Breaking News
More () »

West Lafayette teen finalist for National Youth Poet Laureate title

Charlotte Yeung, a sophomore at Purdue, is one of four finalists for the Urban Word National Youth Poet Laureate title.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A Purdue University sophomore is one of four finalists for the Urban Word National Youth Poet Laureate title. Nineteen-year-old Charlotte Yeung calls herself a poet, artist, activist and humanitarian.

In the Fountain Square headquarters of VOICES, Yeung recites her poem called "Tradeoffs", her perspective on her father fleeing China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. 

"Tradeoffs" by Charlotte Yeung 

   I. Sparrows in Hokkien
I never went to my father’s birthplace
but I sometimes dream of stale cave air
mixing with the sweat dripping off my father’s
nose as he crawls through the dark, a
game the villagers taught the children to play
so that they would know where to run
if the Americans dropped their bombs.
my father slingshots Sparrows
out of the sky, a childish game that
seemed like the brush of young cruelty
until I learned that Mao ordered those
birds to drop like rain.
there was nothing to eat,
my father took the fallen home.  

  1. Storied Trades 

my family’s history has flown away–
all that remains are vague facts
wrapped in imperfect memory
drifting down the eaves of the
family tree, poor explanations for
the imprint of genetic code.
the expression of my genes tells me
that my ancestors traded
telomeres for survival,
memory for the present.
there is very little to say about any branch
that spindles beyond my grandparents.
I can only guess what happened there,
a collection of dreams scattering my sleep.
in one version,
my ancestors live and my grandma isn’t sold.
in another,
the Americans bomb China and my
father and grandparents are incinerated,
their journey to Hong Kong never told.
in this version,
I am in a pandemic where I’m one of the
few functioning well because suddenly
everyone is in survival mode, and I am
no longer mad.
here, I am a Poet, pen dripping memory,
a volley of words resurrecting a history
covered in weeds,
hand smearing ink as thoughts of
friends trapped in missile-ridden lands
waiting for the next drone strike flicker past.
violence inks a new story,
one that plays out in decades and
centuries rather than the hours and years
of war. 

  1. Inked PTSD 

last night, I dreamt of war–
AK47 against Drone,
Chairman Mao against Sparrows.
in my waking hours, I follow the path
foretold in my genes–
rippling breath caught in throat as
frozen numbness seeps into bones,
ice swimming through veins, spreading
to the rest of the body until there is
nothing left to feel.
memories fall like a Sparrow shedding
feathers, impressions left to rest in the
debris of oblivion as wings flap on,
propelling the rest of the body forward in
a blind scramble for survival.
now I carry a legacy my family
can barely remember–paper trail in dust,
ashed somewhere in Hokkien and Hong Kong.
Here in America, there is a reckoning in my voice–
I lace together recollection and verse,
case turmoil into art.
Maybe this is the
antidote to
tossing history for life;
poems cementing past beyond those
inked in genes. 

"I see poetry as this amazing vehicle to speak with people to communicate with people across the world and across different cultures,” said Yeung, a native of West Lafayette, Indiana.

Yeung became involved with activism and social change through VOICES, an Indianapolis organization that uses the arts for healing and change. Yeung is the second straight winner of the Midwest Regional Ambassador award from Indiana. Last year, Alyssa Gaines represented VOICES and became the first Hoosier to win the National Youth Poet Laureate. 

But Yeung’s artistic activism goes beyond poetry. In November, Charlotte traveled to Hiroshima as the youngest person in a delegation from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). She met with survivors of the atomic bomb, which inspired her poem "Seeds of Peace."

"Seeds of Peace" – by Charlotte Yeung
Inspired by Yoshiko Kajimoto, So Horie, and Koko Kondo. 

The end flies like a bullet,
racing to the bottom like a bomb,
accelerating like metal escaping its casing, then
                    detonating suddenly. 

  1. Yoshiko Kajimoto: Hiroshima, 1945 

The end is here but she doesn’t hear it.  
She sees it as a flash of blue.
She blacks out, wakes to the ruptured remnants
of her classmates, bodies more tattered than whole.
Stumbling, she grabs someone–
school taught her how to treat wounds, but what can be done with Hiroshima on fire?
she steps through bodies oily and hairless from the blast,
walks past a boy holding his severed leg.
Near ground zero, the survivors stumble, bodies like jackets worn inside out. They go to Honkawa River, hoping the water can soothe their burns,
forgetting the river is an echo of the ocean, saltwater in its depths.
They realize too late, salt rubbing into open corpse wounds.
She is on a mountain now, high enough to see the city etched in fire.
Black rain falls out ash-seeded clouds, cratering the skin.
It’s sticky and cold, and makes the fish die.
It coils itself inside the wells, the groundwater.
Days later, she finds her father.
She launches herself into his open arms,
cries in his tattered shirt.
They are the lucky ones.
In Fukuromachi Elementary School, parents call for their children,
and leave chalk messages on walls. A dying teacher begs
for his co-workers to watch after his injured students.
Unbearable, they ask their children to come home.
Her arm grows maggots.
7 months later, her grandma holds her down
as a doctor picks 7 glass shards out her arm.
Her father dies from radiation poisoning, her mother is hospitalized.
Her story one of many
lives thrown apart because of the bomb,
because of the choice to detonate a killing machine
on a city of innocents. 

  1. Yoshiko Kajimoto and Soh Horie: Hiroshima, 2022 

Kajimoto-san tells this unflinchingly.
Cloaked in silver, she is no longer 14 but 91.
She looks far younger, arrayed before Americans and others,
speaking her truths over a meal of scattered bento lunches.
I lose myself to the riptide of this history,
my only anchor my pen inking this testimony.
Eyes blurry, whiplashed by memory into silence, staring at
the firm line of her mouth where we reentered Hiroshima 1945.
She is lucky enough to tell us what happened
when so many others could not.
Horror and despair catch my throat.
I say nothing save for my hands sketching her portrait.
From across the room, Horie-san walks over.
He was 5 when the bomb fell. After the bomb, he scooped
a handful of soil and found human remains in his palm.
Now he tends to the roses grown near ground zero.
His face ripples as he presses a pencil into open palms.
He tells us he carved them from
the broken remains of cherry blossom trees,
the kind of tree sent to Germany and America
as a gesture of hope, of planting new seeds.
To receive this as the descendent
of three rival heritages: Hong Kong, America, and China,
felt like drowning.
Shock foaming at this gift.
What I remember most were his eyes sharpened with dreams,
the hitch of his breath like a thrashed wave,
and his words, halting in English:
Please use your work……for human beings. 

  1. Koko Kondo: Hiroshima, 2022 

I could not understand  
how they had this generosity when their lives were ripped away
by violence, many thrown around and bruised, unrecognizable
To the point where the dead lost their names.
How they could speak with kindness
when they could do nothing in the face of the bomb,
in the face of being judged as a survivor of radiation,
losing family, homes, and jobs.
Koko Kondo explained it best:
Hating people is not the way; it’s war itself that’s evil.
Her father had rescued the dying in Honkawa river,
as a child, she was forced to strip for tests by the Allied Army.
Seeing her now,
she is vibrant with delight, decades of anti-war protest making her glow,
the face of a generation once silently suffering
now the harbingers of peace, hoping for a future without war.
Her heartfelt voice
cleaves the still conference air into epiphanies:
You will make it into the next century… I don’t think I will. 
My hopes and dreams are in your hands. 
I walk among the ghosts of Hiroshima’s dead,
eyes scouring the tattered remains of children’s clothes, the
round shadow of a vaporized man. Blurry, my eyes
cleanse with salt water until it becomes an urn for their dead.
The photographs of bones amid debris,
The rusted remnants of a tricycle,
The words fading but the images
Etched in my brain.
Not a battlefield,
more like a killing field.
The atomic dome gapes.
But this city is no ruin.
Hiroshima is frenetic,
Honkawa river gleams.
Roses sent from Germany after the war flourish under golden leaves,
a cenotaph carrying hibakusha names silhouettes a burning flame.
Brilliant paper cranes dance in the breeze,
Strands of thousands draped over memorials and fresh flowers,
Each folded as a message for peace,
Sent from students all over the world.
This is a home reconciled-
Hope planted from Hibakusha taking the time
to show rebuilding and change,
the city cradling memory in stone.
Leafing through my notes, I find,
Planted between thumb and index finger
Drawings of cranes, roses, and dreams,
peace art seeding the ashes of war. 

Last summer, Charlotte started a poetry class for women in Afghanistan.

"I try to help people amplify their voices for collective liberation,” said Yeung. “And so many of my poems, especially the ones that I read out, often are related to social issues."

Yeung is also an award-winning published author. She wrote "Isabel and the Magic Bird" when she was a senior in high school. It became an Amazon children's best seller. Isabel discovers an abandoned park and works to preserve the land. Yeung also illustrated the book.

"I grew up with a lot of Disney characters where the idea was if you were a girl, you either waited for a guy to save you or you did something only if your family was threatened like Mulan or Beauty and the Beast, and I just wanted a story where they just wanted to do something just because they felt like it,” said Yeung.

The book led to a publishing a coloring book on climate change. Charlotte sees her future in diplomacy and nuclear policy.  

Over the next few months, Yeung will participate in master classes with mentors and leaders from across the national poetry and social justice sector, and prepare work as part of their final portfolio submission. She and the three other regional finalists will also participate in and lead performances, workshops and convenings across the country culminating at the National Youth Poet Laureate Commencement April 28 at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center in Maui, Hawaii.  

Before You Leave, Check This Out