Throughout the school year we here at Writers in the Schools provide as many opportunities as we can for students to showcase their work, from a year-end poetry reading at the Seattle Public Library, to a letterpress project in collaboration with Seattle Children’s Hospital and the School of Visual Concepts, to our annual anthology of the best student writing from the year. This January, we further extended our reach with two student poetry contests, featuring topics inspired by author events at Seattle Arts and Lectures. In honor of author Julie Otsuka’s reading on January 29th, the topic of the first contest was “Origins”; and in honor of Al Gore’s talk on February 14th, the topic of the second contest was “The Future”. Students could interpret the prompts broadly and use any subject matter for inspiration, from their own personal experiences to visions that were large in scope. The winners of each contest were chosen based on originality, vivid language, and success of the poem as a whole.
11th grader Maga Barzallo Sockemtickem won the “Origins” contest with her poem, “Where I’m From” – a sweeping piece that weaves between past and present, loss and triumph. Maga read her poem to the audience at Julie Otsuka’s reading at Benaroya Hall, in a moving and poised performance that was met with thunderous applause. As a student in the WITS program at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Maga has been working with writer Sierra Nelson for the past three years, who remembers that she could tell that Maga was a writer right away. “There were many clues that let me see how naturally Maga takes to the medium of words.” Sierra says. “The attentive way she chooses and refines her words to strike just the right stunning image—the way she works her rhythms, saying them under her breath as she writes, and how she sounds her way musically through the lines, swerving in and out of rhyme to underscore the emotions—and last but not least, the fact that she never stops revising.”
When asked to describe her writing process for the Poetry Broadside Project, another place where her work has been featured, Maga said, “When I write, I try to confront my thoughts. I ask, What do I think...really? I ask difficult questions, How do I ever go back to normal? Will my cancer come back? Will my friends who have cancer survive? Sometimes, I find that I know the answers already, it just took writing it out to realize it. I write what I can’t say out loud about my angers, fears, hopes.... I may not be in control of all that happens in my life, but I’m in control of my writing.”
Describing the contest-winning poem, Sierra Nelson says, “Maga’s powerful self-portrait “Where I’m From” gives us vivid images glimpsed from her experiences, including moments from her home community and life in the hospital: some of the highs and lows that she recognizes have helped shape who she is. It’s a triumphant ode to stubbornness and spitfire in the face of adversity—of choosing how you want to define yourself, not just be defined by—combined with the healing power of staying alive to beauty and connecting to the natural world.
“When Maga first set out to write this poem, we talked a bit at the beginning about different ways to approach a self-portrait in words and the power of sensory details. But once she began writing, the rhythms, images, and urgent drive of the poem lead her forward. This one poured out of her. We are so lucky it did!”
16 year-old Baylee Bonagofsky was the winner of the “Futures” contest with her poem “Memories”. Baylee writes a poignant wish for a future that seems uncertain, saying, “I wonder if I will ever be able to step into another batter’s box/and face another pitcher./And I wish more than anything that I will.” Also a student at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Baylee worked with writer Ann Teplick. Ann says, “What I first noticed about Baylee was her posture. She walked tall and confident, with a smile like someone had just handed her a bouquet of sunflowers. My first guess was that she was a soccer player. I'm not sure if soccer is one of her sports, but baseball definitely is. This poem evokes longing, a sadness perhaps, for things to be the way they used to, before she came to Children's. But also hope for the future.”
About Baylee’s winning poem, Ann says, “I love her sense of detail...the batter's box, the freshly-cooked ballpark burgers (they hadn't been sitting on the grill since morning), the tightly-fit baseball pants, the salt from the sunflower seeds (which made me thirsty), the thick red stitching of the ball. These are what illuminated the poem for me, opened the door and allowed me to mosey, settle into each syllable.”
The runners-up of each contest were also honored at the speaker events. 11 year-old Nathaniel Faustino, who was a runner-up with his poem “A Recipe for a Calm Day”, was able to meet Al Gore in person twice – once to have his copy of Mr. Gore’s book signed, and again to have his own poem signed. As he came through the line a second time, Mr. Gore said, “Well, hello again!” Nathaniel, grinning, responded “Did you miss me?”
We’re so proud of the winners and finalists, and of all the WITS students – and we can’t wait to share more of their work with you in the WITS anthology! You can read all of the winning and finalist poems on the WITS blog, at http://salwits.wordpress.com/. Look for more student work coming soon!