Clark County Poet Laureate Armin Tolentino

Armin Tolentino is perched on a stool at the front of the classroom, feet bouncing. His long ponytail reveals an undercut, and he’s wearing a black graphic tee; it’s more likely you’d think he is a student than Clark County’s poet laureate. But Armin Tolentino is here to break some molds, to show Ridgefield High School students that poetry is more than just Shakespeare and Wordsworth, it’s living and current, relevant and real.

Tolentino is a bright spark in Brittany Rodin and Jamie Heim’s English class, striding around the classroom with enthusiasm, gesturing as he moves. He fires a few quick questions at the students: Do you like donuts better than cupcakes? McDonalds better than Burger King? Pizza better than burgers? Students smile as hands shoot up for each question.

Then he asks them to write down answers to a few questions about themselves. What are five things I need to do today? Five things that bring me joy? Five things I remember? “These are the building blocks of poems,” Tolentino said, “and the hardest part is getting the words on paper.” This exercise will become part of a free write, demonstrating how students can find power and poetry even in everyday moments.

“Creating art is cool!” Tolentino exclaims. He shares some work from his own high school journal, a time when he said he felt out of place and scared. “My feelings needed a place to go.” He taps the journal. “Just like anything else that calms you down—like sleep or listening to music or physical activity—creating art can make you feel better. It’s how you get back to yourself.” Students nod in agreement.

“So why poetry specifically?” he asks. Tolentino is a professional poet, with numerous publications and recognitions in addition to being poet laureate, but the reasons he offers are simple and accessible. “Poetry is inexpensive. You could write an entire poem in a day if you tried—and you probably couldn’t write an entire novel or a movie, right? You already have the basic building blocks of language, so that part is easy. And you never master it. There’s always something more to learn.”

He has the students take turns reading lines from a poem by Vievee Francis titled “Sugar and Brine: Ella’s Understanding.” 

“Poetry is an oral tradition,” he says. “It’s the oldest literature we have as a species.” When the students finish the poem, he guides them through breaking it down, understanding the relationships and actions of the characters, then linking that to their images and emotions. It’s a masterclass in building connections, in finding the meaning written or implied in every word.

Tolentino visited the classroom as part of Ridgefield Youth Arts Month to provide students with an opportunity to work with a professional writer. Tolentino’s vibrant energy is contagious as he works to remove barriers to people creating art. 

“Even our oldest ancestors took the time to create paint made from minerals so they could draw on the cave walls while tigers roared outside.” Tolentino gives the students a broad smile. “It should be easier for you without the tigers.”