Houston Youth Poet Laureate Ariana Lee’s new poem responds to the Monterey Park shooting

Ariana Lee, 2022-2023 Houston Youth Poet Laureate / Courtesy of Ariana Lee

When Ariana Lee heard about the recent mass shooting in Monterey Park, California, she said she felt deeply saddened and wanted to write a poem to help process her thoughts.

On January 21, a gunman killed 11 people as they rang in the Lunar New Year at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, before he was later disarmed by a 26-year old man named Brandon Tsay, who prevented the gunman from carrying out a second nearby attack.

“A large memorial is seen outside the Star Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., about a week after a mass shooting at the ballroom studio killed 11 people and wounded 10 others.” / Credit: Jane Hahn for NPR

Lee, a high school senior at St. John’s School, was appointed the 2022-2023 Houston Youth Poet Laureate last November. And now, only a few months into her term, she found herself writing an elegy about a mass shooting – one that felt especially personal because of its intersection with two holidays: Lunar New Year and her 18th birthday.

Remembering that her predecessor Avalon Hogans had written a poem after the Uvalde tragedy for March for Our Lives Houston, Lee decided to contact that organization to offer to write a poem, to be shared in collaboration on social media. The result was “Morning, America,” written in response to the Monterey Park shooting. 

Watch Ariana Lee perform her poem below.  Houston Arts Journal also reached out to Lee for an interview and permission to reprint her poem, which follows.

Morning, America

Today, I am eighteen years old.

At age seventeen,
yesterday, and the day
before, and the day
before, I woke up
to mourning.

I woke up to mourn
what was before me.

When there have been more mass shootings
in the year than there have been days,
and when there are more guns
in the US than there are people,
you wonder if eighteen—the legal age
to buy a gun—is worth celebrating.

Lunar New Year always occurs
around my birthday. We wear red
for good luck and eat
long noodles for longevity.
Put your hands together like a prayer—

But now we pray. You would think
the gun industry had joined us
in our spring cleaning, the way our deaths
are so easily swept under the rug. We set off
firecrackers to ward off evil, but I hear
gunshots. Maybe if I wear enough red,
bullets will stop wearing holes in our communities.

My culture is my inheritance, and the biggest
evil is how inherent gun violence has become to our culture.

We’ve crossed into the Year of the Rabbit.
I think we’ve had enough time to learn
this lesson: Look from one end
of the barrel, and it’s easy to see prey.

It should not be this easy to turn
sacred into scared. We wish: 新年快乐,
Can our happiness only
be fleeting? And fleeing,
our best method to avoid death?

It’s been eighteen years
since my birth. I’ve celebrated
eighteen Lunar New Years.

This holiday means sleeping with a 红包
under my pillow for fifteen days. It means waking.
I wake up. Wake up—it’s beyond time
to make a good morning.

Ariana Lee

How did this poem come to you? What were you feeling or thinking when you sat down to write it? Would you like to say a little about your writing process?

When I know what I want to say, I tend to write poems pretty quickly. This poem came from letting my emotions guide my writing. I was inspired by characteristics of Lunar New Year such as the color red, spring cleaning, and the 红包 (red envelope). 

How did you learn of the shooting and how did it affect you?  The poem seems to imply that it was on your birthday, as well as Lunar New Year – is that right? If so, how did the fact that it happened on or around those holidays affect you?

I learned a lot about the shooting in part because I serve as a co-president of my school’s East Asian Affinity Group and on the leadership board of our Unity Council. We extensively researched it for a joint forum to inform students and give them time and space to process what had happened. 

In my personal life, Monterey Park struck a chord because of how culturally important Lunar New Year is to my family. It should be a time of celebration. The holiday occurs on a different day every year because it follows the lunar calendar, but it typically occurs a few days before or after my birthday (January 25th). One year it was even the same day. Growing up, I saw Lunar New Year and my birthday as a package deal. This year, they were marked by tragedy—a preventable one. Learning about Monterey Park has motivated me to be active in gun violence prevention.

In your social media post, you wrote: “Thinking of Fort Pierce, Baton Rouge, Half Moon Bay, and Des Moines. Thinking of all the poets who’ve written this poem before. Thinking of my grandparents.”  Can you say more about what you mean by that?   And, in particular, can you tell me a little about your grandparents, and how you were thinking of them?

After Monterey Park, mass shootings occurred in Baton Rouge and Half Moon Bay. There have also been shootings in Fort Pierce and Des Moines. So many in such a short time. I wanted to acknowledge that, even though my poem was written in response to Monterey Park, it’s really for each community affected by gun violence. 

The second sentence refers to the fact that many brilliant poets before me have written poems in response to senseless, unnecessary violence. Specific poems that inspired me are “not an elegy for Mike Brown” by Danez Smith and “what the dead know by heart” by Donte Collins

The victims of the Monterey Park shooting are around the same age as my grandparents. When I read about them—Xiujuan Yu, Hongying Jian, Lilian Li, Wen Yu, My Nhan, Muoi Ung, Valentino Alvero, Diana Tom, Yu Kao, Ming Wei Ma, Chia Yau—I couldn’t help but see my Laolao and Yeye in them. 

What do you believe is the role of poetry (or art, in general) in times of crisis or profound loss?

For me, art is healing and inspiration. Art can connect with people in a way that the plain, straight facts can’t. When crises challenge society, I believe poetry’s role is to bring people together and give them words to meditate over when they are at a loss of words themselves. 


Translations for “Morning, America”:
新年快乐 = Happy New Year
身体健康 = Wishing you good health
恭喜发财 = Wishing you prosperity
吉祥如意 = Wishing you good luck
但是我们的乐真的很快 = but our happiness really is fleeting
红包 = red envelope

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