Indian-American wins Houston Youth Poet Laureate title for poem “After Harvey”

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Rukmini Kalamangalam (Courtesy: Twitter)

Rukmini Kalamangalam, a high school student who is also cultural arts advisor on Houston Mayor’s Youth Council. won the city’s 2017-2018 Youth Poet Laureate title after submitting a poem entitled “After Harvey,” in the competition.

A senior at the Carnegie Vanguard High School, Kalamangalam becomes the first Indian-American to win the prize, and only the third youth poet laurete since the program began. The contest is a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Houston Public Library and Writers in the Schools.

According to the Huston Chronicle, the event was held at The Astorian in Houston and raised nearly $200,000.

In attendance were previous winners Andrew White, 21, a graduate of the High School for Performing and Visual Arts and student at New York University; and Fareena Arefeen, 17, who attends HSPVA.

Kalamangalam was born in U.S., where her parents met in graduate school, according to Houstonisd.org blog site. She immigrated to the United States from India when she was 6-years-old. She submitted a collection of poems and was chosen from dozens of applicants in a tough competition, where the final five were interviewed by a panel of judges.

“I would like to establish a space where young poets and other artists can collaborate and share their experiences,” she is quoted saying on a houstonisd.org blog. “I would also like to start a column in a local publication where students can publish their favorite poems, and I would like to implement poetry readings in public places where people gather.”

“I tend to write about feminism, like what it means to be a feminist as a South Asian woman. For me, it’s about the question of identity, who I am as an Indian American who still has sort of a strange accent and how I fit in with the different societies I’m exposed to,” Kalamangalam told the Huston chronicle. One of her poems focused on a Pakistani social media star who was strangled by her brother in an “honor” killing in 2016 because of her provocative selfies and videos.

Kalamangalam said that she discovered poetry in middle school when her mother took her to a performance of Meta-Four Houston, an award-winning youth spoken-word or “slam” poetry team that’s a part of Writers in the Schools.

Slam poems are generally acted out with vocal inflections and body movements, unlike traditional poetry.

“I fell in love with slam poetry. It’s the intersection of art and action. At slam-poetry events, you definitely see people talking about issues of injustice and how they want society to progress. I think that is really amazing the way audiences react to something that can spark change and spark progress,’ she told the Huston Chronicle.

In ninth grade, she was able to attend the Brave New Voices international poetry-slam competition in Atlanta where she saw young poets using their poems to talk about injustice and oppression, for the first time.

Kalamangalam told the Houston Chronicle that her dream is to become a lawyer who makes the world a better place through her poetry.

‘AFTER HARVEY’

By: Rukmini Kalamangalam

The first rain after the hurricane
We held our breath
Tried not to imagine what it would feel like to be drowning again
So soon after the taste of stolen air
Replaced the salty breathlessness of rising tides
The first rain after the hurricane
We were ready before the flash-flood warning, already watching as
Water lapped at the curb
Feasted on the rotted remains of gutted houses
Tried to wash away the evidence of its crimes
The first rain after the hurricane
We saw a pack of wild dogs at CVS
Snarling and slavering in red wellington boots
They watched us with hungry eyes
Snouts sniffing the air for threats from the sky & each other
The first rain after the hurricane,
The water washed away as quick as it had come
Leaving streets dark & empty &
Water still priced 3.99 a gallon
We scoured the clouds for signs of false promises
The first rain after the hurricane,
We tethered our homes together,
Waited to become chains of floating memories
Prayed for a second chance at survival,
Our heads still bowed as the rain evaporated, leaving only stillness behind

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