Meet Mimi Yu, Nebraska's First Youth Poet Laureate

Dec. 29, 2021, 7 a.m. ·

Mimi Yu poses for a photo
Jingming "Mimi" Yu is Chinese American and recently graduated from Lincoln East High School. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

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 announce 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, which was five pages long, in the sixth grade. But before poetry, she found passion in visual arts, winning multiple Scholastic Art awards.

Every essay she wrote in elementary school was just three sentences and a doodle, she said.

"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 of high school, 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. On weekends, she also teaches art to kids at the Lincoln Chinese Academy. Tina Le, Yu’s English teacher and Slam Poetry Club sponsor, saw her drive for enriching Asian American creatives. Reading her poetry, Le encouraged Yu to apply to be Nebraska’s first 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. 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."

Screenshot of Mimi Yu in a video with "Nebraska Youth Poet Laureate" written underneath
Yu performed a few of her poems in front of the Nebraska Board of Education. (Photo courtesy Lincoln Public Schools via Facebook)

Matt Mason, Nebraska’s state poet, said a statewide 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 young people 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."

Yu said she feels pressured to make her poetry relatable -- something that was at the core of 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 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 poetry is a kind of 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.

Watch Yu perform her poem, "Kitchen Dialogue."

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2021" Signature Story report. The story originally aired and was published on June 11, 2021.