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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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‘A reflection of my life story’: Local teen poet inspires with performances, new novel

Yohanna Endashaw, a junior at Niles West High School, performs at the annual Poetry Out Loud competition.
Photo courtesy of Yohanna Endashaw
Yohanna Endashaw, a junior at Niles West High School, performs at the annual Poetry Out Loud competition.

When 17-year-old Yohanna Endashaw took the stage in March at the Poetry Out Loud State Finals in Springfield, she said she felt herself transcend into a “vessel for the poems.”

“I like to allow the nerves to actually fuel me on stage and make my emotions more intense,” Endashaw said. “I remember at the last words of the poems, my hand was literally shaking with all the energy.”

The Niles West High School junior has competed twice in the annual Poetry Out Loud competition at her school, where each student selects a few poems to interpret and recite. Both years, she took first place. 

Endashaw not only won the state finals this year, but she also advanced to the national finals in Washington D.C. 

From performing in competitions to writing her own poetry, Sally Graham, an English teacher at Niles West, said Endashaw has always remained committed to her craft.

“She took a lot of time to practice,” Graham said. “During her free period or during homeroom, we would go to the auditorium when no one else was in there. She would work at every single line to craft her interpretation, making the poem magically come together.”

Endashaw said she felt an affinity for performance poetry from a young age. She performed in her first poetry slam in fourth grade, and continued to participate in recitations over the following years.

During high school, she juggled poetry while playing for the school basketball and volleyball teams. She also set aside time to pursue her career passion for neuroscience by founding a research club for future health professionals on campus.

But it was the pandemic, she said, that allowed her to focus more of her time on poetry.

“I really dove into it during the pandemic as an emotional outlet and a way to process things going through at the time and throughout the pandemic,” Endashaw said. 

While she has primarily focused on poetry performances, Endashaw is also a newly published author. Her debut novel, “Maturing in Free Verse,” was published in September after almost a year’s effort. 

The novel contains dozens of her free verse poems split into three categories: her childhood, memories of growing up and current social issues that are important to her.

Kelly Wingo, a junior at Niles West who has grown up with Endashaw, said the first time she saw her perform a poem in class, she was blown away by Endashaw’s “ability to captivate an audience.” Reading Endashaw’s book felt reminiscent of that moment too, Wingo said.

“These are poems from her childhood and going into adulthood, and I recognized some of the poems,” Wingo said. “It really just captured the raw emotions and feelings of being a teenager and growing up. There’s really no better way for her to capture that than with free verse.” 

Endashaw said it is important for her to find poetry that resonates with her readers. Many of the verses reflect the stories of her mother, the pressures of becoming a second generation student and the American dream.

“It’s sort of a reflection of my life story,” she said.

Email: [email protected]  

Twitter: @Jerrwu

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