Paly junior explores cultural identity through poetry

STORY BY JONAS PAO AND MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Most students probably view the poetry unit in English class as just another midday nap opportunity. But while her classmates were dozing off, this is where Jasmine Kapadia fell in love with poetry as a first grader — and since then, her poems and slam poetry performances have attracted audiences ranging from fellow Palo Alto High School students to Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Yousafzai was one of numerous influential leaders who nominated one individual they were inspired by on an Asian American Pacific Islander Inspiration List created by “Good Morning America” — and she chose Kapadia.

The Paly junior said she feels that slam poetry, a type of poetry that is composed for live performance, has given her the creative freedom to explore her favorite themes of what it means to be Asian American and allows poets like her to be “angrier” with language.

“The very first slam poem that I wrote was about this grappling between cultures and figuring out where I landed,” Kapadia said. “Since then, I’ve become much more comfortable in my culture with directly doing very Asian cultural things, whether that’s just straight up going into Mandarin in the middle of a poem, or whether it’s more subtle.”

Coming from a mixed Indian and Chinese background, Kapadia most often incorporates her unique cultural identity into her poetic work. Considering that not all of her readers relate to these experiences, she strives to avoid exaggerating their weight.

“It can be a fine line to walk between feeling like you are playing up the diaspora experience or playing up the Asian American experience, and being true to you,” Kapadia said. “Something I’ve had to figure out is, how much do I want to portray the Asian American experience? And how can I portray it without sort of commodifying trauma?”

Kapadia’s poem, “photograph of my 奶奶 in her youth,” that won a gold medal from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, is a perfect example of how she has woven her Asian American background within her poems.

The poem was inspired by a photograph of Kapadia’s 奶奶 (grandmother) in her Taiwanese home.

“I was able to tell a beautiful experience about someone that I really, really admire, but also represent my culture,” she said.

Kapadia submitted this poem and many others to a plethora of literary magazines, but despite all her success in doing so, Kapadia said she’s careful not to give in to the competitive nature of writing submissions.

“A lot of teen writers call it ‘the teen writing industrial complex’ because it’s set up on contests and publication,” Kapadia said. “Whenever I publish, there is a sense of that feeling like, ‘Oh, I want to get the next publication. I want to get even more,’ and it’s hard to not compare yourself to other authors’ bios.”

To help her escape these feelings, Kapadia often talks with many of her friends in teen poetry communities that she is active in. Kapadia said that the community is able to “comfort” her through the hardships of being involved with poetry.

Kapadia and other poets who are part of these poetry communities often had to learn about poetry through their own personal endeavors. 

As a contemporary poet, Kapadia advocates for the “modernization” of public schools’ creative writing curriculum — she said that reading poetry written by predominantly white authors held her back from realizing her personal literary style.

“We need to be teaching literary magazines, we need to be teaching slam poets,” Kapadia said. “There are so many amazing poets out there that may not be household names, but have words that are so beautiful and really need to be taught.”

Kapadia was lucky enough to find literary magazines and a diverse set of poets through her personal adventures through poetry and said she feels that poetry must be “for everyone,” and that everyone, including her, has a valid voice that is worth listening to. 

“I came into more of a personal style,” Kapadia said. “Just in understanding that, as an Asian American, my experiences are worth reading about and that I have value in poetry as well.”

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