Science of Poetry

Savvy's Amazing Teens: Multi-gifted David Xiang excels in sciences and the arts

By Dwain Hebda

david xiang

Most of us don’t see anything particularly poetic about mitochondrial DNA, but it’s a perfect example of the unique duality that is David Xiang’s life, a life where science and arts are allowed to peacefully coexist.

“I’m not really that good at memorizing stuff; like when people think of biology or something, they think of memorizing facts,” he said. “I like research and the scientific method, and there’s a creative part of that that’s solely up to what you think is right. That’s similar to making your own poetry and using your own words to get something onto paper. Both involve really creative aspects.”

Xiang’s life is full of such seemingly contradictory elements. He’s the science prodigy who’s been a featured presenter at Harvard’s junior science institute and the National Student Poet whose recent reading at the White House earned a hug from first lady Michelle Obama.

“When I think about [the White House] experience, it was really surreal,” he said. “I don’t even remember being there, and when it was my turn to read I couldn’t talk normally. It was just really cool to be there, and see everything, and be in that moment.”

He’s a kid who doesn’t like public speaking, yet who’s taught poetry in three Oklahoma high schools and a veteran’s center all before graduating Central High School in Little Rock. He’s an all-American boy born in China; a U.S. citizen who draws deeply from Chinese cultural tradition in his writing; the bilingual son of medical professionals who wants to one day write Hollywood movie scripts and TV show fodder. With Xiang’s natural aptitude for the sciences, it was assumed he would follow in mom and dad’s professional footsteps. But for all the genetics that were on his side for that career, writing and poetry stirred his soul. Even though his earliest efforts four years ago didn’t produce the kind of writing that gets you into Harvard’s arts and humanities program, that’s where he’s headed next fall.

“I look back at my older writings and I’m like, ‘Wow that’s terrible; I can’t believe I wrote this,’” he said with a laugh. “I started writing just because it was just a good personal release, something where I could vent and put my experiences and stuff onto paper. And I just grew more comfortable with it over time.”

Xiang, 18, lends texture to his poems through cultural references. He’s visited China on a number of occasions with his family and in doing so became inspired by the culture, history and landmarks there. These elements now appear regularly in his work. “I’ve been back four times now and twice in the last three or four years,” he said. “It’s just really cool to see the difference in cultures and see the perceptions of people and how we look at each other. Everyday stuff is so different in America and in China. It’s interesting to write about that and mix it in because not everybody can write about that.”

After the White House and Harvard gigs, you’d think teaching a poetry class to three Lawton, Okla., high school classes would be a breeze, but Xiang remembers it as one of the more initially nerve-racking experiences of his life. 

“I was very apprehensive before that; I just tried to picture myself sitting there back at Central High and imagine some teenager coming in and trying to teach me poetry. I’d be like, who the heck is this guy?” he said.

 “I taught three classes my first day and I remember in the first class saying, ‘OK, who wants to tell me about poetry?’ Everyone just looked at me stone-faced, no expression. I thought, oh boy, this is going to be a long class.”

Things thawed out quickly, however and he came away with a spark for teaching he didn’t know he had, particularly when he got the chance to spend a day at a veterans center in Norman, Okla. 

“That was really awesome,” he said. “Teaching, for me, is different from public speaking because it’s a lot easier for me to say what it means to write a poem, how to write a poem. It’s something I’m a lot more comfortable with.”