Chandler Braxton / SMDP Intern
Jessica Kim, an 18-year-old author and poet, is the 2021-22 West Regional Youth Poet Laureate. Recently, she was the runner-up for the National Youth Poet Laureate. Identifying as visually impaired, writing poems allowed Kim to speak up about her disability and bring awareness to all youth with disability.
Kim started writing poetry in early 2020 after her school closed because of COVID-19. Her first work was a re-imagined poem of Maurice Sendal’s “Where The Wild Things Are,” where she wrote about the emotions she felt at the beginning of lockdown. She described feeling constrained and isolated.
“Writing poems became a tangible coping mechanism to an uncertain world, and it offered much comfort,” Kim said. “I had found a space of rehabilitation, so that kept me going and made me the poet I am today.”
Identifying as visually impaired, Kim has faced a lot of challenges. Growing up, she was reserved and felt different from her other classmates. She was self-conscious about her appearance and wanted to fit in with her peers. Over time, as she got older, Kim discovered that some things that challenged her, such as reading the whiteboard or reading an essay out loud, were simple tasks for everyone else. Seeing her classmates take their privilege for granted gave Kim the courage to speak up by writing about her disability.
“I wanted other people to understand my worldview and struggles with being visually impaired, so I decided to vocalize my story,” Kim said. “In my writing, I strive for that same sense of understanding. Writing, in a way, is like making eye contact with someone. At times, it’s hard for me to be confessional about my disability in speech, but with words, I find courage in having autonomy over my story.”
After writing a few poems, Kim wanted to get her work published. She quickly learned how little representation there was of disabled youth in literary magazines, which was discouraging. In the summer of 2020, Kim attended her first poetry workshop, where she learned about Constance Merritt, a blind writer. Merritt’s poems on disability were Kim’s first experience reading about someone who faced the same issues. Merritt’s work inspired Kim to write about her life being visually impaired. In the beginning, Kim did not set out to write a book; however, she learned that her story of being visually impaired was more than a couple of poems and that it was essential for her to share her story.
Becoming the West Coast Youth Poet Laureate was a unique experience for Kim because it expanded her idea of what poetry meant to her and her community. She got to work in a collaborative group with three other youth poets, where she could see a communal space for poetry for the first time. Becoming the West Coast Youth Poet Laureate changed her outlook on poetry and herself.
“As the West Regional YPL, I had to create a legacy for myself in public news outlets and respond to current issues in my society.” Kim said. “I started to see myself as an activist and leader in my local and virtual communities.”
As a kid, Kim did not advocate for herself and her disability; she felt alone in the battle to bring awareness because she did not know any other kids who were like her. In 2020, Kim founded “I-CREATE YOUTH” (ICY), a youth-led nonprofit organization that raises awareness and connects disabled youth. Initially, Kim created personalized writing workshops for visually-impaired students. However, Kim wanted to expand ICY to all students with disabilities. ICY has now grown into an organization for all disabled youth to have an opportunity to share their story and feel supported.
“ICY connects and empowers disabled youth through language in its various forms, whether it be writing, programming or speech,” Kim said. “I’m equally interested in creating a larger network of disabled young people who can offer resources to future generations and encourage each other to be unapologetic about their identity.”
Kim’s poetry has made an impact in her life as well as the life of her readers. In April 2022, she published her first “L(EYE)GHT,” where she expanded on her life as a Korean-American and on growing up disabled. Currently, Kim is not working on anything new but she plans to continue writing. She wants to change her focus from poetry to writing dialogue in essays. Kim wants to connect with her audience through a voice and said she looks forward to expanding her skills and growing as a writer.