This year’s Last Word Festival at The Roundhouse has been a mixture of online and in-person events. Although I had hoped to be able to attend more events, and accessing the festival hasn’t been easy, it was a pleasure to listen to poets Cecilia Knapp and Alexandra Huỳnh in conversation as I tucked into my dinner at home.
With this event taking place online, the two poets could come together from different countries and appear as if they were sitting side by side. Cecilia Knapp is an alumna of the Roundhouse Poetry Collective, from the tutorship of Steve Camden (aka Polarbear). A familiar face in the poetry world, and a regular feature at The Last Word Festival, Knapp is the current Young People’s Laureate for London. Alexandra Huỳnh is an 18-year-old Vietnamese American poet from Sacramento, California. She was the 2020 Sacramento Youth Poet Laureate, and she is the current National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States (2021).
Huỳnh began the conversation by talking about how she found poetry through songwriting, and the way it enabled her to express her emotions. Knapp also connected with this, and throughout the conversation it was clear that despite their differences, there were many points of common ground where poetry met. Whilst Huỳnh is so young, she clearly demonstrated a level of articulation and – as she mentioned herself – wisdom, beyond her years.
Both writers discussed the topics they tended to explore in their writing, with womanhood being a mutual element of exploration. Additionally, Huỳnh speaks as someone for whom English is not their first language, yet also from a place of Vietnamese being forgotten. She explains her fascination with poetry as being an attempt to find a way back to this part of herself without having the words, and embracing the imperfection that Knapp relates to as trying to find a language for what isn’t possible to explain – quoting Caroline Bird, she tells us poetry is ‘like trying to pack wind into a net’. As a poet myself, I related to this idea, that as poets we constantly seem to return to the same topics, feeling we have still failed each attempt to express the ineffable, and return to try again, and again, to repackage our words, to connect with others.
The hazards of being online did present themselves at one point – Knapp froze, but Huỳnh carried the event without a flinch in this moment, with incredible maturity. Both poets then responded to questions from the audience, bringing other poets into the conversation. Huỳnh cited Safia Elhillo for the way that form can incorporate breathing space, informing the reading of the poem aloud. Knapp quoted Terrance Hayes, who likened using poetic form to ‘breakdancing with a straitjacket’, implying that use of form can be inherently impressive when you pull it off, but also reflecting that it can force you out of your usual habits.
When discussing their experiences of laureateship, Huỳnh cited Amanda Gorman as inspiration. She did not at first realise that becoming a poet was something possible for her, but wanted to see where it would take her, driven by her desire to represent the Vietnamese community and Sacramento. She also spoke with an admirable honesty of how the attention that comes with laureateship has been overwhelming. For Huỳnh, the most meaningful aspect of the role is when other young girls message her with gratitude, and this spurs on her desire to get into classrooms and do workshops.
Likewise, the educational aspect of the laureate role is important to Knapp, who is passionate about removing the elitist boundaries that keep many out of poetry. As laureate, her desire is to change the minds of young people who may have negative assumptions about poetry, so that they too can experience the benefits of the artform without feeling excluded. Knapp described how her laureateship consists of writing articles and blogs, visiting schools, and doing interviews, with a structure featuring four projects over the year, partnering as a resident poet with different organisations. She said she had strong ideas about who she wanted to work with, which she didn’t have when she first interviewed for the role at a younger age. I remembered myself in 2013, the year Warsan Shire won the title, being one of the longlisted poets, and also perhaps lacking those specific ideas and the confidence to go forth with them.
Yet Knapp also stated that she still has moments of ‘imposter syndrome’ within her role, and how despite being a big planner, she sometimes still has a feeling she’s ‘winging it’, perhaps due to the unpredictable nature of being a self-employed poet, and messages society gives us about what being a businessperson means, and what being an artist means – as if they aren’t compatible. She also acknowledged, in contrast to this feeling, that as a public figure you can’t put a figure on who you’re helping – anyone could benefit from encountering your work, whether you hear from them or not, and to Knapp this is infinitely valuable as a source of motivation. Huỳnh also spoke about her concern at her own experience being too narrow to represent all young people, and the importance of creating a platform to invite others to speak, opening conversations to different perspectives.
Another aspect of being a poet in this or any public-facing role, which I related to, was Huỳnh’s admission of being an introvert. She realised early on that in order to make the career sustainable, she needed to learn when to say no. This testimony really spoke to me. It is hard to be compassionate with ourselves and not compare ourselves to those who are able to do more than us, but it is profoundly important that we do treat ourselves right, particularly for those who have long-term health conditions or other accessibility needs. Knapp also related to this idea and the pressure that comes from doing what you love; there is an expectation from yourself, as well as from others, that you should be able to do it 24/7, despite it being humanly impossible and unhealthy to work to such extremes.
Towards the end of the conversation, both poets shared some of their work. Huỳnh read us her poem ‘Life Cycle of a Catcall’, touching on female objectification, politeness and the power of words. Knapp read us a poem about the lack of agency over the female body in ‘my mother quit bread’, and how this is passed between mothers and daughters. Further discussion brought us back full-circle to the role of music in poetry, with Huỳnh agreeing that hip hop is a great way for young people to engage with poetry, arguing that artists like Kendrick Lamar are writing poetry set to music. Knapp also agreed with these connections, but also asserted the importance of viewing poetry as an artform in its own right.
Featured image credit: Roundhouse
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