We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Jessica, the founder of ICY (I-CREATE-YOUTH) and author of L(EYE)GHT, two projects that combine her passions for poetry and disability awareness. She spoke about exploring the intersections of her identity, her ‘subconscious’ poetic process, her personal poet icons and the importance of empowering disabled voices in all spaces and fields.
It’s lovely to be speaking with you, Jessica! As you are passionate about poetry and disability rights, what can you tell us about your own experiences that inspired your organization I-CREATE YOUTH (ICY) that “connects disabled youth through language”?
Thank you so much for sharing my story! I-CREATE YOUTH started from my interest in using creative writing to unite and empower visually impaired youth. I was a soft-spoken kid and grew up concealing my disability instead of advocating for my needs. When I ventured into creative writing, I found words to be so much more approachable and autonomous than speech, so that’s where I found the agency to talk about my disability and inspire other disabled youth to do likewise. To make my activism a collective one, I started planning content for creative writing workshops, onboarding like-minded youth, and creating a gallery of letters with encouraging messages to disabled students.
While I found creative writing bold and liberating, in the end, accessibility meant increasing disabled presence in more fields like STEM, education, and global diversity. That’s where our mission shifted to empowering disabled youth “through language in its various forms.” Language is such a dynamic and all-encompassing term, and while it’s commonplace to think of language as cultural like English or Spanish, what I am going for with “various forms” is a medium to connect and communicate. Computer programming is also a language—so is math, science, poetry, speech, entrepreneurship, psychology, and many more. At the end of the day, my search for a human connection as a disabled advocate brought ICY to life.
Your book L(EYE)GHT explores the intersections of your identity and your journey to self-acceptance. What do you most want readers, whether they have been through similar situations or not, to take away from your story?
Writing L(EYE)GHT is an attempt to study the spaces where sight is present and absent, which allowed me to explore the intersection between my visually impaired and Korean-American identities. I wrote from the fear of being erased and desperation to share my story because I didn’t see my visual disability widely represented in poetry. I wanted to dismantle the exclusive idea of disability being a source of pain and instead shed light on the strength and power it has given me. I think L(EYE)GHT shows my confidence and vision throughout years of history growing up as an immigrant in America.
Because my visual impairment is a very personal topic, I was initially afraid that my readers wouldn’t be able to resonate. At the end of the day, L(EYE)GHT can be anyone’s trajectory toward self-love and self-acceptance. The world needs more of that. It’s a process that requires reconciliation with our most vulnerable identities. For me, it transformed me into someone who can celebrate and openly discuss disability. If readers could take away one thing from my book, I hope it inspires them to find their own revolution: you can turn your most broken self into your power pose.
As July is Disability Pride Month, what do you wish other organizations would do to spread awareness and encourage more representation of disabled voices? What specific events and features is ICY doing?
Disability Pride Month often doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, but I’ve seen from growing I-CREATE YOUTH that many people in the disabled community are inspirational and many more in the abled community are also very supportive. I’ll speak on what I-CREATE YOUTH is doing first. Throughout the month, we’ll have many posters, infographics, and blog posts about disability pride, including interactive action items. I’m also organizing some interviews with young disabled creatives to honor the incredible work they do and seek inspiration. Specifically drawing in on language, I’m keen on using poetry to produce a collaborative project with other disabled youth, especially in my local area in Los Angeles. Lastly, iCY will be opening some opportunities to join as a general or core team member.
I am inspired by many organizations that are empowering our generation of changemakers. I do wish to see more organizations making accessibility a top priority. Sometimes it’s simple acts like including alt text and image descriptions for all media posts, or including closed captions on Zoom. At its core, disability justice is prioritizing our different needs by reaching out to disabled people and respecting our bodies by subscribing to the belief that there is no right or wrong in a body. This Disability Pride Month and every other month, I hope to see the disabled community afloat and amplified.
As someone with a visual impairment, how has your relationship with language changed over the years?
I didn’t always love language. As an immigrant whose mother tongue is Korean, I grew up having to hesitate through and process words. I always felt myself translating in one way or another, sometimes explicitly and other times, attempting to dissect and preserve the different perspectives that come with Korean and English. At school, where I had to learn English to survive, I was wary of finally understanding comments from my classmates about my eyes. I’m sure most of them weren’t ill-intentioned, but every time someone asked why my eyes are wobbly, why I’m not looking straight, or why I have to wear very thick glasses and eye patches, I became very self-conscious. In that sense, language was my enemy. I wanted to drown out the words so that I could have my eyes to myself.
But over the pandemic, I realized how dangerous isolation could be. For the first time, I turned to language to put my feelings and imperfections on display. I started writing and publishing poetry, especially about my visual impairment. I also started publishing other people’s stories in places like Kalonopia Collective, and I found the stories of disabled people so valuable and necessary. I realized that language was a way to amplify my visual impairment because it was something that needed representation and not suppression. Whenever I read or hear stories by disabled people, it sparked a connection even from afar, and I wanted to use my own words to recreate that inspiration. Now, language is my lineage and my revolution.
Who are your personal poet icons?
Disabled poet Sandra Beasley was the first person to tell me that I could write about my visual impairment when no one else was going to. She was also the first disabled poet I read and met (virtually). She’s given me the courage and confidence to write what I write today, so I’d call her my personal poet icon. Korean-American poet Franny Choi is one of my other icons. Her book Soft Science explains it all!
How do you decide which interactions, songs, or sentiments to write about in a poem? Your poems also engulf readers into a unique atmosphere. How did you develop this skill?
I find poetry to be a subconscious process. I don’t necessarily set myself up to write about this or that, but I do think my encounters with family, history, and art (songs, paintings, film, music) are often processed with a “poetic” mindset. It’s not so much of how I decide what to put in a poem, but that I have a mental archive of memories or media that I already know will be in a future poem of mine. It’s honestly an abstract idea, but I do believe that poems can be built from emptiness instead of choice.
The unique atmosphere of a poem arises from its diction. I value imagery and figurative language in my poems, and some images like water or mothers or countries live rent-free in much of my work. Combined with a specific emotion, these motifs can shape the atmosphere of a poem. Take water for instance. It could be a joyous memory of frolicking in ocean waves, or it could be your mother’s tears. The imagery grounds the scene of a poem and the emotion adds the enchanting and surreal quality.
I saw rapid developments in my poetry due to practice. When I first started writing two years ago, I wrote every single day. I don’t think one should ever pressure themselves to hone a skill daily, but being immersed in a creative space more frequently has made my progress very tangible. For poetry specifically, maybe try writing a “form” poem, like an abecedarian, ghazal, or golden shovel (which are all easily searchable poetic structures). The foundation of these structures helped generate inventive ideas. And lastly, your writing will improve when you write from a place of joy.
What are your hopes for your academic career and the future of ICY?
I hope to see ICY grow into a sustainable nonprofit organization. I can see myself being a disability advocate and activist twenty or thirty years down the road and I hope ICY will continue to grow with me. In terms of academics, I’m off to college in a year and that’s still filled with uncertainty. I have so many different interests from creative writing and comparative literature to computer science and math. It’s still up in the air for me, but I’ll just go where my life takes me.
I’d love to thank you for engaging with our organization! Was there anything else you’d like to share?
Thank you for asking me these insightful questions and thank you to the readers for making it this far. I think I’ve talked a fair amount, so I’ll leave it to our audience to talk about themselves! Please tell me about your current obsessions and moments of joy. You can find me at @icreateyouth on Instagram.