For Alexandra Huỳnh, life these days is anything but ordinary. The 19-year-old poet and California native began her college career in the fall, when the world was deep into the second year of the pandemic. While attending English and engineering classes at Stanford University, she’s been balancing her duties as the national youth poet laureate, a position famously first held by Amanda Gorman, whose recitation at the inauguration a year ago captured the nation.
Huỳnh is the fifth person to hold the national youth poet laureate title. The position, which is sponsored by Urban Word NYC, celebrates young poets across the United States for their artistic excellence and commitment to civic engagement and social justice. Working with local literary and arts organizations across the country, the program identifies promising young poets eager to effect change in their communities. The program celebrates youth poet laureates at the city level, and then each spring a panel of poets and writers selects one national laureate from the pool.
We caught up with Huỳnh while she was back home in Sacramento for winter break. She spoke about finding her voice, widening the platform of the youth poet laureate and finding hope in 2022. She also shared one of her poems with us, which you can read below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: These are wild times and an interesting time to be in school. Tell me what you’re up to now.
A: I’m a freshman in college. I’ve finished my first quarter at Stanford. I have not officially declared a major yet, and I’m still bouncing around. Last quarter, I took some science and writing classes. Going into Stanford, I was really interested in becoming an engineer. But as time has passed, I’ve realized that I only have four years in my undergrad to study something that really, really interests me, so I’m starting to open up my mind to studying English or perhaps history, but it’s all very much up in the air right now.
Q: How did you first come to poetry?
A: Poetry has always been a part of my life. One of the earliest memories I have of writing poetry is actually when I wrote songs, when I was around 7. At the time, I was taking singing lessons and the songs I was singing about didn’t reflect my own lived experiences as a 7-year-old, so I wanted to write a song that felt more true to me. They weren’t necessarily the most impressive thing, but I think that was a great step forward in the sense that I really was able to take my own experiences and write them into existence.
When I was 16, I entered my first-ever poetry slam. It was a new experience for me in the sense that I walked past the room and I peered in through the window, I didn’t see a single person that I knew there, so I kept walking. I called my sister just to tell her that I had decided not to do the poetry slam. But she, as many sisters would, reassured me that everything was okay and that I should just go for it. So I did.
And I walked out of that room feeling like my whole, entire life had changed because I had just gotten access to this new community of people where I felt like I could truly be myself and express myself in any way that I wanted to.
Q: How is it to balance being youth poet laureate and being a student in college? That’s certainly a lot.
A: It is definitely challenging. In college, it’s a time for exploration and a lot of people feel like they are reinventing themselves or refining their identities. That can be difficult to juxtapose against the reality of what it means to be the national youth poet laureate, which means participating in interviews or going on TV, where it can feel like there’s pressure to have a strong sense of self because you want your audience to be able to connect with you to know who you are.
Sometimes when people ask me “Who are you?” I can’t give them a straight answer, and it feels like a bit of a shortcoming. But I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m allowed to grow and change and change my mind. I’m definitely getting used to the fact that I’m going to change and I’m going to change in the public eye, and that’s okay. I don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations of who I’m supposed to be or what I’m supposed to be interested in, because that’s completely normal as a young person to grow and change.
And that’s a good thing. It’s a sign that I am learning from the experiences that I’m getting in college or from the people around me. I think I would be more scared if all of my answers were exactly the same for this entire year.
Q: That’s such a gift to know that or to believe that. So many people spend their whole lives not coming to that conclusion. Are there specific things that you’re thinking about with your role that you’re getting behind or that you want to shine a light on?
A: It’s really important for me to advocate for spaces for youth where they can learn how to articulate their lived experiences and feel very safe in doing so. There’s no shortage in the amount of genius that is in our young people, just a shortage of spaces for them to speak out their truth. And I stand by that.
As the national youth poet laureate, it can feel sometimes like I’m put in this position where I’m supposed to have the answers to everything or I’m supposed to be the voice for our generation. But we can make a greater impact when we open up the stage to as many voices as possible. I just want to make sure that I am directing people’s attention to other incredible young people just as much as I’m taking up space in the spotlight.
Q: Obviously, it’s been a really hard (almost) two years in the pandemic. What are you looking forward to in 2022? What are you hopeful for?
A: During the pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of communities come together and learn to take care of each other. This imminent threat to our well-being has motivated me to take better care of myself and the people I love, so I hope in 2022 to see that trend continue to move forward where people are prioritizing their health over productivity, because before the pandemic, everything was just go, go, go all the time. When you pause, you realize that there is so much more beyond the deadlines that you need to meet. There’s a lot of work that can be done in building relationships with the people around you and really just taking time to let yourself be human and not just a machine that serves some sort of higher purpose.
I’m just really looking forward to seeing people redefine what it means to live a fulfilling day by taking stock of what is truly important to them and spending time doing things that truly interest them.
Q: Since Amanda Gorman read at the Biden-Harris inauguration, there’s been more interest in the role of youth poet laureate. How do you feel about the growing awareness and platform? Is it a burden or an excitement?
A: I am most definitely excited that poetry is starting to come to the forefront of people’s attention. And I’m really grateful to Amanda Gorman for being able to shine a light on this art form that so many young people, and so many poets before her and who will come after us, will continue to practice.
I think one reason why poetry really struck a chord with our nation is because it’s a really compelling form of storytelling. Stories are a way for us to build empathy and really step into experiences that perhaps we didn’t know we could relate to, and it’s a really powerful connector. So moving forward, I’m looking forward to inspiring other young people to continue telling their stories, because I think vulnerability is one of the most challenging parts of being human.
People won’t always ask you to share your story, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t need to hear it. That’s something that I really want to broadcast. Your story is always going to be important, because it adds to a larger narrative that we can all learn from.
Q: What is your favorite part of this job?
A: One of my favorite parts of this job is when I get a DM from a young girl on Instagram who says that she’s just amazed that there is someone representing her Vietnamese heritage on this national stage. It makes me realize that there are real people who are reading and watching my poetry who can deeply connect to the particular experiences that I’m writing about and not just empathize on a human level but really see that there is space for them.
So I just want to say, if there is anyone out there who feels that they are underrepresented in spaces that are important to them, know that there is going to be a time and place where that is not the case anymore, where we see a myriad of experiences and diverse voices. And you can begin that change just by sharing your story. You might be speaking for someone that perhaps doesn’t have the opportunity to do so, or perhaps hasn’t had the courage to raise their voice quite yet.
Q: And speaking of that, of raising your voice and telling your story, do you think you’ll continue to write poetry beyond your term as youth poet laureate?
A: Absolutely. Whether or not I decide to continue sharing my poetry on such a large scale, poetry is going to be a lifelong practice for me because it is my favorite way of processing what it means to be human. It gives me a lot of freedom in terms of not having to answer questions linearly and being able to blend different languages and silences and sounds. I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing poetry, just because it is an incredible source of power for me.
I hope to write a book one day — that’s on my bucket list, and I hope to write a good body of work in Vietnamese, which is my mother tongue. But beyond that, we’ll see. I’m open. I have a lot of years ahead of me. So I think just leaning into what feels right to me is going to be my strategy moving forward. But I don’t see myself not writing poetry in any future.
Life Cycle of a Catcall
To be read from top to bottom. Repeat.
But because you view my body as invitation to comment,
I must now remember that I am a woman.
I stopped to be polite. First mistake—
if you really wanted to, you wouldn’t ask.
Now ask me what I want. No, really:
His words will decay in your chest, but you’ll survive the bloat.
That’s what scares me.
Today, I considered a steaming bowl of noodles, and imagined how,
in tipping it over like a chess piece in resignation, my mother
would mount the mess with towels and a practiced speed,
and I would watch, still; letting the hot liquid spill into my lap
until I felt clean. Who knows what might happen
if this body felt any less like mine?
Some lauded metaphors, probably. And an excavation of the self.
I am not nearly as brave as I sound in those
“im-so-sorry-he-made-u-uncomfy” texts I send all my girlfriends.
I’ve got flight instinct.
Maybe, this is my reckoning:
The one where my skin finally loosens from its frame,
conceding the nervous mess of flesh, as inky shame leaks
from every orifice. And every day, I abandon the body
so I may exist in spite of it.
Shirts hang from me like flags on unclaimed nation. And my hair
becomes freight in tow. I am a parade. I _______.
I am the object of the sentence,
so now everything happens to me,
and none of it is my fault,