Sasha Temerte (17) writes poetry about love, mental health, and politics. Her first book, Peace and Other Radical Ideas, is set for release in September. You can find her on Instagram, @ironandwords, or on her YouTube channel.
is her freshman biology class,
when the boy sitting next to her
slides his hand onto her thigh
because he knows she shouldn’t interrupt the lecture—
is the black man driving a car
five miles slower than everybody else,
when he gets pulled over for speeding,
and the cop searches his car to find nothing—
is the hijab she wore
on an otherwise pale beach,
when a shrill boy ran past
to yank the clothes from her head—
are something you only learn
when you become the one left
A Conversation between Sasha Temerte and Courtney Felle
1. Hi, Sasha! Congratulations on the upcoming publication of your book, Peace and Other Radical Ideas. Can you give us a short synopsis of what the collection is about?
Yes! The purpose of my book is to promote peace, equality, understanding, and change. The book is divided into eight chapters: “The Rook” covers privilege, “The Knight” critiques violence, “The Queen” is an ode to women, “The King” contrasts politicians and leaders, “The Bishop” is in honor of love and understanding, “The Pawns” is dedicated to the people, “The Game” identifies problems in society, and “The Chessboard” is written for the world. A wide variety of social issues are covered, ranging anywhere from poverty and the education system to climate change and beauty expectations.
2. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, radical means “advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social change; representing or supporting an extreme or progressive section of a political party.” However, it can also mean “relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.” Does the kind of political change your book advocates—platforms like feminism, pacifism, and gun reform—require a fundamental overturning of what our society is based upon?
The concept behind the book’s title is based on irony—peace itself is not a radical idea. It’s not difficult to be tolerant of humanity’s differences and coexist without war. But when “world peace” is mentioned, the reaction suggests that popular belief is that attempting peace is insanity. So to answer the question—no, I don’t believe feminism, pacifism, or gun reform fundamentally overturn the basis of society. If anything, the state of our society now is the true paradox. Biologically speaking, our mission should be to support and preserve our species. The human race has unbounded intelligence, yet we direct our efforts towards destruction instead of progress. The political change I advocate for already exists to some degree. The world just needs some nudging to widely accept the remaining work that needs to be done.
3. What is the power of political poetry in effecting change, especially in the tense, sometimes violent Trump era?
The special thing about poetry is that it has the potential to bring politics to the people. You can know every statistic about gun control, but at the end of the day, it’s a number on a screen. Poetry takes that number and transforms it into a story—a story that ignites emotion in the reader. It is this emotion that complements logic to inspire movements and push people to fight for change.
4. The spoken word poems on your YouTube channel, “The Female Future” and “This is Not a Drill,” are powerful rallying cries for teen activists. What does spoken word allow that written poetry does not, especially in regards to political topics?
Spoken word conveys a sense of urgency and overpowering hurt, trauma, or love that reading words on a page does not. It’s one thing to read a poem in your mind; it’s another thing to hear a shaking voice and see pain in the poet’s eyes. It’s this intrinsically human emotion that connects the listener to the poet and drives the message home by touching the viewer’s heart.
5. In addition to politics, much of your writing focuses on mental health and recovery. Is there a link between the two, something inherently political about depression or self-love?
One connection that could be made is the systematic pressures that society places on people along with the ever-present consumer culture. Think about it: the entire basis of capitalism is to sell products by making you feel that something is missing—that you aren’t complete without it. Then there are the expectations to act and look a certain way. Some of these expectations breed the feeling of inadequacy, especially in such a digital world where everyone is scrambling to find meaning in life. The following is a quote I once saw that speaks to this idea: “In a world that profits from your self-doubt, loving yourself is a rebellious act.”
6. Do you see writing about mental health as a literal act of healing itself, a method of moving through trauma and helping others do the same?
Yes, writing about mental health provides a form of catharsis. Not only does it provide an outlet to release your own emotions and create art, but it also provides comfort for others. It shows that others are fighting similar battles—that you are not alone. By the same token, the mental health poetry I like to write involves hope. I’ve produced a lot of poems urging those struggling with anxiety or depression to stay alive.
7. I’ve seen some of your readers describe your work as “Instagram poetry” because of its brevity, clarity, and content style. Do you see your writing as fitting under this label? How do you interpret the discussion surrounding “Instagram poetry” and its value?
Instagram provides a platform for more people to read poetry, and I don’t believe anyone’s words should be devalued just because they are posted on social media. That said, I do not agree with the use of Instagram for the sole purpose of generating money based on a formula of words that sell. Because of a few accounts that do just that, Instagram poetry receives a bad reputation. I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with brevity—many of the short pieces I post tend to be excerpts of longer ones. There’s just a balance that needs to be struck between capturing attention and creating meaningful work.
8. You’ve undertaken several projects on your Instagram meant to give other writers a larger platform: hosting contests, collaborating on giveaways, publishing others’ work in your Empowerment & Awareness series. How important is it to amplify the voices of other writers? How can poets help support and uplift other poets like you’ve been doing?
It’s invaluable. The reason I still write is because I’ve had teachers pushing me, fellow writers supporting me, and successful authors inspiring me. If I didn’t have this community, I wouldn’t be where I am today. With these projects, I hope to ignite a spark in someone to write about their passions or beliefs too. The best way writers can do this is by working together to expose smaller/beginner writers’ work and encouraging each other to overcome doubts, stay true to their words, and keep creating poetry. I like to believe everybody is a poet, and a poem is good if it’s meaningful to the person who wrote it. Because of this, it’s important to inspire someone who doesn’t typically write to try their hand at poetry—they could stumble upon something beautiful.
9. What does it mean to you to be a vocal, politically active teen in the world right now, to write as freely as you do?
It’s a privilege that comes with a lot of responsibility. Teens receive a lot of backlash from adults for being outspoken, and in the current political atmosphere, it’s also difficult to appeal to everyone. No matter how positive your intentions may be, there is always somebody who will find a flaw in your message. But I wouldn’t trade these challenges for silence. I’m so grateful that the young have the opportunity to become politically engaged, more so than ever before.
10. If you could travel back in time and give your childhood self one piece of advice about writing, what would it be?
Write. Write. Write. No matter how bad it is—the persistence of writing is key to improvement, and you’re bound to find gems between weaker works. It’s so difficult to find time to write in the hustle-bustle of life balancing extracurriculars and AP classes, and the adult world is no different. So turn habitual writing into a routine early on, and you’re bound to grow as a person and author.
11. What are your plans for the future, in writing and in life?
This is subject to change once I enter college and learn more about different majors, but my current plan is to double major in math/statistics and business with a minor in creative writing. I would like to work as an actuary for some period of time before returning to grad school for an MBA. This is because beyond poetry, I’m extremely passionate about STEM and leadership. The idea is that I’m a mathematician/businesswoman by day and poet by night. I plan to publish several more poetry books on mental health, love, and general philosophical thoughts before possibly working on a prose novel. In the meantime, I’d like to continue pursuing creative ventures. I hope to be in a place in life where I’m happy, loved, traveling the world, and making a difference.