By Tina Mai
Many ask what a poet laureate does, some even ask if poets get paid to do it. Although our OC Poet Laureates program is different than others across the nation, we do try to make the appointment about the selected poet more-so than what the community expects of them. Yet, there are two goals we do emphasize: engage with our community and be the change you want to see, especially for the diverse voices in the region. In exchange, we offer a modest honorarium and project funding for special initiatives. We also conduct monthly check-ins and help the laureates book paid speaking engagements. We do this because we believe this position has value, and the poet has already done a fair share of community work before being recognized. Since we announced the OC Poet Laureates last August, we extended Dr. Natalie J. Graham's appointment through August 2023. The inaugural OC Youth Poet Laureate, Tina Mai, is culminating her term this summer with a Community Poem For-and-By Youth. Learn more about her experience as the first youth poet laureate in Orange County and why she wants more youth to apply to be the next OC Youth Poet Laureate!
My Experience as OC Youth Poet Laureate
When I was seven years old, any spare time I had (whether that’s in between multiplication tables or coloring homework) was spent typing away on my mom’s laptop. I was just another aspiring writer with a hyperactive imagination, a cabinet overflowing with manuscripts, and an obsession with dogs (seriously, I wrote almost twenty chapter books about dogs). Back then, I was a recent immigrant who was not quite fluent in English, but I still tried my best to piece together words because I wanted to share my stories with the world. You could always find me weaving together some tale about talking puppies or flying cities in a whimsical realm. And because I dreamed of becoming a published author, I would use my DIY craft skills (oh, what a phase) to staple together some “books” and set up a little bookstore to display them.
Clearly, my writing has changed since then (otherwise I would still be scribbling poems about dogs named Smarty). But thinking back, I realized that I’ve always seen stories as the bedrock of a community—they bring people together and help us relate to one another. I’ve moved from country to country, hopped from school to school, but what I’ve always held dear are the stories I’ve been told by people along the journey.
On the day I found out I was to be Orange County’s first youth poet laureate, I was overcome with excitement—it was an opportunity I never could have imagined. — Tina Mai
Flash forward to now: nearly a decade later, I had probably the most fruitful year of poetry in my life thus far. On the day I found out I was to be Orange County’s first youth poet laureate, I was overcome with excitement—it was an opportunity I never could have imagined. Since that day, I have been presented with incredible opportunities, from speaking alongside the brilliant Dr. Natalie J. Graham to getting recognized by the Santa Ana City Council. Last October, I was invited to the 15th annual Passing the Mic festival run by the University of Wisconsin, which gave me the chance to meet and collaborate with several talented and creative youth from around the country. At the same time, I got to participate in OC Public Libraries’ social media campaign to celebrate their 100th anniversary. I also had an incredible experience performing a spoken word piece at the 4th Anniversary LibroMobile Literary Arts Festival (picture below); it was an unforgettable evening at the beautiful Heritage Museum of OC. Recently, I had the honor of contributing to the inaugural issue of Citric Acid, a new literary journal with the mission to feature diverse and politically-engaged voices from all parts of the county. Overall, I’m still in disbelief that I got this chance to champion the voices of youth, POC, and immigrants like myself.
Huge thanks to the team at LibroMobile and to everyone reading this for believing in me, for giving me the opportunity to share my voice, and for trusting me with the platform to empower other poets out there. I hope plenty of youth between 13-21 feel compelled to submit to the the Community Poem I'm curating in honor of my year as the first OC Youth Poet Laureate. I am grateful to belong to such a diverse and passionate community of writers in Orange County, and I can’t wait to see what stories will emerge here in the future.
Tina Mai is a 16-year-old writer and the first OC Youth Poet Laureate. Her writing has received recognition from the Library of Congress, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the Poetry Society of the UK, Bow Seat, the North Carolina Poetry Society, and the CSLA, among others. She is also the youngest recipient of the Atlanta Review International Poetry Award, in addition to being a Best New Poets nominee and a Scholastic National Gold Medal winner in poetry.
To learn more about the OC Youth Poet Laureate program and apply, visit the OC Poet Laureates page and attend the OCYPL Reading & Info Session on April 16th! To participate in the Community Poem For-and-By Youth initiative, submit here.
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