The best spoken word poet in the South Bay just started her senior year of high school.
Anouk Yeh is a 17-year-old horseback rider, volleyball player and empath. This year, she became the first ever Santa Clara County Youth Poet Laureate, a new program developed and organized by Janice Lobo Sapigao, our sixth and current adult Poet Laureate.
These days, spoken word and poetry are helping youth to thrive through expression, and Anouk Yeh is quietly leading her peers toward writing themselves a survival guide.
Like many, I was bored by poetry for the first 22 years of my life. Then once I saw a friend perform incredible spoken word, I said to myself: oh! I didn’t know poetry could be like that! In the right frame of mind and at the right moment, poetry can feel like the beginning of a solution to so many of the world’s problems.
As she entered her teens, Yeh had a similar oh, poetry! moment to mine, thanks to some evocative and uplifting performances on YouTube channels like Button Poetry, Slam Find and TedX. Yeh says it is a second language entirely, allowing her to say something in a way that almost makes more sense the more abstract it is. In her poem, “Ode to Teenage Girls,” Yeh writes, “what is more teenage girl than constantly mourning / the way your body turned into someone else’s gaudy souvenir.”
“It’s not like listening to the news,” Yeh says. “One does not need an education. I think poetry is vulnerability wrapped in truth, then handing it to someone, saying, do with this as you will.”
While poetry and spoken word often act as a gateway—young people pursue it until they move on to other forms of expression, or simply a differently busy adulthood—poets like Yeh, along with the county’s Youth Vice Laureate, Mahder Aklilu, see poetry as a means to bring about change.
“People say young people are unrealistic because we’re so optimistic,” Yeh says. She points out, however, that optimism is much easier “once you let yourself imagine the way things are now are not in the future.”
In her bio, Yeh quotes Toni Cade Bambara’s line: “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” Yeh herself was inspired by a revolutionary event that took place this summer.
“I always saw myself going into law school, then becoming a public defender. Then I saw the last independent newspaper in Hong Kong, The Apple Daily—the last paper not overseen by the CCP—was shut down,” she says. She describes a video that went viral from the night of the paper’s final publication. “The entire staff was on the top of the building with their flashlights on, shining down on the people below and the people crying and cheering.”
Yeh sees poetry as the boot knife to the bayonet of journalism. With her involvement in the Prison Journalism Project, her mission is to help the incarcerated tell their own stories using journalistic methods.
“When we talk about incarceration, it’s usually someone who hasn’t had the experience,” she says.
Another clear goal for both Yeh and Aklilu is to create a more concrete youth poetry space. “Mahder and I feel it is important to create a safe space for them to create,” she says. “Helping young people realize they can get paid to be poets and writers. We want to break down that accessibility barrier.”
She offers this advice to any young person in the pursuit of poetic expression: “Regardless of how long you’ve been writing, your experience is valid. As young people, we need to know that anyone can relate to our work. Even if you’re nervous right now, there are other young people rooting for you.”
In her performances and even in our talk, Yeh exudes kindness and confident compassion. Like most youth these days, she too is stressed out by the world in ways most adults can hardly acknowledge, let alone assuage. But like her peers, she is moved to inspire and catalyze the possible, plausible tomorrow. Even her uncertainty is optimistic: “I’m not too sure of who I want to become, but whoever that person is I am very excited to meet her.”
Oh! Who knew poets could be like that?