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  • Writer's pictureHarleen Kaur

National Youth Poet Laureate: Alexandra Huynh

Chopsticks Alley got to sit down with our nation’s New National Youth Poet Laureate (NYPL) over Zoom to hear her journey of winning the competition, her identity, and her goals as the new NYPL.

Provided by Ahmin Thornhill

Congratulations on becoming the new National Youth Poet Laureate! Can you tell us about the competition?

During my senior year of high school, I applied to become the Sacramento Youth Poet Laureate and I won the title alongside another wonderful poet. After winning that title, I was eligible to apply for the NYPL (National Youth Poet Laureate) in 2020. The process for applying included submitting an application with my resume and a poetry portfolio because when they are selecting the NYPL, they are not only looking for a young person who is committed to the art form, but also someone who is a leader in their community, which is what the resume demonstrates.

What was the journey to receiving this title like?

In January, I found out my application matched up against the other poets from the other regions of the United States and that I had become the finalist for the West Coast region. It was a surreal moment because I did not apply to the competition thinking I could win. I just wanted to see how far I could go. After becoming a finalist, judges from across the nation read the applications and ranked them based on their artistic merit and their demonstrated leadership and civic engagement.

What did the application include?

The application included a resume, a 10-page portfolio, an essay on why you want to become the NYPL, and a personality video essay. In May, I found out I was the NYPL through a virtual commencement and it blew my mind.

How did you feel about competing against the other finalists?

Going into the competition I was a bit intimidated, but being able to meet and spend time with each other, we decided from the get-go that we were not going to be competing against each other. At the end of the day only one person will get the title; however, that does not mean any one of us would be any less worthy of the title and that our journeys would be less spectacular.

I was able to become friends with the finalists from the other regions (Faye Harrison, Midwest Region; Serena Yang, Northeast Region; and Alora Young, South Region) who have become some of my closest friends and collaborators. It has been amazing to have that support network. It is very special to have friends who are artists because they understand how you experience all parts of life at a more intense level and they share a vision for a better world with me.

Provided by Ahmin Thornhill

How did you get into writing and performing poetry?

I remember I read an article about Amanda Gorman during my freshman year of high school when she had been crowned the Inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate. I kind of skimmed past the article because I thought it was an amazing feat: you could have so much power with poetry, I did not see it as something I could do myself. At that point I had been doing creative writing, but I had never taken it seriously. So being able to look back four years later, to say that I am exactly where Amanda Gorman was standing, is a testament to my personal growth and the amount of care and support my community has poured into me.

You mentioned a personality video. Tell us about yourself outside of your artistry?

I have lived in Sacramento, California my entire life and it is a huge part of my identity. Sacramento is an incredibly diverse community and I think being able to grow up in an area filled with people who have had very different experiences from mine has really made me open-minded and curious. I strongly identify with the fact that I am a second-generation Vietnamese-American. My parents immigrated from Vietnam, and I constantly try to honor my heritage as a Vietnamese woman.

How has your Vietnamese-American identity shaped your artistry?

I want to take the most beautiful parts of both cultures, American and Vietnamese, and bring them into the work I do. Outside of poetry, I am interested in food justice and science in general with the intention of creating social good. I have always been an interdisciplinary person and I think that most people are too because you don’t have to tie your identity to one kind of work you do. Any project you have can benefit from the different wells of knowledge you have, whether that comes from being a part of different communities or challenging yourself to have different experiences. I have always been interested in every single subject and I love learning. Although I feel most at home with poetry, I do not know if I am going to be a poet career-wise. I will never tie my identity to one profession because I can be multiple things at the same time.

As the National Youth Poet Laureate, what duties and responsibilities do you have?

Broadly, I am an ambassador for youth voice and poetry. I will have the opportunity to be at the forefront of many speaking engagements where I will be advocating for youth voices in spaces where they typically wouldn’t be such as City Hall, the U.N., and even boardroom meetings. On a more small-scale level, I get to choose what I do on the day-to-day—outside of performances, I want to make sure that I am spending the majority of my time in the classrooms. I find the most fulfillment when I can connect with young people because I know that if someone with my title had told 7 year-old me that my words mattered, then that really would have stuck with me.

What does this title mean to you?

I know for a fact that there are so many young people walking around with brilliant ideas, but because no one ever tells them that their ideas matter, they do not share them. There is no shortage of genius in our generation. I also want to demystify the prestige around my title—I am only here because I have had access to resources and pure luck on this journey and that doesn’t make me a better poet than someone who has never gotten recognition before. I want to meet as many young people as possible to show them I am just a normal person and it is not that they can be like me, but I am like them. While I am one voice being amplified right now, it is my priority to amplify their voices too, and understand we are moving as a collective.

In your interview with USA Today, you said “Vietnamese itself is a very poetic language.” Would you ever consider writing and performing poetry in Vietnamese?

Vietnamese is my first language, but is not the language I feel the most comfortable speaking now. Unfortunately when I started going to school, I shed all those skills and I don’t even remember that process because it was very natural. As children, we are very malleable and one of the survival mechanisms for me was being able to pick up the English language quickly even though that meant sacrificing my mother tongue. So in the future, I would love to write poetry in Vietnamese but if that can't happen, I would be really honored if my poems could be translated. It would mean a lot to me if I could return my work to the people who have made me who I am in a language they can understand.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the goals and intentions you set as the new NYPL?

Yes, absolutely. During this pandemic, everyone had time to reflect on who they were as a person. For me, I realized that I need very little to be happy. All I really want is access to an education, a community, and the energy to use that education to help my community. I can find those three tenants in any work that I do and this realization has brought me a lot of comfort because now I know that I don't have to measure my success using the traditional metric.

It is all a matter of mindset and I’m always looking for a way to serve the people I love. This has helped me as the NYPL to not put a lot of pressure on myself to do what has been done before or even to do what has not been done before. As long as I know I am doing my best to connect with people and to make sure they understand their voices deserve to be heard, I know that I am doing a good job.

Looking through your work, I notice you perform your poetry at many events. What is the best part of performing your poetry?

A lot of people may assume that my performances make me nervous. While I do get nervous beforehand, I would say I feel the most at home on stage. When I’m performing my poetry, it is incredibly liberating to say the words out loud. When I release my thoughts out onto the page, there is still a level of holding back emotionally because words on the page are quiet in a way that people are not out loud.

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Harleen Kaur

Chopsticks Alley Editorial Intern

Harleen is a freshman at Foothill College pursuing her B.A. in philosophy. She ran her high school’s newspaper PHHS The Legend as a managing editor, and was later inducted into the Quill and Scroll Honor Society as a lifetime member. Growing up in San Jose, Harleen hopes to write about and amplify the voices of the Vietnamese and Pinoy community that she is surrounded by. She hopes to become a lawyer who will give back to her community.


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