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Teenage poet from Lake St. Louis will promote poetry to students nationwide

Shangri-La Hou, a high school senior and poet, is photographed on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, outside the St. Louis Public Radio newsroom. Hou was just named one of five National Student Poets.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Shangri-La Hou, a senior at John Burroughs School in Ladue, is one of five National Student Poets.

A 17-year-old student from Lake St. Louis will represent the Midwest as one of five National Student Poets.

Shangri-La Hou, a senior at John Burroughs School in Ladue, will be installed as a National Student Poet this fall at a Washington, D.C., ceremony.

During a one-year term, she will be an ambassador of poetry, traveling the Midwest and beyond to give readings and lead workshops. She’ll also craft a yearlong service project to promote poetry locally.

Past National Student Poets have performed their work at Lincoln Center in New York and the White House.

Hou earned the honor after winning a gold medal and two gold keys in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She also won the 2022 Wednesday Club of St. Louis Junior Poetry Contest.

The National Student Poetry program is a collaboration between the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, which gives the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. A 10-person jury, including former U.S. Poet Laureate Jian Felipe Herrera, chose the poets.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin asked Hou about the role poetry plays in her life and her plans as a National Student Poet.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: Are there topics you tend to write about a lot?

Shangri-La Hou: I love to write about the natural world and my family. Sometimes I talk about relationships. Any issues that I’m passionate about. I don’t feel the need to stick to a specific theme very strongly. Sometimes I write about my identity and culture as a Chinese person — but also as someone who feels a noticeable disconnect with my culture.

Shangri-La Hou reads her poem "Sandia," inspired by the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico.

Goodwin: In which ways do you feel disconnected?

Hou: Well, I'm from a Chinese family. My parents were both born in China. I can understand Mandarin and Cantonese, but I cannot speak either language. I feel like there are a lot of poems out there that talk about culture and your roots, but there's less of a body of work out there for people that may feel like, ‘This is my identity, but I may feel invalidated in that at times.’

At times I feel maybe less Chinese than other Chinese kids, which is a little bit dumb — being Chinese isn’t all about knowing the language. But I’ve definitely wanted to connect more with my heritage and my history. I want to get more in touch with my identity and my culture.

Goodwin: What’s it like to share personal stuff like that with other people through your poetry?

Hou: I only started writing really seriously in sophomore year of high school. In the beginning, it was definitely something I did for me. And as my poetry is getting more to the public light, it's something I've been having to come to terms with — like, maybe it can also be something for other people as well.

Goodwin: What do you think it’ll be like as a National Student Poet, getting out there and traveling and talking about your work with people you’ve never met before?

Hou: I think it'll be a little bit difficult just because of how vulnerable a lot of my pieces can be. But it's definitely something that I've wanted to be able to juggle. I want to be able to put myself out there more. I want to write with confidence, but also to be able to show that writing with confidence. I’m naturally a pretty quiet person, but I do love reading my poetry.

Goodwin: What are your plans as a National Student Poet?

Hou: It definitely means that I'm going to be able to engage more with the literary community on a nationwide scale, which is huge for me. I'll get to meet a lot more writers, be exposed to a lot more diverse experiences and just get to get my work out there a lot more.

The program involves traveling and doing recitations of my poetry at different places across the country, but also involves a community service project, which has to involve spreading poetry in your own community.

Goodwin: Do you have any ideas about what that may be?

Hou: It could involve a local library or museums. I’m not sure yet.

Goodwin: What kind of an effect do you want to have on your readers?

Ho: Because poetry has been such a transformative and informative experience for myself, I think maybe I want to open up spaces for other people to ponder, ‘What does this mean for me?’ Even though our experiences are different, how can you relate to this and take into your own life — and maybe even turn it into art?

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.