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Editor’s note: This story is part an ongoing series of journalism produced as part a collaboration between The Sacramento Bee, Sol Collective and other community organizations called the “Community to Newsroom Pipeline.” To learn more or to contribute, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Poetry is changing the world again – and Sacramento continues to change poetry.
Eyes across the globe were glued to screens waiting to see what would happen to America during the presidential inauguration. What happened was Amanda Gorman, our National Youth Poet Laureate, delivering a fresh breath to America’s lungs the way only poets can. In these moments when America is searching for healing, it was a poet who gave us a revival.
In the middle of this country’s crises, poets have always shown up and shown the way. This moment is no different. The revolution may not be televised, but the renaissance is getting real airtime.
The Presidential Inauguration is one thing, but Gorman’s selection as an opening act for the Super Bowl provided all the proof one could need that poetry as an art form is undergoing a public renaissance. In Summer 2020, amid a pandemic and social justice uprisings around the world, Stockton poet Brandon Leake was voted the winner of America’s Got Talent. His highly televised journey familiarized the country with the evolution poetry has undergone over the last 50 years.
Sacramento has two powerful Youth Poet Laureates helping to usher in this renaissance and one of them is a finalist in the competition to take Amanda Gorman’s seat as National Youth Poet Laureate.
Cloudy and Alexandra Huynh became co-laureates in 2020. Cloudy has been hard at work performing and using her voice to help sculpt Sacramento through work at the Black Artists Fund in addition to creating and promoting her own poetry and art. Huynh is the Western Regional Ambassador for 2021 and a finalist in the National Youth Poet Laureate competition.
With the National Youth Poet Laureate finals coming up, even as she prepares to start school at Stanford in the fall, Huynh is busy writing, memorizing, revising and refining her work. She is both editing her strongest previous works and creating a new poem every week. Huynh is usually up before the sun writing.
“I like building things when the rest of the world is asleep. My mind is a lot quieter and it makes the process feel a lot more personal because I’m my only companion,” Huynh said. “I think poetry is ultimately meant to bring communities together, but when I’m writing I want to be in solitude so I don’t feel pressure to filter my thoughts. Once I’ve refined my work, I’m more than happy to share it.”
With her latest title as Western Region Ambassador, in addition to writing poems, Huynh is organizing youth voices by creating a Youth Poet Laureate advisory board with representatives from each state. This advisory board will work collectively to create action and art around issues that impact youth.
“I feel like the way that we interact with youth voice, just as a society, feels very tokenistic. You’ll have youth poets or youth performers opening up meetings but that’s usually the only space that they get and they don’t really ever get a seat at the table. Having the title of West Regional Ambassador gives my name some more credibility so I can help bring in more youth voices into spaces where change is actually happening.”
So what’s the next step in the process to finding out if Alexandra becomes the next National Youth Poet Laureate?
“From here, myself and the other finalists get to be on a reading tour with international venues and we’ll also have some artwork of ourselves created,” Huynh explained. “We’re working together to bring some projects into our communities that combine civic engagement with poetry.”
She is an alumni of the Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS) program, so civic engagement is nothing new for Huynh.
It was while in the SAYS program that Huynh was empowered to first discover, and then speak her truth to power using her poetry. When she started out she was hesitant to take ownership of her cultural identity and says that pushing against normative narratives around the South East Asian community means a lot to her.
“I remember thinking if I write about being Vietnamese it’s going to be cliche, like, no one wants to hear about me being Vietnamese because it’s just gonna be another Asian girl complaining about how her family is silencing her,” she explains. “Then I realized I was meeting so much internal dissonance because I told myself that I could only write that story, but there is a lot of joy that comes from being Vietnamese American.”
For those of you rediscovering the art, the future of poetry is in good hands. The torch is being passed. Sacramento is a microcosm of the world right now. Welcome to the renaissance.
The National Youth Laureate will be announced via virtual ceremony on May 22. Follow Alexandra’s journey on Instagram at @Alexandra0Huynh. Follow Sacramento Area Youth Speaks at @Says4Life and the new Sacramento Poetry Salon (on Facebook) for the latest in Sacramento poetry.
Andru Defeye is the youngest poet laureate in Sacramento history. Defeye served as the Director of Communications for Sol Collective from 2009-2020. In 2014, Defeye founded Zero Forbidden Goals, a support system for creatives dedicated to innovating arts equity, experiences, and education. ZFG’s guerrilla art activations, including National Guerrilla Poetry Month , Chainlink Poetry , and The Intersection, have been covered and recreated around the globe.