Photo Credits: Sacramento Area Youth Speaks / Courtesy. Alexandra Huynh performs spoken word poetry at the UC Davis SAYS Summit in 2019.
Youth Poet Laureate Western Regional Ambassador Alexandra Huynh details her ambitions; SAYS director discusses how the program elevates underserved student voices
Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS), founded and sponsored by UC Davis, is a “social justice movement,” as stated on their website, concerned with providing modes of expression to underserved high school students and helping create pathways to higher education. Through spoken word poetry, the goal of SAYS is to help students articulate narratives and explore their own identities.
Patrice Hill, the director of SAYS, believes that self-expression is vital for students to gain an understanding of themselves.
“If we’re not given the opportunity and the space to speak up and break our chains, then how do we ever fully realize our full potential? How do we ever truly articulate who we are?” Hill said.
Alexandra Huynh, a recent high school graduate who joined SAYS in her junior year, earned the title of Youth Poet Laureate Western Regional Ambassador and will progress as one of four finalists in the National Youth Poet Laureate competition. This is the same competition that Amanda Gorman, who recited a poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, entered and won in 2017.
“I’ve always loved performing even though I was a pretty shy kid,” Huynh said. “I had a brief stint on the speech team in my sophomore year, and I was in drama in middle school, but I don’t think I ever had such a strong platform to be able to perform.”
Huynh recounted her memories of the first organized annual slam poetry competition she attended at the Brickhouse Art Gallery in Downtown Sacramento.
“I remember the semifinals was when I really felt like, ‘Wow, this is a thing that I can continue doing,’” Huynh said. “I just remember the rows of seats really packed together and the single microphone at the front center of the art gallery, which was our stage. It felt very intimate but also very open at the same time. Everyone was just listening to whatever you had to say.”
Huynh acknowledges that nerves are a common part of the experience of performing, but shared that her sense of stability onstage comes from confidence in the words she’s written.
“One thing that really helps me is knowing that I wrote the words that I’m about to speak because they came from my soul,” Huynh said. “I guess [that] sounds kind of cliche, but I don’t think I could ever forget something that I wrote because it’s how I feel.”
While many of Huynh’s poems are centered around personal identity issues she faces as a Vietnemese-American, some carry broader themes about the Sacramento community, such as homelessness and environmental justice. To Huynh, spoken word is a unique medium of expression with particular artistic value.
“I think the beautiful thing about spoken word and poetry in general is that you can really express yourself in whichever way you want, so you can play with memory, you can use incorrect grammar to prove your point, you can mix languages,” Huynh said.
Huynh said that most of her expression during her performances isn’t rehearsed ahead of time.
“When I’m performing, I kind of like to imagine it’s the last time I’m ever going to perform a piece, and to not just to perform, but really live inside of it,” Huynh said. “I can’t ever really predict how my voice is going to change or how my face is going to look when I’m performing.”
Although Huynh has contemplated watching recordings of herself delivering a poem to perfect her delivery, she has largely decided against it.
“To some extent, it would probably be useful to me to look back on my performances to see if there are certain things I could change to make them more impactful, but is that my goal at the end of the day, to really refine it? Or is my job as a poet to just be the most authentic version of myself that day when delivering?” Huynh said.
If Huynh won the title of National Youth Poet Laureate, she would hope to use the achievement to improve education and elevate youth’s voices.
“One thing I would really focus on is working to make sure young people are accepted as whole people in every system that affects us,” Huynh said. “So [with] education, I think we need to work on diversifying our curriculum and making sure that kids see themselves in the narratives that are being presented to them and that they believe that they can be main characters.”
Huynh is currently taking a gap year before attending Stanford University in fall 2021 and she’s using her time to intern at UC Davis’ Environment, Land and Food Systems Lab. She’s particularly interested in creative writing, chemical engineering and civic engagement, passions that she hopes to merge in a future career.
“Everyone deserves access to clean water, clean energy, food that is nutritious, but also that takes into account the fact that peoples’ livelihoods are not just physical, they’re emotional, they’re social,” Huynh said. “And I think part of that means bringing in art and giving people, especially young people, access to opportunities where they feel like they can express themselves.”
Hill believes Huynh’s achievements speak to the value SAYS contributes to youth.
“One, it’s so exciting. Two, it’s an honor; we’re just so proud of [Huynh],” Hill said. “I think it’s just a testament to the type of work we do where we consistently invest in young people and we believe wholeheartedly in their stories and their truth, and we know that young people have the tenacity, the power and the ability to transform us.”Written by: Lyra Farrell — firstname.lastname@example.org