Stephanie Yun, Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, photo by Nathan Phillips, OPL
Just when you’re ready to throw up your hands in despair at the bagful of crazy that is Oakland, something happens to remind you what a beautiful and special place this really is.
One such moment occurred at - of all places - the Dec. 4 Oakland City Council meeting, when the city’s first-ever Youth Poet Laureate was recognized by the mayor and council.
The honoree had not come prepared to recite a poem from memory, but when an elected official asks, you try to comply. Yun took a long pause, collected her thoughts and then recited a powerfully personal poem that it’s hard to believe was written by an 18-year-old. At a packed City Council meeting that later featured 173 people speaking about an extremely controversial dog park, let’s just say that Yun’s poem was a reminder of how words can be used to bring us closer together in our collective humanity, not further apart.
Here is an excerpt from the poem (Note: I can publish only a portion of the piece, so as not to jeopardize Yun’s chances at getting it published in a journal. P.S.: The poem ultimately ends on a positive note.):
Like wind caressing wayward leaves, he grasps my hands
fearful of letting them return to the earth.
At minimum, my boyfriend
must remind me once every two weeks
that I can't make love to him buried beneath flowerbeds
and that tombstones
don't make proper pillows for survivors of suicide
because as mentally ill as I think I am,
we're supposed to wake up side-by-side on a Tempur-Pedic someday.
In distress, my body
contorts itself into the C-shaped helix of an ear
and he holds his chest up to mine like a seashell
telling me I'm beautiful;
It almost drowns out all the reasons I think he should leave me
Before my first and current relationship,
I wondered how potential suitors would react
when their fingertips wandered and read my wrists like Braille
Here lies emotionally unstable girl
Would their hugs become like straight jackets
or in a box of belongings
would they take back every "I love you" they ever said
I trace self-inflicted scars like thumbs across smart phone touch screens
estimating how long it'll be til I break
Then who will want me,
besides clinical trial sponsors looking to sell antidepressants
like mobile apps
“It definitely took me off guard,” Yun said later of the impromptu reading. “But as a poet, I knew I had it in me.”
She is more than that: At the time she competed, Yun was already a well-known slam poet locally and nationally. California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, a judge in this inaugural competition, calls Yun “a breakthrough poet.”
A lifetime Oakland resident, Skyline High grad and current freshman at Cal, Yun competed against seven finalists before winning the title of Youth Poet Laureate last September. The award, which includes a $5,000 college scholarship, is bestowed by a collaboration between the Oakland Public Library, Youth Speaks (the country’s leading nonprofit presenter of spoken word performance, education and youth-development programs) and more than a dozen other community partners.
The position of Youth Poet Laureate isn’t merely ceremonial. Yun is expected to make public appearances and mentor other youth and she’s already embraced the opportunity. She recently worked with young men incarcerated at the Alameda County Juvenile Hall on a project to help them use poetry to express themselves. She says they inspired her and that the experience was “very vital to them.”
“Their words were so raw and proud,” she says. “They touched me a lot and I was very humbled to be there.”
Yun sees poetry as a means of storytelling and says her experience at open mic sessions helped her to become more outgoing.
“The audience is supportive even before you say anything,” she says. “What I love most is that in just minutes you can establish a connection with so many people. It’s just magical.”
I am inspired by a teenager with so much talent and desire to make a positive difference in her community. Yun told me that her work with Youth Speaks has taught her that society devalues the words of kids just because they’re young. She’ll be helping young people find their own voices to express themselves and discover their own way in the world.
“Poetry can change your life forever,” Yun says.