Marjorie Cenese, an engineering student at ODU, performs during the World Culture Festival Curtain Raiser in October.
Marjorie Cenese, an engineering student at ODU, performs during the World Culture Festival Curtain Raiser in October.

By Sherry DiBari

Marjorie Cenese was in the sixth grade when she first heard “The Ballad of Sadie LaBabe” by Tim Seibles, a now-retired Old Dominion University English professor and former poet laureate of Virginia. “When I read that poem and I heard it in spoken word and the way the imagery in the story carried out, I knew I wanted to do something like that,” she said.

Today, Cenese, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering, spends her free time – when she’s not participating in multiple student engineering organizations – as a Hampton Roads Youth Poet Laureate (HR-YPL) Ambassador, a joint program of Teens with a Purpose and Hampton Roads Youth Poets. The program works in partnership with Urban Word and is supported by PEN Center USA and the Academy of American Poets.

As an ambassador, Cenese reads, writes and performs poetry in cities all over the region. The HR-YPL program appoints artists under age 20 who are “committed to civic/community engagement, poetry and performance, leadership and education” to serve as role models within the community.

Cenese’s poetry reflects her experiences growing up in Norfolk, in her community and as a second-generation Filipino American.

“I feel like there is a disconnect between the first generation and second generation, because half of Filipinos don't pass down the language to their children,” she said. “If you compare that with other Asians, they pass the language down and it becomes part of their culture. Losing that sense of communication method already leads to a disconnect.”

Her poem “I Was Robbed” addresses that loss.

Cenese didn’t come to poetry naturally. Her father is an engineer, and her mother was a dentist. “My parents did the stereotypical push towards STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and the need to be an engineer, lawyer or doctor,” she said.

It was her brother, Jefferson, an ODU electrical engineering alumnus, who originally showed her Seibles’ poem. “He’s my number one hype man,” she said. “He always supports me and reads through my poems and gives me advice. He understands.”

In high school, Cenese knew she would be a STEM major. “I did really good at math and science,” she said. “But I also found out that I'm good at writing, and writing poetry. Becoming the YPL Ambassador helped me realize that I can be an engineer that writes poetry. But I can't do engineering with a poetry degree.”

“It also helps me with my own mission with finding out about myself and to help other people speak their truth, regardless of what major they are,” she said. “I want to be the example that you don't have to be an English major in order to write poetry to be able to share your truth.”

Today, she is inspiring others to find those connections. At a recent FuseFest, Cenese was approached by a middle school-aged girl who had heard her Granby High School valedictorian speech “Remember Us.” The fiery speech, performed in spoken word poetry, urged people not to forget the students of the pandemic.

“She came up to me and said, ‘I was really interested in poetry, but seeing your poem on video, and then seeing you repeat that poem at this festival, it just gives me hope,’” Cenese said. “I was like, why are you talking to me? I'm just a 19-year-old.”

“Moments like that fuel me to want to share my truth and encourage others. I might not have the same story as you, but you have your own truth, and you need to share that with others,” she said.

Cenese’s time as teen ambassador ended March 6, but she said it won’t stop her from writing poetry.

“My goal in terms of poetry is to keep writing, but also to help people within the community learn more about poetry, or even just speak their truth,” she said.

Learn more about Cenese’s poetry here.