Joy Young: Storytelling as Community Building

By Sarah Alcantar

Joy Young is a storyteller and a co-host of the Storyline Slam at Changing Hands Bookstore, a monthly live storytelling show in Phoenix, Arizona designed to create a space for diverse voices. Young is also the co-founder of Prickly Pear Printing, a press dedicated to growing the visibility of the LGBTQ community and other silenced narratives.  

“I never intended to be on a stage,” says Young, who stumbled into the Phoenix art community on the slam poetry circuit, specifically as a judge for a local slam. Young thought it was “really interesting,” and soon, they were competing on the national slam team. 

Through poetry, Young found a passion for telling stories and elevating marginalized voices within their community. Now recognized as the 2019 “Best of Phoenix: Storyteller” by the Phoenix New Times, Young dedicates most of their free time to encouraging other artists to believe in their ability to share their narratives. 

Write On Downtown (WOD): How did you get your start in poetry?

Joy Young (JY): I had moved here from the Bay area [and] I was trying to go out more, but I have so much social anxiety. I had gone to a coffee shop to read because I was counting that as socializing and my sister called. She made me promise that I would say yes to doing the next thing that required me to talk. Not an hour later this man came in and he was wearing no shirt, a cape, and a hat…He told me that they needed judges for a national poetry slam across the street…So I went and it was the first time I saw a poetry slam and I thought it was really interesting…I never intended to be on a stage. I’m still nauseous every time I’m on the stage, but it’s just been really amazing and a wild ride.

WOD: How has the Phoenix art community informed your work? 

JY: In poetry, a lot of the work I’ve built has been a response to the community… oftentimes issues of social justice feel bigger there to me. With storytelling, it gives me much more opportunity to kind of reach across the aisle… In storytelling particularly, it’s felt like such a gift to go into spaces with people who don’t look like me and be able to perform things that echo a sense of humanity and where I think you can actually shift people’s thinking. In my work I’ve been able to combine the two. So I do long form storytelling with poetry embedded into it as well. 

WOD: Can you tell me a little bit about your work with Prickly Pear Printing?

JY: That’s a project I do with Nico Wilkinson who’s a queer poet out of Colorado Springs and they’re just one of my favorite humans. We went to Capturing Fire, which is an all queer event in DC and we spent a few days there and got to hear such a variety of styles and topics and angles about talking about queer experience…and we didn’t have anything at home [like that],…so we wanted to make something that we needed…[and] if we needed it, there had to be other people like us who needed those voices. 

WOD: What does being named the Phoenix New Times “storyteller of the year” mean to you? 

JY: It just means I’m more visible. Like this year, like I’ve been doing storytelling off and on for awhile, but now I host a show and I do think that my work has gotten better and I think I’m doing some things that are a little different and that make me a little bit more noticeable. Our storytelling scene is so full of such great storytellers that I don’t even understand how somebody could pick a storyteller of the year. I could name 10 other storytellers that I believe are at least as good or better than me at any given moment. But it’s really nice to feel seen in that community, and I’d hope that part of why I got it [storyteller of the year] is [because of] my dedication to building the community. 

WOD: How do you use art to positively affect social change? 

JY: The biggest impact that I can make isn’t even with my own art. It’s with my own capacity to build platforms for other people, especially living in Phoenix. I think it’s really important to partner with projects that elevate the voices of people of color so I try to look for opportunities to do that. I try really hard to meet other storytellers and poets and offer help where I can. I’m not a person of color, but I remember growing up poor and queer and how hard it was to imagine a future. The reason I really love the storytelling community here is that it’s such a supportive world. Everyone I know wants to support each other. I think that’s really critical, especially when you think about why stories matter. And I really do. There’s that saying–the quickest way to someone’s heart is through a story.