A few months after Hurricane Harvey ravaged parts of Texas, an Indian American student from Houston, in a poem, has summed up the fear and the pain that the city felt because of the endless rains following the natural disaster. And her soul-stirring poem, “After Harvey,” has earned her Houston’s third Youth Poet Laureate honor.
Rukmini Kalamangalam’s one-year term includes a scholarship, publication in the Houston Chronicle, and mentorship from Houston’s Poet Laureate, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton. Kalamangalam will also serve as a cultural arts advisor to the mayor’s youth council.
Kalamangalam, 16, who attends Carnegie Vanguard High School in the Houston Independent School District, immigrated to the U.S. when she was six years old. Creative writing provided a safe space to process her experiences.
She submitted a collection of poems and was chosen from dozens of applicants, according to the Houston Chronicle, which added that 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.
“I tend to write about feminism, like what it means to be a feminist as a South Asian woman,” Kalamangalam told the publication. “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.”
The program has evolved out of a partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Houston Public Library and Writers in the Schools.
Kalamangalam, who aspires to become a lawyer, is especially interested in breaking down divisions between communities, age groups, and writing genres.
“After a traumatic event like Hurricane Harvey, I think we would benefit, more than ever, from shared experiences,” Kalamangalam told witshouston.org. “Simply through collaborative artwork, there are connections that form and start to rebuild the cracks between our neighborhoods.”
This year, Kalamangalam hopes to bring people together through public poetry performances in accessible spaces where different people gather.
“In times like these, the intersection of art and action is more important than ever,” Kalamangalam said in her inaugural speech. “My generation is the future, and our voices need to be at the forefront. WITS gave me the resources I needed to be here today. It brought me into contact with over 600 young poets in cities across the country, and most importantly, it was in the WITS office that I first discovered the power I had to create a tangible difference.”
Here are a few lines from her poem, “After Harvey”:
“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.”