Writer. Mentor. Teaching artist. Transformative justice activist. These are among the roles young Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) poets willingly take on. Speaking to four of Seattle’s finest recently, their maturity and wisdom was quickly evident. They self-identify as educators, formally and informally, committed to nurturing the next generation and actively creating a better world. Robin Suhyung Park, a 24-year-old Korean American poet, educator and self-described “transformative justice activist,” among other things, explains, “Art is crucial to society; the only way to create something is to imagine it first. Art has been central to every social and political movement ever—it’s creative fuel.”
Self-expression serves as their breath, poetry their fire. Anything from a broken heart to the complex history behind biracial ancestry is fair game. Frequently raw and explicit, their poetry shocks and stirs, moving beyond typical topics. Lines about gender, socio-political issues, colonialism and sexism sit alongside lighter musings.
These poets view their writing as agents of social activism and change, and don’t stop with spitting words at slams and open mikes. Heavily influenced by hip-hop lyricists such as Nas and Tupac, they are inspired by youth, life, family members and mentors. They draw upon writers such as Dante, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, just as poets before them.
With backgrounds in playwriting, theater and storytelling, they use poetry as a springboard for other creative endeavors, particularly music. Tony “Illaphant” Innouvong is a talented 24-year-old rapper and emcee who spreads awareness about his Laotian heritage through music. Hollis Wong-Wear, a gifted half-Chinese and Caucasian performer and vocalist, gained a following as an outspoken rapper through Canary Sing, a duo she co-founded.
Innouvong is the founder of Freshest Roots, a community-based organization that spreads awareness of culture and positive energy through the arts. Serving as a teaching artist, mentoring youth and “providing spaces and opportunities for young people to put forth their art and voice is a form of activism,” says Innouvong.
“Poetry is a complete act of social justice, because it’s audacious and not commercial,” says writer Wong-Wear, 25. “Being a teaching artist is one huge actualization of art to me. I want to be the best artist I can be, so I can be the best teacher.” This means constant experimentation, with her latest effort being an electronic music album with The Flavr Blue, her new musical group.
Park and Wong-Wear refer to isangmahal arts kollective and Youth Speaks Seattle, arts organizations, reverently. It was at Youth Speaks that Park first met poet Troy Osaki, a mentee. All three credit it for creating a sense of community for young spoken word performers. Since its 2001 inception, the biennial APIA Spoken Word & Poetry Summit has provided another powerful source of support, strength and community for artists and activists nationwide.
Brave New Voices, an annual international youth poetry festival and slam competition, is an aspiration for many spoken word artists. Osaki, a gifted 19-year-old who combines poetry with music in innovative videos on YouTube, has been practicing for three years and is ecstatic to go for the first time this year.
Although more young APIA spoken word artists exist today than before, Osaki, who is half-Filipino and Japanese American, says he still feels like a minority in the poetry scene. Poems about race are common at slam competitions, but he rarely hears any about being Asian.
For youth, mentorship and encouragement to speak their truths is crucial. “Teen poetry is so incredible and transformative because it’s so honest,” observes Wong-Wear. Prized for its authenticity, rawness is a trademark of youth poetry, an unflinching stare in life’s face—and a reminder to adults that they’re paying attention. “Spoken word is a direct portal from experience to audience. It’s most powerful for APIA kids, because this art form is at odds with parental and societal expectations and stereotypes,” she explains.
Osaki views performance as an antidote to the solitary process of writing. With each poem taking a year to complete, “writing is a really long process and performing is really fun—you have an audience to work with. People are interacting with your poem. […] I perform for everyone who can’t.”
The rise of YouTube and social networking sites has allowed poets to share their work with larger audiences than ever. Poets now star in their own creative videos—Osaki’s “Pistol,” is a great example—as the trend of film narratives accompanying poetry catches on. Meanwhile, audience members continue uploading recordings at a dizzying pace. As a filmmaker, Park thinks this is great.
Similar to the ongoing loss of indigenous languages and cultures worldwide, spoken word faces a threat of extinction without documentation. Park and Innouvong are concerned about the fate of its history as an oral tradition with no “written record.” Park applauds efforts by the APIA Summit and others to record it.
Storytellers by trade, poets share their poems in hopes of finding and connecting with an audience. As Park says, “Storytelling is your story and no one else can take it from you. Sharing is very valuable and triggers a domino effect. If you can move even one person, you’ve done your job.”