National Youth Poet Laureate Finalist Jessica Kim on Writing as a Road to Self-Discovery

“Writing for me is an introspective and calculated process, which has given me comfort,” said Jessica Kim. “I could say whatever I wanted and knew there wasn’t a fear of being criticized or demeaned.” (Travis Auclair)

In June 2021, Jessica Kim sat at home on Zoom with 18 other young poets, performing her piece “Ghazal for K” and awaiting the naming of the next Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate. Unbeknownst to her, she would be inaugurated as the LA Youth Poet Laureate—then honored as the National Youth Poet Laureate Runner-Up just a year later. She’d go on to perform at the renowned Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Kim, a senior at La Cañada High School in Los Angeles, wasn’t always a writer. She started three years ago when the pandemic seemed to buck all sense of normalcy. “I considered myself more of a STEM person in high school—I really liked math. But something happened internally where I was forced to look into my emotions and try to deal with the outside world in a personal way,” said Kim. “Writing for me clicked because I found myself vulnerable but also expressive.” 

Poetry serves as a safe haven for Kim. But her poems have also aided her as a “vessel for empowerment,” she said. Spending most of her introverted preteen years in Asia—specifically Korea and Singapore—Kim struggled to muster up the courage to speak her mind and find her own voice, especially as a Korean immigrant in Los Angeles.

“[Starting out as a writer], I looked for experiences that could universally unite writers across the Asian diaspora, but in my recent works, I’ve tried to gravitate a lot towards truth and my own personal experiences,” said Kim. 

Kim is a revered figure in the youth literary world: She’s the founder and editor-in-chief of The Lumiere Review, an equality-focused literary magazine dedicated to showcasing the works of a wide range of writers and voices through prose, poetry and art. Founded in 2020, the publication welcomes submissions for its JUSTICE initiative.

While justice is something Kim feels passionate about and advocates for through her poetry, as a person, she felt she didn’t have the right to address these subjects, compared to people who have lived in America their entire lives. Poetry soon became a medium where she could comment on social justice and immigrant culture more reassuringly.

“Speech and discourse in general, for me personally, doesn’t allow for a way to be opinionated and vocal about societal issues,” said Kim. “Writing for me is a more introspective and calculated process, which has given me comfort in the sense that I could say whatever I wanted and knew there wasn’t a fear of being criticized or demeaned.” 

When she was inaugurated as the LA Youth Poet Laureate, Kim was both grateful and uncertain. She felt there were more deserving poets who could have earned the title. A month later, she was invited to an in-person poetry performance. “I felt completely out of place since I had never performed a poem in person before,” said Kim.

But this event changed Kim’s vantage point and gave her confidence. “For me, poems always existed on a page, or at most a recording. But performing in front of a live audience grounded who I was as a poet, and I found more certainty in how I could express myself as the LA Youth Poet Laureate.” Kim said it took her a long time to process the fact that she was representing the city of Los Angeles as a young poet—a concept she said she didn’t fully grasp until she retired from the coveted title a few of months ago.

Being named a National Youth Poet Laureate Finalist was an even greater and more unfathomable accolade. She was inspired by D.C.’s liveliness and by being around other youth poets.

This year, Kim released her debut chapbook L(eye)ght—the title hinting at her visual disability, a topic that continues to shape and influence her poetry.

“Growing up, I was withdrawn from my disability,” said Kim. “I would have to take medication, go to the optometrist, and undergo surgeries. They were dark moments for me, literally and figuratively.”

Through poetry, Kim pursued telling a narrative to quell her fear of being forgotten as someone other than herself. “Talking about my visual impairment was essential in viewing me as a person.” 

As a young poet and writer myself, it would be a disservice not to recognize Kim’s immense control over her craft in just a few years—which some writers work their entire lives to achieve.

Kim encourages young poets to find something that innately speaks to them. “I’ve had poems that I wrote specifically to submit to an institution, but I’ve realized that those don’t work as well compared to the pieces where I truly believe in the personal narrative,” said Kim. “Finding something that clicks with you and only you and not someone who would judge or review your work is extremely important in viewing yourself not only as a writer but as a very being.”

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Sanya Tinaikar is a high school student and writer from Pennsylvania. She is particularly interested in the intersection between health policy, social epidemiology, justice, and journalism.