Alexandra Huỳnh steps into Amanda Gorman's shoes with a nod to her Vietnamese background

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Growing up in Sacramento, California, Alexandra Huỳnh began writing at the tender age of 7 after her singing teacher’s songbook left her uninspired.

“At some point I got tired of looking at songs that didn’t really reflect my emotional experiences, so I thought to myself, why don’t I just write my own songs?” Huỳnh told NBC Asian America. “I think that notion of writing myself into existence because I can’t find it anywhere else has definitely carried through to my poetry.”

In middle school, she’d share songs she wrote with friends when she was upset or feeling overwhelmed.

“It was a way for me to be vulnerable without perhaps the fear of messing up my words and conveying a deeper level of emotion that comes with music and poetry that you can’t find in plain language,” Huỳnh, a second-generation Vietnamese American, said.

Huỳnh’s vulnerability is part of what led her to be named the 2021 National Youth Poet Laureate in a virtual ceremony broadcast May 20.

“I was closing my eyes and covering my face,” said Huỳnh, who watched the event with her entire family. “I saw in my peripheral view that everyone had jumped up and they all embraced me. It was the warmest hug I’ve ever felt.”

The 18 year old will hold the title — made famous by Amanda Gorman, who became the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017 and performed at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January — for one year. An alumna of Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, or SAYS, she is the country’s fifth National Youth Poet Laureate, which is presented by Urban Word, a New York-based youth literary arts and youth development organization.

“After having a week to settle into what this title means to me, I just feel overwhelmingly grateful because I know this win is not mine alone — it’s my entire community’s, and I’m standing on the shoulders of my ancestors and all the sacrifices and wisdom that they’ve gained to bring me here,” Huỳnh said.

In her role, Huỳnh will perform around the U.S. and speak about issues she’s passionate about, ranging from climate justice to Asian American visibility. Huỳnh, who enters Stanford this fall, said she’s most looking forward to teaching kids that poetry is meant for everyone.

“You don’t have to be of a particular background or have your words sound a particular way for your poetry to matter,” she said.

Huỳnh’s poetry career began in high school, after she heard about a citywide poetry slam hosted by SAYS. “The coolest part was the top six contestants would get an all-expenses trip to Las Vegas, and I really wanted to travel,” she said. “I had written poetry here and there and thought I’d give this a try.”

She prepared a poem about educational equity and another was called “Ode to Glass,” because she was fascinated by material science.

But she felt terrified on the day of the event, so she called her twin sister, Brianna, who told her she had nothing to lose.

“By the end of the experience I walked out of the room thinking to myself, wow, this is something I want to do for the rest of my life,” said Huỳnh, who ended up placing second.

“That was a really validating moment because it proved to me that regardless of whether or not I had been in this space for long, my words still meant something to people, and I haven’t stopped since.”

In an excerpt from one of her poems, entitled “The Nail Shop,” she writes: “I may not work at the nail shop but I have witnessed it; / seen how my aunties’ fingerprints / have worn away in acetone / in exchange for your pristine hands / that look like they’ve never done / a day’s work / but that’s how you like it.”

Huỳnh, who volunteers with the grassroots organization The Farmlink Project, hopes to one day publish her writing and see it translated into Vietnamese, which she describes as a poetic language.

A self-described soft-spoken introvert, Huỳnh said people are often surprised that she feels so comfortable on stage. “I think performance is really critical for me for poetry because it allows me to externalize what I’ve written and embody it,” she said.

“Being able to say them out loud is a really healing experience because I can separate myself from the emotional weight of the poems.”

Huỳnh has also used poetry to process the disturbing rise in anti-Asian hate since the onset of the pandemic.

“Poetry was a way for me to draw together all the experiences from my childhood and come to an understanding of the ways that I have felt wronged by the media in terms of their hyper-sexualization of Asian American women, to the way they portrayed these acts of violence against Asian American people,” she said.

“I actually haven’t been able to share a lot of those poems because they’re still very sensitive to me, but the process of writing them has been incredibly healing. I’m always grateful that when I feel like I’m falling, I have a piece of paper to catch me.”

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