Meet Mimi Yu, Nebraska's First Youth Poet Laureate
Updated: Jan 3, 2022
Published for Nebraska Public Media and PBS NewsHour CANVAS
Jingming "Mimi" Yu is Nebraska's first Youth Poet Laureate. She's a recent graduate from Lincoln East High School, a visual artist and advocate for young Asian American creatives.
When something very important happens, Yu tries to avoid it. On the night she earned the title of Youth Poet, Yu said she knew it was happening, so she asked her mom if they could go to Sam’s Club instead.
"I remember not thinking about it, and then passing one of my English teachers senior year," she said. "And looking at her and thinking, 'I should go on the Zoom call just in case they call my name and I'm not there.' Right when I get on the call, that was when they were going to notice my name. And my first response was to unmute and say that I'm at Sam's Club right now."
Yu has come a long way since writing her first poem back in sixth grade, which was five pages long. But she found passion in visual arts before poetry, winning multiple Scholastic Art awards. She said every essay she wrote in elementary school was just three sentences and a doodle.
"I'm more of a visual learner because I was better at drawing before I was better at writing," she said. "And I think, maybe, some component of art transferred onto poetry."
In her freshman year, Yu joined Lincoln East’s Slam Poetry club. By senior year, she was president of the Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Club, Art Club and more. She also teaches art to kids at the Lincoln Chinese Academy on weekends. Yu’s English teacher and Slam Poetry Club sponsor, Tina Le, saw her drive for enriching Asian American creatives and read her poetry. Le encouraged Yu to apply to be Nebraska’s first state youth poet laureate.
"When she first started, she was kind of afraid of sharing her poetry with others," Le said. "Poetry is a very personal thing. And so the fact that she was willing to share her work with others, in this very public way, shows a lot of growth in that, and I'm really proud of her for taking that step."
Matt Mason, Nebraska’s state poet, said the Nebraska Writers Collective launched the Youth Poet Laureate program because they had to look for new virtual activities during the pandemic. Seventeen students from all over the state submitted a resume, a 500-word essay and a collection of five poems to compete for the title. Mason said he hopes the program will get more youth interested in poetry.
"These young writers have less filters in saying what is actually important," he said. "I think as we grow into adulthood, we lose a little bit of our ability to say what we're desperate to say, in some ways, and here these students are straightforward, telling us who they are what's important to them."
Though Mason wasn’t a judge, he has seen Yu perform.
"She's low key. She's not a poet who's going to come on stage and wave her hands and yell and, things that I do," he said. "But she is a really strong writer already, which is kind of frightening at that young age, and she writes really vivid descriptions of family life, [and] of community."
Yu is Chinese American. Le, Yu’s teacher, said people not from the state sometimes have a singular assumption about what defines a Nebraskan.
"I think, Mimi, being Youth Poet Laureate, kind of broadens people's idea of who is a Nebraskan, and who is someone who can represent us," Le said. "It's not just this one sort of person, but that Nebraska is really a much more diverse place than people would think."
Nebraska’s Youth Poet said she feels pressured to make her poetry understandable. Something that she's accomplished with her poem: “Kitchen Dialogue.”
"It's not necessarily about being Chinese," she said. "It's about love, and family and how we evolve from past experiences, which I think isn't confined to one group of people. That is universal."
Read Yu's poem, "Kitchen Dialogue," here.
Yu said “Kitchen Dialogue” is the only poem that made her really feel something.
"I've always thought about food being a love language. And I actually wrote it in one morning, while I was in class, and it made me cry," she said. "Because, it was a very emotional reading that poem."
As Nebraska’s first Youth Poet Laureate, Yu will be representing the state in regional and national competitions, working on a local civic project and will have the chance to compete as the National State Poet. Yu said she’s here because people need reasons to live and exist – and poetry is therapy for the soul that everyone needs once in a while.
"I don't think poetry was meant to resolve every issue across the world. I think that's giving it too much credit," she said. "But I think it provides a reason to continue working towards those issues. I think it builds and grows around what we see as burning, dying, decaying."
Yu will be performing at the Lincoln Arts Festival on June 19. Watch her perform more poems here.