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Updated July 25, 2016, at 3:02 p.m.
Otter Jung-Allen remembers “always” writing. As is common among gender nonconforming people, Jung-Allen uses the pronouns “they” and “them.” Jung-Allen is Philadelphia’s new youth poet laureate. Their mother, Beth Allen, says the same, “Ever since they could hold a pen, they’ve written.”
Jung-Allen is the fourth-ever youth poet laureate, a position that began in the Nutter administration. Youth poets serve one-year terms working alongside the city’s Poet Laureate (currently Yolanda Wisher), and receive a stipend of $1,000. Jung-Allen, 16, is a rising senior at Science Leadership Academy in Center City.
From short stories to slam poetry
Back in the day, long before winning the 2015 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam with Philly Youth Poetry Movement (PYPM), in third or fourth grade, Jung-Allen began to write short stories and prose. There was an “ongoing novel about a robot invasion. And then I had one about a jewel thief,” they recall with a laugh.
“I didn’t seriously write poetry as an art form that I respected and, like, saw potential in until ninth grade. That’s when I got into slam poetry,” says Jung-Allen. “Before then I just thought that poetry was like page poetry, it was just literature. It was something that old dead white guys did.”
Slam poetry, with collaboration, and competition and choreo, was not that. It was also an avenue to speak about injustices. A running theme in Jung-Allen’s work, which is now a mission of theirs as youth poet laureate, is to raise visibility for young transpeople.
The privilege of being heard
“I think that being poet laureate is a crazy privilege. One thing that my [former] English teacher Matt Kay, he’s part of PYPM, he always taught me that no matter what I’m doing, whether I’m talking to a crowd of three people or a million people— it is always a privilege to be able to be heard,” they say. “Because some people write for their entire lives and never ever hear their voices ever. And I’m lucky enough to be heard on a mass scale.” They seem themselves meeting with writers at events and conferences and sharing the work of queer youth— widely.
Jung-Allen is a quarter Mexican, and has written about their heritage. With that said, they thoughtfully speak as a person that is “white, able-bodied and young.” Plus, Jung-Allen knows they’re one of the more fortunate genderqueer people, because their mother and community accepted them.
“I want to open a discussion on how I can address my privilege, and how can I uplift the voices of people who don’t have the same privileges,” they say. “I want to create communities for other people who don’t have one already.”
On gender identity and choosing ‘Otter’
Jung-Allen identifies as transgender, as they do not identify with the gender they were designated at birth. Terms like non-binary, genderqueer and gender non-conforming are more tailored fits, but are still also umbrella terms for people who place themselves on a spectrum among multiple, if not endless, genders. Jung-Allen does research, but isn’t pressed on defining what exact subgroup they might fall in at the moment, putting it this way: “I’m 16.” Their focus, aside from school, looking at colleges in New York and Connecticut, poetry and using their work to create conversations around transgender lives, is more focused on getting people not to misgender them in speech, or refer to them with the proper name.
They transitioned around last summer. The word “she” began to feel like a curse word or a slur, Jung-Allen explains. Support came through conversations with PYPM member and staffers. Lee Mokobe, one of their good friends, shared stories about Mokobe’s own path to becoming a transboy. “When I heard that you could be either or both, you could be gender noncomforming, you could agender, you could be whatever you wanted. That was the light for me,” they recall.
Had Jung-Allen been assigned male at birth, their mother would have named them Otis. They shared this with the PYPM team and it became something like a joke. Then they started calling them Ottie. Then, Jung-Allen flipped it into their first name, Otter.
“They just came home and said ‘This the name I want to use,’ and I said ‘Okay,’” says Allen, their mother. “The West Philly community that I live in and became an adult in, people often chose their own names. Sometimes people grow up with difficult histories, and choosing a new name is a way of stepping away from your past and claiming a new identity. So I’m kind of used to it… It’s my job as a parent to let my kid be who they are.”
Jung-Allen’s father’s side of the family, who is based in San Diego, hasn’t been as accepting. And of course, there are painful comments, questions and microaggressions. Jung-Allen has to do a lot of correcting, encountering new people in the poetry world who don’t know they are nonbinary at first meeting. It’s not fun, but they’re prepared.
“Because I’ve been chosen as an ambassador of the arts, knowing that my identity would be part of my ambassadorship, I volunteered to be not only a poetry advocate but a trans advocate for the people I should be advocating for that weren’t as lucky with their transitions,” they say. “So all the correcting, and all the misgendering, while it is all well-intentioned and while it can be exhausting, is something that I recognize is a necessary part of constantly coming out to circles that I’m not a part of yet, but will be.”
Jung-Allen loves sharing perspectives, sharing art. They wrote a poem called “Trans Joy” which celebrates transpeople.
“They try to prove our hotness is unsubstantial too.
We have proof of holiness,
Because this glo up is endorsed by heaven.”
“There’s so many steps to take before you are supposedly allowed to embrace yourself, until you look like a girl or look like a boy,” they explain. “You’re not allowed to embrace yourself until you’ve come out to everyone. Until you’ve gotten hair or surgery. You’re basically not allowed to celebrate yourself until you are what everyone else is comfortable with. It’s frustrating, man. And I was like, I’m going to write this poem on how you are totally allowed to be confrontationally queer.”
Writing without filters, computers or metaphors
Jung-Allen isn’t competing for the PYPM team this year. It was tough to get a new writing flow. “I basically didn’t know how to make art if it wasn’t going to be scored. Which is a really terrible trap to fall into,” they say.
So they got a sketch notebook this past April, small in length, thick in width. They just started writing that way. They needed to work away from the computer.
“I tried really hard not to filter myself. Try to just say this is exactly what I’m feeling at this moment and I want to put it down right here,” they say. The aim was to “write as honestly and as straightforward as you can. Don’t get bogged in metaphors, and alliteration and literary devices. The best poetry is the kind that is accessible to everyone, that doesn’t cut people off with advanced vocabulary or structure that no one can follow.”
They’re digging their new work so far. The poem they chose to read at the ceremony accepting the position of youth poet laureate was a notebook poem. “You Have Not Gagged Them” speaks about the young people cast aside by educators, labeled simply not worth the effort in class. Jung-Allen reads the poem aloud to crowd gathered at City Hall.
“The ‘can’t sit still and why should I?’
These kids will not ask for a hall pass to fall in love with their own movement.
They have had their dignity graded so often
You stand no chance against their unedited words.
I dare you to face them first draft.”