(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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
That is young
and melinated I
Lay before you
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
You have all you need to make it god has given you your
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.
IT DOES NOT MATTER ANY LONGER WHERE YOU LIVE
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
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
defend your honor
reduce the brown people to
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
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
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
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
& 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,
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