “A New National Anthem.” Its opening line, “The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National / Anthem” is so brave and direct. I love that her poetry always reveals private truth. So I wrote the poem, “Multiple Choice” in response, where I explored the question, What even is the national anthem? The final lines of my poem, “eat more / there is plenty / to share here” center themselves around an idea of plentitude rather than scarcity. After submitting my poem, it went on to receive the grand prize and was published in a chapbook whose name is derived from my winning poem, Anthems.

From that experience, I developed the “Anthems Youth Poetry Project” that solicited response poems from other teens across the country to develop into another anthology. One poet even responded to “Multiple Choice!” So these anthologies, inspired by Ada’s poem, ultimately created a lineage of response poetry reflecting on how the current National Anthem isn’t truly representative of Americans as a people. And more than simply being moved to create their own poems, they were also moved to create their own anthems.

Ada’s accomplishments have made me so grateful to see real examples of how much poetry can be valued and seen. This year, I was selected as a 2023 U.S. Presidential Scholar by President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden. I plan to use my role to promote joy, literacy, and love of learning to encourage future scholars of all backgrounds, and in my upcoming Politics and Prose workshop, I hope to continue promoting the experience Ada’s poetry has had on me. The question for me is no longer What is the national anthem, but What is your anthem? I want to encourage people to think of the things that make up the composition of their soul, that compel them to stomp their feet and raise their voice, and to put them in a poem. There’s your anthem.

Washington, DC’s Youth Poet Laureate Sophia Hall with 24th U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón.