Last month, talented local writers—ages 13 to 18—applied to become the next Santa Clara County youth poet laureate. This week, judges announced seven finalists for the honorary post: Samantha Hsiung, Minerva S.M. Kamra, Sarah Fathima Mohammed, Jacqueline Pham, Myesha Phukan, Michelle Qiao and Anna Yang.
A panel of judges—five local leaders with roots in education, activism, community organizing and youth development—collaborated to select finalists who represent the program’s values. They assessed applicants on a range of metrics, from leadership skills to craft to the ability to examine their personal truths and form community connections.
At a commencement ceremony on April 30, following a poetry showcase, the next Santa Clara County youth poet laureate will be named. The position includes an education scholarship.
This year’s honoree will be the second ever. Anouk Yeh, an accomplished young spoken word poet from Saratoga, is now serving the inaugural term.
WORDS AND ACTIONS
It has been a busy few months for this year’s hopefuls. Following a kickoff event last January, the program hosted a four-part workshop series leading up to the application deadline. On Saturdays in February and March, young poets led potential laureates in exploring a pair of art forms: writing and performance. In mid-February, instructor James Salanga encouraged youth to meditate on the “littler things” that punctuate daily life. Participants swapped inspiring songs and verses and collaborated on a shared poem. In another workshop, writer and SFSU student Jaelyn Galasinao Sanidad invited participants to cultivate their own healing space. Through writing, the candidates explored deep questions: Where are you from? Who raised you? What does community mean to you?
Meanwhile, on Monday nights, a team of youth organizers has been hard at work, planning events alongside mentors with ties to South Bay writing scenes. Last month, the program joined forces with Nirvana Soul to host a youth poetry open mic night. An impressive crowd gathered while performers highlighted many relatable struggles, such as those with their families, censorship, and active shooter drills in school. “It was [Nirvana Soul’s] first time collaborating with a community organization,” director Janice Sapigao shares. “For that to be youth, it was just really exciting.”
YES FOR SUCCESS
Reaching this round in the process comes with several perks. All finalists, including the new laureate-to-be, will have the chance to volunteer as ambassadors for literacy, arts and youth expression. They’ll work with libraries, community centers, schools, civic officials and local businesses. Additionally, they will perform their original work, collaborate on projects and receive mentoring from adults and peers.
At its heart, the Santa Clara County Youth Poet Laureate Program aspires to provide young people with much-needed support. “That’s the most basic thing that leaders need, that poets need, that organizers need in order to get something done,” Sapigao says. What’s more, youth benefit from having their ideas affirmed and ultimately realized. “Too many youth expect the adults in their lives to say no,” Sapigao reflects. “And my approach is, but what if we say yes?”
THE HEALING ARTS
Sapigao started the program during her tenure as Santa Clara County poet laureate, which ran from 2020 to 2021. She endeavored to build on the community-focused legacy set forth by her recent predecessors. “Mighty Mike McGee, the poet laureate before me, had done performances and workshops with youth all over Santa Clara County,” she explains. “Before him, Arlene Biala had families and other poets contribute as she visited different community events. And so I thought, okay, the youth poet laureate program is the next step in how to center youth.”
She also grounded her concept in local research. Even pre-pandemic, she found, adolescents in Santa Clara County grappled with experiences of bullying, anxiety and depression. Some youth—especially those identifying as LGBTQIA—had contemplated suicide. “I knew that poetry could reach out to these students,” Sapigao reflects. Moreover, she understood that the mounting crisis of COVID-19 would have dire consequences. “These issues would only multiply—amplify in solitude or isolation—especially with a pandemic being the circumstances that kept [youth] at home,” she notes. With this foresight in mind, the Santa Clara County Youth Poet Laureate Program began to take shape.
Two years in, hundreds of youth have attended workshops and the most committed artists have applied for the honorary post. “Some students have really latched on to the program,” Sapigao reflects. “I hope they see it as a commitment to themselves as poets and to building community while writing and sharing their own work.”
MEET THE FINALISTS
Samantha Hsiung—An Asian-American writer and poet living in the Bay Area, Hsiung writes poems in response to current events or about topics such as censorship, culture and family. Her favorite authors include Ocean Vuong, Hanif Abdurraqib and Victoria Chang—they have inspired her to become the writer she is today with their poignant words.
Minerva S.M. Kamra—A youth poet who utilizes lyricism, science and perception to give a voice to nuance, Minerva S.M. Kamra creates work that is psychological and macabre, hinging between realities in pursuit of the visceral. As a multiracial autistic teenager, her writing seeks to challenge the narratives surrounding her communities.
Sarah Fathima Mohammed—Poetry has become a world where Sarah Fathima Mohammed can speak freely, holding her voice in her hands while excavating the histories of the women in her family. This first-generation Muslim-American comes from generations of Muslim women who are told to be quiet. Women who hold children more often than their own meals.
Jacqueline Pham—A nonbinary student, organizer, aspiring poet and proud child of Vietnamese immigrants, Jacqueline Pham currently resides on Muwekma Ohlone land, otherwise known as San Jose. Their work focuses on Vietnamese diasporic identity, racial oppression, generational trauma and more. When not writing, Pham watches TV sitcoms, bakes for their loved ones and hangs out with their dogs, Skippy and Sweety.
Myesha Phukan—Myesha Phukan is passionate about writing about her own identity and culture as an Indian-American woman and believes poetry creates a space where everyone can discuss topics otherwise seen as taboo in society. When not writing, Myesha is an avid reader and volunteers on the Santa Clara County Youth Poet Laureate Program Team.
Michelle Qiao—A 17-year-old poet living in the Bay Area on Ohlone land, Michelle Qiao (乔雨桐) was born in Chicago, raised in Shanghai and Minnesota. Shanghainese was her first language—she learned English word by word, page by page, when she moved back to the United States. She celebrates her identity as Asian American and is proud to tell the stories of her family.
Anna Yang—This 17-year-old first-generation Chinese-American is a poet, social justice advocate and journalist. Anna Yang writes poetry because it gives a voice to those who go unheard, spinning thoughts into stanzas and bridging divisions with the unveiling of common humanity. Aside from poetry, she enjoys advocating for social change, hiking by the ocean and beekeeping.