Radiating gratefulness: state Poet Laureate

“The world will be nothing like you expected it to be

and I promise it will be something beautiful,”

— Melody Dalili

This isn’t a story about Melody Dalili. This is a story about the people who got her where she is.

Where she is, in a small, comfortably lit, dorm room on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a FaceTime interview Tuesday, May 21, is where loads of encouraging hands lovingly helped guide and bolster her — like those of Allison Comer, executive director of Muse Knoxville, and other former co-workers there; her present English professor at UNC, Nicole Berland; and Robin Thady and Robin Blanton (a.k.a. Big Sister Robin and Mother Robin), her academic coaches, among many more, who matter so much in her life.

But this story can’t revolve without orbiting Dalili.

“The community that I found here is unmatched,” she said. “I am so in debt to what these people have given me.”

In 2022, Dalili, a 2023 graduate of Farragut High School, received the prestigious title of the City of Knoxville’s inaugural Youth Poet Laureate. She recently, though, dwarfed that remarkable accomplishment, garnering the honorable distinction as Tennessee’s 2024 Youth Poet Laureate.

“I still don’t believe it,” she incredulously said. “To be the youth poet laureate representing the entire state is a big deal, you know? And I think the best part of it,” she humbly continued, “has just been .... hearing about other people’s stories, which I think is one of the biggest privileges of leadership that I had learned during the latter portion of my term as Youth Poet Laureate of Knoxville.”

Having earned first runner up for the title in 2023 and 19 years old still, the program’s cutoff age, Dalili figured, having received notice there was time left to apply, “Well, this is my last year; I may as well just do it.” So she sent in her “stuff,” as she called it, meaning her nationally-recognized, pre-eminent, poetry to the rest of us.

In the dining hall at UNC with her roommate and a suite mate the day of the youth poet laureate announcements, which she was live-streaming on her phone with bated breath over a bowl of pasta, cooled by anticipation and a hope, they watched as state recipients were honored. Finally, runners up were called for Tennessee. No mention of Dalili.

“My roommate was, like, ‘It’s you, it’s you,” she said.

Dalili laughed about how when her nerves kick in, so does a little angry streak. “I was, like, ‘Shut up, shut up. It’s not me.’”

It was her.

“And I threw my phone on to the counter,” she recalled. “I was, like, ‘No way. No way. No way.’” And her roommate, as with any good friend, attempted to incite applause from the Carolina crowd, which had no clue why. “I was literally just running around the dining hall for probably 10 minutes afterward, freaking out.”

She said of the contemplative moments leading up to the announcement, thinking, “You may not know that everything in your life is going to change after this live-stream.”

And it has.

Dalili has authored two books of poetry, “Make It Out Alive” and “Thank You For Staying.” Utilizing her merit scholarship to UNC, where she’s majoring in biology and double minoring in painting and poetry with aspirations to perhaps go to dental school, she is soaking it all in.

“I still look at life as a privilege,” she said, “and I still look at everything as a gift.”

But to Vols fans out there, she confessed with a smile, “I look better in light blue.” Redemptively, for you Volunteers, she added, “I like to believe that I get to perform my poetry with the heart of Knoxville and Chapel Hill combined.”

In closing, Dalili simply reiterated, “My goal at the end of this is illuminate the people who got me here.”