Student Spotlight: Sarah Inouye

Sarah InouyeSarah Inouye and I met to discuss her passion for the environment, her involvement with River of Words, and her poem Atlas. We met at her local library, a big and inviting building in Orinda, California. It was easy to spot Sarah, who was carrying her backpack and a canvas bag full of library books for her grandmother.

Meet Sarah:

Q: What is your current age?

Sarah: I am 16.


Q: And how does it feel to be a 16-year-old poet?

S: I feel like I’m at such a point of growing up at sixteen. I’m just trying to think about college, trying to get my driver’s license, and it just felt like a very sudden change. It’s been great, just stressful and new.


Q: Tell me a little bit about how you got into writing.

S: I feel like it’s a lot of different things. What I’ve always felt is that a key part of being a writer is reading a lot, and I think I did get that from my grandmother. I was read to through my whole childhood and I just love books. I think that getting writers voices in your head will very much spark this need in you to create things. I’d say that’s the biggest reason.


Q: I assumed you only wrote poetry, but now I suspect you might write prose too. Do you?

S: I mostly write prose, actually.


Q: Oh, really?

S: Yes, poetry is a newer thing that I started at my art school. There are mostly poets around me, so hearing them read is really getting that voice in my head. Poetry is really new to me. I’ve been doing it for about three years.


Q: What is your writing process like? How do you go about writing a poem?

S: I feel like I am an environmental poet because it’s always been about being outside, about having experiences with nature, and I feel like that’s where my poetry comes from and is always coming from.


Q: So your writing process involves reading and spending time in nature. What is your favorite place to write? Do you write at home? Do you write on paper or a computer?

S: I write for three hours a day at school, as part of my emphasis. Most of the time I’m in a classroom environment when I write. But I’d say that yes, I prefer to be more of a solitary writer. I mostly write poetry with a notebook, and I write prose with a computer.


Q: What do you enjoy the most about writing?

S: I feel like it’s sort of cathartic. It’s like a release for me. I think things do get built up and writing feels like sort of clearing out toxins. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it just puts me at ease to put ideas out in the world, for myself and for other people.

Atlas by Sarah Inouye


Q: Your poem Atlas was the Category IV winner of the River of Words Contest. You open the poem by inviting the reader to learn about a less commonly used meaning of the word “atlas.” What influence did the word Atlas have in the creation of the poem?

S: A lot of my reading and my writing growing up were based on Greek mythology, and there’s a figure in Greek mythology named Atlas and he holds the world. It’s really interesting because the top of the spine is called the atlas and it holds the head, which is like the world. I don’t remember exactly how I found out about it, but I’ve always been fascinated with Greek mythology and anatomy and the body. These things really go into my poems a lot, and it went into Atlas too. So it’s just interest in Greek mythology, honestly.


Q: One of my favorite lines is “I am the love of my life.To me, it speaks about self-love but has a strong environmentalist ring to it as well. Can you talk about what that means?

S: I think that, as cheesy as it sounds, I feel like people are very much connected to the world and it feels important for us to take care of the earth and ourselves. That line is supposed to have an environmentalist ring. It’s just so crucial that we keep the earth safe because it’s all we have. It just seems important to not have the earth be like a solitary thing, to also make it very clear that the earth is something we rely on and need. Putting the two together was important to me.  


Q: How did you find out about River of Words?

S: It’s been really hard for me in the past to get my work out there. Because it does feel private and because writing is so solitary, it’s really frightening to have these personal things come out. The more that I write, the more crucial it seems to talk to people about writing and to not hide. It’s really hard to share your work, so I was looking through contests and other things and it just came up. I write about the environment so it seemed only right that if I was going to put myself out there, it was going to be for an environmentalist cause. It’s something I care about a lot, something it’s worthwhile to talk to people about, and especially at this time.


Q: What role has River of Words played in your life? Has it fulfilled that need to talk to people and share?

S: It’s such a privilege to read for people and have people actually want to hear what I want to say. Now I have been invited to a few readings, and I’m talking to you right now, and it’s just been a means of communicating how I feel about the environment. Talking about it and sharing my workit’s been so special, and River of Words definitely let me do that.


Q: I heard you read, and I got goosebumps because it was really powerful. Tell us about your first reading experience.

S: It’s been a long time coming. For school, we read every Friday, just among our peers. We had to learn to feel comfortable. When I originally got into my art school, I would cry before readings. It’s taken a long time to be able to get up there and be like,You know what, I can do this and it’s ok.” So, yes, definitely nervous at first but I eased into it a little bit. 


Q: Here at River of Words, we talk a lot about Watersheds: about getting to know them, observing them, and conserving them. What does the word watershed mean to you?

So, my absolute favorite place in this world is Point Reyes, California. It has Tomales Bay and all the beaches, and it’s this area with wildlife and trees and water. I just love it there. I almost feel like, how could you not? It’s just so beautiful. I feel like anywhere where there’s water is really powerful. I don’t know. I guess I just feel safe there in a weird way.


Q: We call someone who explores their watershed and the environment they live in a Watershed Explorer. Do you consider yourself a watershed explorer? Why?

S: I wish I could do it more. I would like to say that I am, and I feel like I am, but I spend all my time in Oakland, really, and the times I do go out and spend time with the water, I don’t feel like it’s enough. But I’d like to say so.


Q: What is some advice you’d give another young person about writing or creating art?

S: I think that for young people of color, especially at this time, it’s so important for them to be writing and to not doubt themselves. It’s so easy to be self-deprecating, to not trust in the art you do, to not trust in yourself, and to feel uncomfortable with it. I think for young people, and for young people of color, there’s a lack of representation out there, and there are other people who need your voice if you’re writing and making things. I just think that knowing that the things you have to say are important and needed is so significant. It’s easy to forget.


Q: What is your advice for a young person who wants to be more involved in taking care of their environment or get to know their local watershed?

S: I just think it’s important to recognize what a privilege clean water is, what a privilege it is to have trees and clean air. It’s just appreciating that and going out and witnessing it, and really seeing how lucky we are to have all the things we have. It’s just important. I think if you know about all that and you want to preserve it, it’s a good place to start. Then, in terms of sort of thinking about nature and what you can do, is getting involved with organizations and people. I think the first step is going out and recognizing it.


"Atlas" by Sarah Inouye

the place where the spine meets the skull

is called the atlas

did you know that the earth’s map

is a place within the hollows of your body?

you need to protect this planet’s form

as she protects yours with hers


water resurrects itself

from the underbelly of my tongue

you can be a spitfire girl

with the swell of every ocean between your teeth

you can possess every kind of ferocity and peace

this world has to offer


a tunnel of cypress trees

teaches me to speak their language

they commune in undaunted honesty

and when my voice reaches them

a single truth escapes

i am the love of my life


how could you not fall

for a body that is so similar

to that of this planet?

how could you not want to heal

a planet that is so similar

to that of your body?

Sarah Inouye, age 15

Orinda, California. United States

2018 Category IV Winner