This fall, the YoungArts Foundation (YAF) designated Athena Chu ’18 a national finalist in two categories, Cinematic Arts and Written and Spoken Word Poetry, the highest performance in the competition by a BB&N student to date.
Based in Miami, YAF aims to develop young artists and create an encouraging and supportive community, according to its website. Annually, the foundation invites 15- to 18-year-olds to submit visual or literary art, designs, or performance videos for a panel of judges to review. This year, nearly 8,000 students from across the country sent in submissions before the judges selected 757 winners and 171 finalists.
While in the past BB&N students have received honorable mentions, merit designations, and finalist designations in one category—Aaron Orbey ’14, who now contributes to The New Yorker, was a single-category finalist in 2014 for creative nonfiction—only Athena has won two finalist designations.
Athena learned about the competition two years ago from Rhiannon McGavin, a YoungArts alumna and spoken word poet who posts her performances online. Last year Athena submitted poems, but she did not receive an award. Athena said she wanted to try a second time in hopes of performing better.
“They emailed me and gave me all of this feedback,” she said. “I decided that I would apply again this year.”
Athena said that last year the judges urged her to include “duende” in her poetry, a technique they described as “a fierce vulnerability that demands of the writer that she write both from and toward the unknown.”
With that in mind, Athena submitted three newer pieces of poetry: “Genesis Unedited,” “My Chinese,” and “Prayer.” “Genesis Unedited” is from the point of view of God’s mother and discusses the dynamic between men and women in modern times, “My Chinese” addresses Athena’s personal experience with culture and cultural stereotypes, and “Prayer” describes the abduction and trade of Chinese women in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Athena also submitted a video based on “Genesis Unedited,” which includes silhouettes swaying to humming in the background, faces surrounded by petals rising up from water, and people dancing and reciting the poem in front of a sunset. In addition to performers from outside of school, the video features Ali Plump, Jenny Steinberg, and Jeremy Tang (all ’18).
Ali praised the final product.
“I was genuinely shocked at how well it turned out, not because of any expectation I had for it before, but because Athena’s filming and editing skills and the eerie humming and amazing poem in the background all made the video just stunning,” she said.
Athena said that when she found out she was a finalist in November, she cried.
“I’ve never actually really won anything for my art, and I’ve always kind of had doubts about it because I’ve never been validated in that sense. I was really surprised when I actually got this,” she said.
English Teacher Sarah Getchell, who taught Athena in her sophomore year and encouraged her to write more poetry, had a different reaction.
“I was not at all surprised, but it was very exciting that she could be recognized for this. The extra year of polishing things and adding to her body of work, I think, made her application so much stronger—even though they should have still recognized her genius last year,” Ms. Getchell said.
As a YoungArts finalist, Athena joined other accomplished artists and teachers from around the country in attending the 37th annual National YoungArts Week in Miami from January 7 to 14.
Before her departure, she said she was eager to be surrounded by people who share the same passions.
“I am hoping to grow, inexplicably so, and make new friends that I can collaborate with and learn from long after the week ends,” she said.
Athena identified several areas she’d like to improve as a performance poet, among them incorporating more movement and rhythm to her words and loosening up on stage to become more comfortable with her voice and body as instruments for storytelling.
She added, “I am thankful and humbled to be a part of something like this. Just really, really thankful.”