2010-2011 IATE Poetry Contest winners

Here's a list of recipients of Special Merit awards, their schools, and their nominating teachers. Winning poems can be viewed by clicking the students' names.

  • Tannaz Pourboghrat"Dandelions" / Twelth Grade / Teacher, Danny Wilson / Carbondale Community High School
  • Jane Merker,"An Abundance of Frogs" / Eleventh Grade / Teacher, Kate Sullivan / Lyons Township High School
  • Lucy Edwards, "Poverty" / Ninth Grade / Teacher, Amy Birtman / Lake Forest High School
  • Margaret Young,"Six" / Eighth Grade / Teacher, Cyn Koukos / Lycèe Francais de Chicago
  • Sarah Comar,"The Legacy" / Seventh Grade / Teacher, Mindi Rench / Northbook Junior High School

Poet as Guide and Traveler

When I rang the bell, my niece’s three-year-old daughter met me at the door, plush-stuffed penguin crooking her arm. She took my hand in hers. It was Wednesday, hump of the week, bland as Sunday’s warmed-up mash potatoes – the morning headed into and out of, the long middle of a trip one sleeps through if lucky, a thing to be looked past. To Mia, it was anything but. Today was everything there is and all that might be. It is present tense, noon clouds sculpting an elephant prancing on a mushroom’s tilted cap. If I’d look, I’d see.

Mia gave me a tour of her room, her house, her mind – each space more capacious than the last. Nothing hid too small for her attention or loomed too large for her embrace. Each room offered limitless treasure we two could never exhaust: here, dust bunnies and Dr. Seuss; there, magenta dolphins swimming sunlight slanted through the window’s billowing curtains.

She was my guide, I her fortunate traveler.

Poets aspire to a realm of wonder not unlike that which Mia inhabits by grace of her youth. The farther removed by age from this state of wonder, the farther poets have to travel to reconnect to it. Youth poets straddle this line, one foot still planted in the land of awe and the other grounded in irony’s terrain. Some admit me to realms I have overlooked; others map a favorite spot for which I’ve lost the path. In the process youth poets achieve what all good poets do – they fashion the familiar suddenly exotic, and the exotic intimately familiar.

They take my hand in theirs and off we go – to where I’m not sure and for what purpose who cares. It’s a jaunt we’re on together, the way Frost in “The Pasture” entices his readers to join him as he clears the field’s clotted stream, coyly cajoling, “You come too.” In this way the solitary act of writing shakes hands with the solitary act of reading, poet and reader making of both a paradoxically communal event.

Speaking and listening, writing and reading, hearing and seeing – these erect the elemental framework of literary community in which two become one. The merging itself is necessarily fitful and momentary. Then, surely enough, we find ourselves alone again. This time, however, we awaken amid a locale transformed by our going there together and by our being here alone. Dean Young describes this poetic effect in his The Art of Recklessness: “The continuous necessity and obligation are to reconnect, to break through detachment and its numbing alienations back to the fundamental synaptic mad hopping hope, the life of poetry, its primal surge, where we truly begin again and again.”

That’s why, after reading a good poem, we feel simultaneously connected to the world and alone in it. This is the residue of ecstatic experience – the buzz and its hangover, the lightning and its sudden-after black. In its Greek root, ecstasy means to be transported, and thus to stand outside of oneself as result. Even one’s own too-familiar face seems strange, freshened thus fresh if not new. In the ecstatic moment’s sprawling wake, all logic bobs up and down, unmoored and unwelcome and unsatisfying. That is the work of a work of art.

Among this year’s splendid winning poems, several invoke this aspect of poetic travel, especially the works noted here as 2011 Poems of Special Merit. Meg Young’s “Six” begins our journey, leading readers back to their own youthful Christmas eagerness and exhilaration. Ms. Young, at the ripe age of an eighth-grader, achieves remarkable detachment from the child she was (and hopefully partly still is). Her speaker revels in the mystery and emotional frenzy felt when sneaking a peek at Santa’s deliveries: “Drooling, I tear a little at the paper.” She compulsively repeats, “I was six,” her refrain brimming with wonder and its past tense “was” hinting at coming adulthood. While the speaker celebrates Cinderella Barbie’s allure for her six-year-old self, she simultaneously recognizes it as quaintly fantastic when viewed from her current vantage as a teenager.  

A similar sense of being older than one’s years permeates Sarah Comar’s “The Legacy.” Her speaker focuses on a house’s “[l]ittle notes. / Eerie sounds” that gain profound significance once a loved one who lived there has passed. These notes stand-in for the voice of the lost, tonguing the song of a voice that “once belonged to a mouth.” For her speaker, that home, once so comforting, now shudders with the unnerving voice of absence. She hears in its creaking the “sweet melody of death,” something both sweet and decidedly not. For her, a space once so familiar now clatters exotic.

The speaker of Lucy Edwards’s “Poverty” also ponders an altered sense of what home means in the context of modern society. After late-night work, she drives her usual route home upon streets she thinks she knows well. Hers is the kind of drive taken zombie-like, the body going through the physical motions while her mind wanders the waves of radio tunes. Tired after a night’s labor, the speaker might well be forgiven for being tuned-out, oblivious to all but the magnetic pull of her bed covers yanked up under her chin. But as Dean Young suggests, the best poems “break through detachment and its numbing alienations,” and here the speaker comes to “recognize” a homeless man as her brother human. His eyes and hers link, and she sees through them. Her act of seeing binds two beings in momentary community.

The final two Poems of Special Merit engage physical landscapes in ways that the previous poems explore emotional geography. The first presents a cityscape in which the natural seems foreign. Tannaz Pourboghrat’s poem features every child’s favorite “flower” – “Dandelions” – whose bloom adults consider merely a detestable weed. Planted by a young girl’s blowing its “cotton-white / seeds,” the dandelion raises its triumphant head from a New York sidewalk crack. The speaker’s personifying the dandelion as “stubborn” and “striving” lends it qualities not unlike those imagined for the solitary figure walking the late-night street of Lucy Edwards’s “Poverty.” Both figures, if noticed at all by the populace, appear unwanted, shunned, and disdained. Too easily they are dismissed as trash fit to be tossed away then forgotten. Not so fast, this poet cautions. She implicitly conjoins the human and the natural, imploring her readers to reconnect themselves to their fellows.

Instead of tracing nature in an urban scene, Jane Merker’s “An Abundance of Frogs” sets out on the trail of the human within the natural world. Curiously, the poem is catalyzed by the presence of absence, by what’s not there – the human. Perhaps it’s better to talk not of human absence but of human immersion in the bucolic landscape, for the poem offers a litany of signs that “allude” to a child’s escape from her “house” into an idyllic environment. The speaker’s musings offers “signs” of rapturous journey, a path from the mundane to ecstatic reverie brought on by amphibian symphony:

            But there was an abundance of frogs,
                        of frogs,
                        of frogs,
            but there was an abundance of frogs.

Within the poem, these lovely, emphatic repetitions echo the frogs’ exuberant songs, evoking joy and bottomless yearning. They sound a call for connection and proffer proof of its possibility.

Arguably, poetry’s fundamental impulse is to lead poet and reader to “reconnect” to what sustains us. How, though, is the poet to serve as both guide and traveler? Ah, there’s the rub. For that to happen, the poet herself must be transported, and yet she must enact as well her readers’ transportation. Doing so invites (as well as requires) the poet to reside simultaneously in wonder and discovery, in knowing and unknowing, in questing and in arrival – valuing each in equal measure.

Congratulations to all of this year’s IATE-winning poets for aspiring to do just that.

- Kevin Stein, Illinois Poet Laureate