Poetry is necessary for Kinsale Hueston, a powerful nexus to culture and action.
In addition to demonstrating and fueling her deep interest in social justice, her wordcraft has earned the 17-year-old the honor of being one of the best young poets in the country this year as one of five National Student Poets.
Kinsale, who lives in Corona del Mar and attends St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, said she has been a poet since she was in second grade. She memorized poems out of an anthology her parents gave her, and soon found her own words.
Poetry is a layered art form that holds her close.
“I love reading it, dissecting it, just kind of immersing myself in it because it’s so complex and yet so simple,” she said by phone Friday from Washington, D.C., where she and her fellow poets are being feted. “I kind of love discovering new things every time I reread a poem.”
Around 10th grade, her writing got more serious as she had, as she puts it, a bit of an identity crisis being a Native American — specifically, Navajo — in Southern California.
The U.S. Census puts less than 1% of Orange County’s population as Native. But that heritage is everything to Kinsale.
Her mother grew up on the Navajo reservation, in Navajo Mountain, Utah, in the Four Corners area, and introduced the girl to language, tradition, pride — and reality. On their road trips through the stunning landscape, Kinsale learned that the streaks in the hills are scars from uranium mines, where toxic waste lingers in the earth.
This imagery has informed her poetry. So has violence against women, loss of native language, poverty and obesity.
“I seek to contemporize Native American culture with my poetry, and for me my work is a form of activism,” she said.
In her piece “Grandmother,” which qualified her for the National Student Poets Program, an elder woman speaks to a young person who doesn’t know their native tongue. Kinsale weaves in the Navajo words nali — grandfather, a word that she associates with love and tradition — and ya’ateh, a greeting, into the work, bringing the subject matter to the forefront.
To qualify for the National Student Poets Program, she had to emerge from a pool of more than 300 award-winning poets in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Out of those writers, 35 semifinalists were invited to submit additional poetry and performance videos to jurors for final selection as a National Student Poet.
Over the next year, the junior laureates will serve as literary ambassadors at libraries, museums and schools, and contribute to service projects promoting the program in their regions (Kinsale represents the West).
The program is an initiative of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, which administers the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
“The National Student Poets Program has provided such an amazing opportunity for me to share my work and continue to develop my voice,” Kinsale said. “I haven’t found another program like it, and I’m just so excited to see where this year will take me.”
Kinsale’s Washington trip has been packed with appearances and workshops, including a ceremony and reading Thursday at the Library of Congress, a private workshop with the 21st Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, and a reading at the National Book Festival. She said she’s learned a lot from her fellow poets, who also write about heritage and nature, but are informed by different backgrounds and styles.
Kinsale isn’t sure what she wants to do for a career, or where she will attend college, but her experience last summer working with the attorney general’s office on the Navajo Nation has focused her on helping women on the reservation: “Not just being an activist and posting about it on Twitter, but also diving head-first into the issue and doing what I can to help,” she said.
And she knows poetry will always stay with her.