Nebraska's first youth poet laureate on how poetry allows us to build and grow
LINCOLN, Neb. — On the night Jingming "Mimi" Yu was announced as Nebraska's first Youth Poet Laureate, the high schooler almost missed her name being called over Zoom.
Listen to Nebraska Public Media's story above.
She was nervous about the award, so she went to Sam's Club with her mother to forget about it. While there, she saw one of her English teachers and realized she had to jump on the call — just in case she won.
"Right when I get on the call, that was when they were going to announce my name," she said. Yu was shocked. Her mask covered her smile as she walked through the grocery aisles. "And my first response was to unmute and say that I'm at Sam's Club right now."
Yu has come a long way since writing her first poem, which was five pages long, in the sixth grade. But before poetry, she found passion in visual arts, winning multiple Scholastic Art awards, including the 2021 silver medal in painting, and four-time Gold Key recipient for drawing and illustration, mixed media, and painting.
Every essay she wrote in elementary school was just three sentences and a doodle, she said.
"I'm more of a visual learner because I was better at drawing before I was better at writing," she said. "And I think, maybe, some component of art transferred onto poetry."
In her freshman year of high school, Yu joined Lincoln East's Slam Poetry club. By senior year, she was president of the Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Club, Art Club and more. On weekends, she also teaches art to kids at the Lincoln Chinese Academy. Tina Le, Yu's English teacher and Slam Poetry Club sponsor, saw her drive for enriching Asian American creatives. Reading her poetry, Le encouraged Yu to apply to be Nebraska's first Youth Poet Laureate.
"When she first started, she was kind of afraid of sharing her poetry with others," Le said. "Poetry is a very personal thing. The fact that she was willing to share her work with others, in this very public way, shows a lot of growth in that, and I'm really proud of her for taking that step."
Yu performed a few of her poems in front of the Nebraska Board of Education. Video by Lincoln Public Schools
Matt Mason, Nebraska's state poet, said a statewide writers collective launched the Youth Poet Laureate program because they had to look for new virtual activities during the pandemic.
Seventeen students from all over the state submitted a resume, a 500-word essay and a collection of five poems to compete for the title. Mason said he hopes the program will get more young people interested in poetry.
"These young writers have less filters in saying what is actually important," he said. "I think as we grow into adulthood, we lose a little bit of our ability to say what we're desperate to say, in some ways, and here these students are straightforward, telling us who they are, what's important to them."
Though Mason wasn't a judge, he has seen Yu perform.
"She's low key. She's not a poet who's going to come on stage and wave her hands and yell and — things that I do," he said. "But she is a really strong writer already, which is kind of frightening at that young age, and she writes really vivid descriptions of family life, [and] of community."
Yu is Chinese American. Le, Yu's teacher, said people not from the state sometimes have a singular assumption about what defines a Nebraskan.
"I think, Mimi, being Youth Poet Laureate, kind of broadens people's idea of who is a Nebraskan, and who is someone who can represent us," Le said. "It's not just this one sort of person, but that Nebraska is really a much more diverse place than people would think."
Yu said she feels pressured to make her poetry relatable — something that was at the core of her poem: "Kitchen Dialogue."
"It's not necessarily about being Chinese," she said. "It's about love, and family and how we evolve from past experiences, which I think isn't confined to one group of people. That is universal."
Yu reads her poem "Kitchen Dialogue." Video by Louder Than a Bomb Great Plains
Yu said "Kitchen Dialogue" is the only poem that made her really feel something.
"I've always thought about food being a love language. And I actually wrote it in one morning, while I was in class, and it made me cry," she said. "Because, it was very emotional reading that poem."
As youth poet laureate, Yu will be representing Nebraska in regional and national competitions, working on a local civic project, and will have the chance to compete as the National State Poet. Yu said poetry is a kind of therapy for the soul that everyone needs once in a while.
"I don't think poetry was meant to resolve every issue across the world. I think that's giving it too much credit," she said. "But I think it provides a reason to continue working towards those issues. I think it builds and grows around what we see as burning, dying, decaying."
This report originally appeared on Nebraska Public Media.
By JINGMING "MIMI" YU
My sister told me that when our grandfather died,
No one was there to cry at his funeral.
My mother was boiling cabbage soup,
My grandmother was pickling white radish and cucumbers,
And my aunt was baking red bean pastries in her kitchen.
Because hearts do not speak in this home.
Because our families are trapped in a Pavlovian design of affection
Because what poisoned memories left untreated renders us mute
And desperately silent,
We try to remedy the cycle of this condition with the same medicine.
Your mother threatened suicide when you wanted to quit the violin,
So she made you your favorite teriyaki chicken.
Your father threw a book at your nose,
So he treats the wound with ice cubes from the freezer.
His father beat him with a soup spoon,
So his mother bought him dumplings from the vendor across the street.
Her mother doesn't speak to her for a week,
So she leaves a plate of apples by the door of her bedroom.
Your mother sliced your favorite fruit
On the condition that she could mend all her problems
It is a silent speech
Spoken in a heavy home
Frozen under a sheet of ice caught in a flame.
And I know you're afraid that you'll never love someone,
And you'll never be able to love yourself
But love, this I know,
We are the best combination of our parents.
And when you're tying your shoelaces,
About to fly to your nine-to-five,
I'll kiss you on the forehead and tell you that "I love you."
And your eyes will widen and jaw will slacken,
Because it will be the first time anyone has said that to you.
And I'll cut you fruit the way our mothers did
And in the morning
When you've just woken up from our bedroom,
I'll bring your plate of hash browns and sunny side eggs to the duvet
And child living unloving
Now living knowing
That we are the loveliest things.
This report originally appeared on Nebraska Public Media.