City's new Youth Poet: Breaking down barriers with poetry

Otter Jung-Allen (left) and fellow finalists Husnaa Hashim (center) and Zoe Gray read from their work during the announcement at City Hall’s art gallery.

You taught them too well
How to silence that which they think beneath them,
And you are not on top anymore.
You have told them they are roadblock.
There will be hell to pay when they realize they are breakthrough.

At a news conference at the Art Gallery at City Hall on Thursday afternoon, a smiling Otter Jung-Allen, 16, read the poem "You Have Not Gagged Them." Jung-Allen was announced as the city's fourth-ever Youth Poet. A senior at Science Leadership Academy, Jung-Allen begins the one-year laureateship immediately.

A member of the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement team that won the top prize a year ago at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival in Atlanta, Jung-Allen, a transgender person who uses the plural pronoun in reference to themselves, is no stranger to the spotlight. They plan to use the accolade to talk to a wider audience about white privilege, queer visibility, and slam poetry.

Jung-Allen's poem spoke of a child stuck in a corner, punished for revolting against silence. "You Have Not Gagged Them" is a byproduct of days interning at Chester A. Arthur School, where a kid was dubbed "Bad Apple," "Hyperactive," and "Tantrum" for his behavior and isolated from the rest of the class. Telling the every-story of a young person being other-ed by the public school system, Jung-Allen read with intensity but never severity. Behind the poet's eyes was an attractive glimmer of hope, as if all of the voiceless might have a revolution if only someone let them. Judging from the power of the words, Jung-Allen may be that someone. 

Here is Otter Jung-Allen reading "You Have Not Gagged Them" at the announcement ceremony:

"A lot of people see slam poetry as this elitist, pretentious art form that doesn't really help anybody," Jung-Allen said, "but really it appeals to this vast audience, and it's able to change a lot of people's lives."

The poet laureate program, spearheaded by former mayor Michael Nutter and current mayor Jim Kenney, aims to bring poetry to Philadelphia through local voices by selecting one Poet Laureate every two years and a Youth Poet Laureate each academic year.

"It's not poetry as something that I studied in college that was Shakespeare, that was sort of fancy or highfalutin' in some ways," said city chief cultural officer Kelly Lee. "But it's storytelling, and it's bringing communities together to share their stories and finding the commonalities.

Yolanda Wisher, named poet laureate in early February, said the hope is "that poetry can do more than just be pretty words or entertainment. That it can be really life-changing and empowering for other people to find their voice and to really show community voices."

Wisher was on the committee that selected Jung-Allen, as well as finalists Husnaa Hashim and Zoe Gray, both of whom also read at the announcement on Thursday. 

Here is Husnaa Hashim reading at the announcement ceremony:

Wisher will also be mentoring Jung-Allen over the next year. She described the new young poet as a "leader" with "a really powerful life story to share and . . . the grace and the poise to really turn that story into art.

"That I think is something hard to do for any teenager," Wisher continued, "but I think Otter's making grace out of some really hard life experiences and turning them into beauty, and also turning them into empowerment for other people."

Jung-Allen is from West Philly and has been writing poetry since third grade (though they didn't graduate to slam poetry until ninth grade). They are hoping to use their new position to meet others from the queer artistic community.

"They're going to say, 'Hi, you're trans. I'm trans, too. Let's talk,' " Jung-Allen said. "Which is something that I pray for, because I think it's really important to have that sort of connection. And then I want to uplift those people, to say, 'You're trans, you have a poem, let me read it. Let's showcase it here.' "

When Jung-Allen began writing, they worried about how to make an impact, how to make their words resound to match the literary elite. But they didn't need to worry: Their poetry has already started tearing down barriers.

"Almost as soon as I started," Jung-Allen said, "there were people coming up to me after performances saying, 'I went through that thing you were talking about. And you just changed my night, or you just changed my month, just because of that poem.' "

avillarreal@philly.com
@allyevillarreal