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Interview With Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate Jessica Kim

Lynne Thompson, Poet Laureate of Los Angeles,
Youth Poet Laureate Jessica Kim
Youth Poet Laureate Jessica Kim

At what age did you begin writing poetry: Were there poets who encouraged or inspired you in the early stages and if so, who and what encouragement or inspiration did they provide?

I wrote my first poem at age fifteen, days after the pandemic hit. It was a natural response to a fearful, fragile, and sometimes frustrating world, as I was forced to look inward. The first writer who really encouraged me to share my story was Sandra Beasley, whom I met (virtually) at a four-day workshop. At that time, I was still unsure of my identity as a disabled young writer, particularly because I didn’t see this identity represented much within youth. But Sandra was the first person to give me the confidence to write about disability, even if it is a process that takes years in the making, and expand the possibilities of tackling a subject that was absent in the literature I consumed. I’m very grateful to her for giving me the courage to write about the unknown. It’s a motif that’s central to my poems: as a writer, I’m a part of something that doesn’t exist yet, and it’s daunting but beautiful.

You are the 21-22 Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles—congratulations! How did you feel when you first learned of your appointment?

Thank you, I’m honored to be representing the poetry community in L.A. along with you! When the L.A. Public Library announced me as the 21-22 Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate, I was too stunned to speak. I learned about this position only a couple of months before and applied without the intent of actually becoming the YPL, so the fact that others noticed and valued my work was—and still is—a surprise. Frankly, I never really considered myself a poet until I was put into this position. Sure, I published my work in a handful of literary magazines and wrote poems on a weekly, even daily basis, but none of it felt real until others started telling me that I was the face of Los Angeles’ young poets.

Ten months into my tenure as L.A.’s Youth Poet Laureate, it still feels like I occupy an imagined space. Sometimes, poetry feels very exclusive, partly because it’s such an individualistic venture and an artistic practice that feels highly technical, especially to people who aren't creative writers. I still struggle to reconcile my identity as LAYPL with my non-poet identities. In my immediate communities, like at school, I often shy away from this identity. But I’m finding the strength to incorporate poetry into spaces where it is otherwise absent, like mental wellness and community service. My appointment as YPL serves as a reminder to myself that poetry is a communal act, and more importantly, a source of inspiration to young people who grapple with their multifaceted backgrounds.

You identify as visually-impaired and are an advocate for the disabled community. How has your advocacy manifested itself in your written work or work with others?

Luckily, I have no fear of being vocal on the page, so disability advocacy came as a sixth sense. I initially sought to empower myself through the simple act of dismantling and reshaping the idea of sight. Growing up as a visually-impaired kid, picture books or field trips weren’t my cup of tea because they require way too much attention to visual details, so I wasn’t a very observational person. But poetry—an art form that often relies heavily on imagery—forced me to grapple with sight. Facing my weaknesses is a form of advocacy in itself.

But the disability experience is a communal creation, so my advocacy quickly evolved to empower and do justice to other disabled creatives. I write poems about my disability so that other writers feel safe and inspired to do so. I frequently perform in spaces for disabled artists and advocate for inclusivity in places where accessibility is still absent. I’ve also been admiring and promoting many disabled writers through my involvement with I-CREATE YOUTH, a nonprofit for disabled youth. The disability identity is so diverse, and although I only represent one piece out of a mosaic of perspectives, I strongly believe in prioritizing a community that continues to be wronged by society.

What accomplishments are you most proud of as the City’s Youth Poet Laureate?

I was named the West Regional Youth Poet Laureate and a National Youth Poet Laureate Finalist a few months ago, which was another pang of pride for me! In partnership with Urban Word and Beyond Baroque, this position has given me many opportunities to speak up for national causes I am very passionate about, such as mental health, equity in education, and disability rights. In particular, I’m excited by the theme “Poetry & Disability Justice,” as designated by the Poetry Coalition, and hope to see more communities celebrating disabled writers.

While being named a West Regional Youth Poet Laureate has been absolutely thrilling, the one greatest accomplishment I could point to is overcoming my fear of being filmed on camera. My eyes involuntarily roll all over the place and I tilt my face sideways when looking at things, so I dreaded the idea of seeing these imperfections recorded on the screen. I remember being paranoid about this when initially stepping into the National Youth Poet Laureate cohort. However, as I was forced to film video after video of myself reading poetry, I’ve grown used to it. I’m still trying to fully love my visual impairment, and I’m proud to be one step closer to it.

I love your poem "In Which I Want Nothing" which can be found on the Jet Fuel Review website. It has an amazing last line! Can you tell our readers a little about the origin of the poem or how you approached crafting it?

I love lines that nod directly to the speaker’s identity as a poet, so “not even this poem” is a very fitting ending; I’m glad you enjoyed this poem! The crux of “In Which I Want Nothing” originated from a virtual poetry workshop I attended, where we were asked to write about what we wanted. To want something is to be dissatisfied with the present, and I examine my lineage, daughterhood, and nationality as what others regard as deficiencies. As an immigrant who has spent half their life in Asia, as a woman of color, as someone who has felt both shameful of and alienated from my cultural roots, I felt disgusted by the times I wanted to rid myself of my identity. My poem is confessional in that way, documenting these feelings. However, this poem is about wanting nothing, which frames these desires in an ironic, sort of rebellious way. I was drawn to the strangely liberating dichotomy of wanting nothing because it represents cynicism but also a satisfaction toward the current status quo. While my piece characterizes emptiness and absence as a loss, I felt very content writing this piece.

You have been widely published and have received Pushcart Prize nominations for your work. Can you tell us about upcoming publications we should seek out?

My chapbook of poems, L(EYE)GHT, is forthcoming from Animal Heart Press in April! It’s a manuscript I worked on in late 2020, so I’m stoked about it finally seeing daylight. L(EYE)GHT revolves around my Korean-American and visually-impaired identity, exploring the spaces in which light—and by extension, sight—is present and absent. Publication-wise, I haven’t been submitting work for almost half a year, but I do have a forthcoming poem with The Adroit Journal in April, which still feels like a dream.

What advice would you give to aspiring youth poets?

Say what you want to say—every other narrative is already taken. Young writers are faced with so much pressure to write for competitions, publications, and everything but themselves. In my first year as a writer, I was so heavily focused on altering the subjects or style of my poems to fit these institutions. Honestly, I didn’t see much success. To young poets: your story matters and only you will be able to tell it authentically. Write about your most vulnerable identity, the one that has never been claimed by other writers. You’ll face dozens, even hundreds of rejections, but don’t lose faith in your narrative. Don’t lose faith in yourself.