Youth laureates share their ‘Poetry of the Pandemic’

(Vikki Zhang for The Washington Post)

Three up-and-coming spoken-word poets helped judge this year’s KidsPost poetry contest. Alexandra Huynh, Alora Young and Serena Yang started writing poetry in elementary school and are finalists for the 2021 National Youth Poet Laureate, who will be announced in May. They each shared a recent poem they have written.

Click the arrow button next to each poem to hear the poets read their work.

Poetry laureates
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FOLKTALE

Finalist for the 2021 National Youth Poet Laureate Serena Yang of New York. (Photo by Stephanie Yang)

Serena Yang is the New York City Youth Poet Laureate. The 19-year-old says she remembers spending a lot of time writing in second grade, shortly after moving to the United States from Singapore and starting to learn English as a second language. Much later, she realized what she had written was poetry.

(noun.) a story circulated among a people by word of mouth,

sometimes passed down from parents to their children,

often considered to be false or based in superstition.

in every version of this story,

my people have a poor memory.

i. CORRECTION

my people trade memories like tongues,

worthless until cut out. better the tongue

than the teeth, or the throat, or our stomachs.

i have never seen my grandmother’s tongue,

but every night her teeth float in a little cup

on the sink, pretending to be bone.

before 1899, millions of oracle bones

were ground into dust and swallowed

as medicine. then we learned of how

they once told the future, and so

we stopped eating our ghosts.

ii. MODERN DAY RETELLING

my chinese teacher keeps asking me if i remember.

if i remember this word that means history or poem,

the hour or a room. careful how you hold your tongue,

or time collapses into just the space between four walls,

or you hear a poem once and it becomes your ancestor.

the moral of this story: my grandmother’s teeth

will survive her, but tongues are less bloodless.

example: a white man with a phd in asian studies

keeps asking me where i’m from so he can tell me the name

of every chinese city he’s ever been to. these men

always have perfect memories, and so he says:

once i spent three weeks in shanghai. twice,

i spent two days in wuhan. i bet i’ve been

to more chinese cities than you have, girl

with a chinese name, a chinese face.

but these are not the only things i’ve inherited

from my people: my people have a poor memory.

my dad, who likes to start all his stories with

i remember, who never knew how to remember

without lying –– his favorite story is the one

where he meets my mother for the first time: in wuhan,

when they were five. in shanghai. beijing. wuhan again,

but this time they were seven and it was still summer.

iii. THE TRUTH

chang jiang meets the eastern sea just outside

my mother’s childhood home in shanghai,

and in the west it floods xishui every summer,

the dirt floor of yeye’s old house growing damp

beneath my dad’s feet, the ground soft enough

to hold the memory of his body for just a minute.

the truth is my dad learned to swim by not drowning,

and this is how he really met my mother,

and what is memory but a second chance?

some branches of my family tree end in nothing.

and you may have a perfect memory

but chang jiang means long river

and water never forgets anything it touches.

in one version of this story,

i am born without a tongue.

in another,

my mom gives it away for a pound of white rice and a green card.

in another, you bleach my tongue, then ask me to make your language

beautiful. and so i cut it out myself. ask me again, where i’m from.

i’ll tell you i’m a shapeshifter. poet-liar. truth-teller story-teller.

myth-weaving legend-breathing living folk tale.

& what is a folk tale but an oracle bone that survived fire

by splitting itself in the shape of the future?

& what is a poet but the last witness to the fire?

KidsPost poetry.
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ADVICE POEM

Finalist for 2021 National Youth Poet Laureate Alora Young from Nashville, Tenn. (Family photo).

Alora Young is the Nashville, Tennessee, Youth Poet Laureate. The 17-year-old remembers writing her first poem at age 7 about being upset at her family’s move from New Jersey to Nashville. She says her poems have always been written to be performed.

To every

Body

In America

That is young

and melinated I

Lay before you

Some advice.

From 25 black women,

who have survived this fight.

Don't let anyone tell you what you can and can't be

More often than not, foundations set you free

Love yourself, love recklessly

Forget the naysayers, do what makes you happy

Don't be afraid you use your voice

When god hands you a gift, take it.

Do not be conquered by self-doubt

Too many people don't want you to make it

Find confidence inside yourself

Don't you dare let fear shake it.

Stay true to who you are

Get yourself an education

Don't depend on anybody else to lift you above your station

In this world, you must observe, because some set out

to harm you

Be safe, and be a child, change comes so fast it will

alarm you

You have all you need to make it god has given you your

tools

Don't change to be like the crowd

Don't ever become cruel

You are everything you're meant to be

I promise. You're enough.

Don't let creepy old men steal your joy

Being a young black girl is tough

But through all the trials that you'll find, all the aching

and the sorrow

Know that just because you're down today

Doesn’t mean you’ll be down tomorrow.

KidsPost poetry.
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IT DOES NOT MATTER ANY LONGER WHERE YOU LIVE

Finalist for the 2021 National Youth Poet Laureate Alexandra Huynh.(Photo by Emmy Phan)

Alexandra Huynh is the Sacramento, California, Youth Poet Co-Laureate. The 18-year-old became involved in spoken-word poetry in high school. The first poems she wrote — in first or second grade — were in the form of songs.

from news reports on the fires in California and the floods in Vietnam.

I. THEY WAITED FOR THE ANSWERS THEY DIDN’T WANT TO HEAR BUT KNEW WERE REALITY

from my living room

i watch as tiny yellow men

march into the worst darkness

& pretend not to hear

when they have names

witness an unprecedented use

of the word unprecedented

—the state of California

has swallowed Connecticut

like fever

leaving behind

a scorched footprint

the shape of neglect—

there are streetlights in the forest now;

the forest is a city

with wildfire for veins

& a steady churn of smog

vehicles spill onto highways

to escape the color of death, but

even the lucky ones

wake up to smudged sun

& sepia

classic Western:

villainize nature

defend your honor

reduce the brown people to

accessory

this is the work

of a century’s suppression

of a creature that feeds

on its own dead

when there is nothing

left to breathe, you produce

the opposite of oxygen

don’t need a crystal ball

return the trees

to their cradles

burn the land

clean of history

seethe warning

blaze insurrection

do not slow, do not slow

let them see

the inferno they created.

II. LOCAL RESIDENTS NOW LIVE IN A WAY THAT IS PREPARED FOR NATURAL DISASTER

in the country my mother loves

in its naked heart

coastlines unravel

into starving hands

drawing anything with mass

into wet embrace

include the slippers:

whose tattered pockets

kept our feet from catching wind

& the plastic:

collected to prove

we exist

include the caution tape,

the bamboo, the dining tables,

the books, the altars, the rice,

the fields they grow in,

the ao dai, the photos

& the children:

who have now found mothers

in this soft earth.

they say it sounds like a bomb

when the mountain

that is not actually a mountain

explodes

& it weeps burials

for the willowed bodies

who watch water rise

to fool their conscience

who recite Buddha’s name until

synonymous with mosquito hum

who hold real hands

in the dark of electricity

while millions of hummingbirds

crash into sheet-metal roof

& herds of baby elephant

swarm at the ankles

which, of course,

the meteorologists

will call rainfall

& the parents

will call temporary,

will call home.

III. THEIR ONLY DESIRE WAS TO BE TOGETHER IN THE HOME THEY LOVED

the structures are empty now

either because                 the people fled

or endured baptism by flame/flood

an elderly couple is found

in the charcoal of their farm

a boy recognized

under comic shop sludge

the men on the news

say climate change isahoax

i talk back:

hold the objects they inhabit

break them

About this story

Editing by Christina Barron. Art directing by Alla Dreyvitser. Audio editing by Maggie Penman. Design and development by Yutao Chen. Copy editing by Annabeth Carlson and Brian Cleveland.

Christina Barron is the editor of KidsPost, a section of The Washington Post for ages 7 to 13. She joined The Post in 2001 as a copy editor on the National Copy Desk. She later worked on the Features Copy Desk and was a reporter for KidsPost.