“I actually did not practice any of my poems.”
It’s a strange admission for someone about to close out the 2023 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
But Jessica Kim is anything but ordinary.
After her introduction and reading of her first poem, Kim admitted to her lack of practice to the not-entirely-full audience at the Poetry Stage, to whom she “kind of apologize[d].”
She later admitted, in private, that she chose her poems less than an hour before her slotted performance time due to her redeye flight from the East Coast, where she was taking tours of Princeton, Yale and MIT, all colleges to which she was accepted.
In her work, the 18-year-old details personal experiences with family, cultural identity and her visual impairment. The youngest speaker at this year’s Festival, Kim has complete confidence in her poems, even if they’re unrehearsed and unedited.
“When I finish writing a first draft, I tell myself, ‘It’s done,’” Kim said. “Many poets struggle with having to revise their poems, but in a way, I can’t really relate to that.”
Though she exudes the confidence of a much more seasoned writer, Kim’s just three years into her craft. At the beginning of the pandemic, in 2020, the then-high school freshman, who’d just returned to the United States after seven years of living in South Korea and Singapore, began to put her pen to paper.
“I had so many emotions, and I wanted to really make them concrete,” Kim said. “I realized that by … unraveling these emotions into a poem … it was from a place that was difficult to navigate but [was] also enchanting.”
She finds inspiration in many places: the news, other writers such as Ocean Vuong and Franny Choi, Twitter friends and just simple teenage woes. She refuses to box herself into one theme.
When she reads about a rise in Asian American hate crimes, she writes a response as a Korean American. The next day, she’s an Angeleno, writing a love letter to the city. Then, she offers an analysis of living with a visual impairment in a world built for the able-bodied. This is all while being the editor-in-chief of two literary magazines — The Lumiere Review, which she also founded, and Polyphony Lit.
While she grew up an avid reader, she never cared for writing, previously only using painting and music as creative outlets. As she began to truly explore writing, Kim sought assistance from WriteGirl, a writing mentorship program for girls, nonbinary and gender-expansive people between the ages of 13 and 19.
Keren Taylor, the founder of WriteGirl, created the program to give young writers like Kim a space to grow their voice.
“Teen girls are a little bit of an invisible group. The world thinks that they’re undeveloped and need to just grow up and don’t really want to hear what they have to say,” Taylor said. “That is a very frustrating thing. Women at a very young age start having very strong opinions and views and perspectives about the world and their voice is important for all of us to hear.”
Taylor sees Kim as a “conduit” for the unheard voices of teen girls, admiring the “ferocity” in her work.
Amanda Gorman, the 2021 Inaugural Poet, is also a graduate of the WriteGirl program. She was the first-ever Youth Poet Laureate of L.A., holding the title in 2014. Gorman’s story inspired Kim to apply to the L.A. Youth Poet Laureate program.
Held in collaboration with the Los Angeles Public Library, the competition requires applicants to submit three poems and a resume. Candice Mack, the managing librarian of systemwide teen services at LAPL, said the resume is so the voters can get a more well-rounded look at the poet. She says the title is awarded for more than just a poet but for an active member of the community, with the judges putting emphasis on community service.
Mack has been with the program since its inception in 2014 and remembers seeing Gorman win the prize and following her journey afterward.
“Even when they win, and they’ve blown you away, you also don’t know what is going to happen next for them,” Mack said. “I hope there are lots more Amanda Gorman’s or Jessica Kim’s.”
Concurrently with her application for the Youth Poet Laureate title, Kim submitted her work to literary magazines and journals. In the process, she submitted to Animal Heart Press’ chapbook competition in 2021. That was the first contest from the Australian publishing company, which created the competition to uplift feminist voices, according to managing editor Amanda McLeod.
Kim’s work was up against more than 100 submissions from all over the world. The judges, McLeod, editor-in-chief Elisabeth Horan and managing editor and logistics manager Beth Gordon, read all submissions individually and each created a shortlist of possible winners.
Kim’s work made all three editors’ lists.
The judges read the submissions blindly. According to McLeod, the trio was shocked when the authors were revealed and Kim’s young age was made known.
“At the time that she won that contest, she was really young and our jaws just all fell open because her writing sounds like the voice of someone with so many more years of life experience,” McLeod said. “She’s really considerate and so wise and insightful for her age.”
She ended up as a dual runner-up in the competition. Originally, the prize for a runner-up was a copy of the winner’s book plus a feature in the publisher’s literary magazine, FERAL: A Journal of Art and Poetry.
However, McLeod said Animal Heart Press loved her work so much that they decided to take her on as a client, publishing her poetry collection, “L(eye)ght,” in March 2022.
Originally, Kim planned to call the collection, “Tw(eye)light,” which, as she made it very clear, is not at all related to the Stephenie Meyer’s series of the same (homophonic) name. She says she chose this title because most of the poems are inspired by that time of day.
She says twilight is inspiring because it is a sort of in-between of light and dark, just as she sees her vision. She says she also admired the ever-changing nature of that time of day.
“Twilight does not appear the same every day,” Kim said. “That fluidity, but also that intimacy, drew me to that time of day, and I wrote maybe even kind of subconsciously toward that.”
Despite her literary success, Kim plans to major in computer science in college, or as she describes it, “the poetry of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics.]”
According to Miye Sugino, one of Kim’s closest friends and “L(eye)ght”'s cover artist, Kim has always been STEM-oriented. Sugino, a freshman at Yale, is currently working to convince Kim to join her in the fall.
Although she is two grades ahead of Kim, Sugino found herself in the same multivariable calculus and linear algebra class.
She says one of her most “vivid” memories of Kim occurred while she was struggling to copy down the teacher’s work as quickly as it was happening while Kim was not writing anything down. Once the teacher finally finished the proof, Kim raised her hand, corrected him and redid the entire problem for the class.
While STEM may be her start at college, she still plans to continue writing, whether that be with a double major, minor or simply in her free time. According to McLeod, “she will be the Poet Laureate of the United States one day.”
While the literary world predicts a bright future for the young poet, for now, Kim just has one worry: What to wear to graduation in June.
This article has been corrected to properly identify Keren Taylor’s interview responses within this piece.