2014-2015 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.

  • Samantha Lasky, "An Ugly Deck of Cards" / Eighth Grade / Teacher, Heather Corral/ Northbrook Junior High School
  • Katherine Liu, "Mooncake" / Tenth Grade / Teacher, Danielle Colan / Adlai E. Stevenson High School
  • Anastasiya Loos, "Breakfast and Bombs" / Eleventh Grade / Teacher, Denise Foster / Adlai E. Stevenson High School
  • Suraj Marwaha, "Glitter" / Twelfth Grade / Teacher, Angelique Burrell / Naperville Central High School

“The Poet in History”

For many poets the problem with history is they’re in it – and they don’t want to be.

For many the flight to poetry tenders escape to some hoped-for Neverland sanctuary unthreatened by bombings and videotaped beheadings.

For them the poem is an enclave inviolable to the world’s daily rankling, the retreat to a locale both physical and mental, a retreat from all but retreating. Many, yes, still favor their breakfasts punctuated with the newspaper and coffee. Still, they prefer the morning rag’s Local and World news and even the Police Beat written in invisible ink for which they, happily, lack the revelatory potion.

For once, the blank page does not beset poets with the aesthetic heebie jeebies. Instead, blankness proffers calm akin to the nothing it is. For these poets The News comes with post-accident cop waving his flashlight, urging, “There’s nothing to see here. Now, move along.”

Their poems, as a result, often seem transcriptions of the newspaper’s Garden Section, many things abuzz and abloom – even the peskiest of problems solvable by deep-root fertilization and organic pesticides. If a population teeters on the brink of extinction, for these poets it’s the Monarch butterfly – which indeed is threatened – rather than the citizenry of some Ukrainian village whose names stutter too-clotted with consonants.

It’s not that I am inured to this temptation to fashion self and landscape outside one’s self and landscape. I’ll admit to planting milkweed amid my vegetable garden, for instance, to sustain the dwindling numbers of the Monarch. To be sure, I too am lured by poetry’s catalytic launch pad rocketing me outside myself. After all, the Greek root of the word “ecstatic” means to step outside of and stand beside oneself, to be transported.

The destination of that transport, however, need not be mere solace in nature or solipsistic navel-gazing. It may instead deliver fresh views of one’s larger world, the shared realm both local and worldly through which the individual interacts with the collective. Not without its risks, this journey demands we reexamine “the book of myths” Adrienne Rich ponders in her poem “Diving into the Wreck.”1 Rich regards these myths as product of our uninterrogated past and present, the history written by winners and then force-fed to our losers. In her view such acts of transport offer the means to those myths’ re-vision, a mode that involves complementary acts of re-seeing and re-writing.

If we are to elude being mastered by our past and current moments, we must engage those moments free of slavish devotion to the inevitability of what is. After all, who wishes to inhabit a moment that itself is inescapable, both of us bound in time like links of a grand chain of fate we trundle into the handcuffed future?!

In his salient essay “The Poet and History,” C.K. Williams argues history is the apposite arena for poets to engage their “most profound ideas and ideals.” Doing so, Williams suggests, grants poets fundamental grounding and means of connection with “concrete historical reality, with its necessities and its responsibilities and demands."2 The unsettling nature of these responsibilities and demands, of course, makes poets’ writerly task as well as creative product equally thorny propositions. No wonder, then, many poets eschew this discomfiting grounding in the-world-as-is in favor of hankering for ethereal elevation.

While most mainstream American poets of the twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries turn a cold shoulder to History with a capital H, throngs of young poets reject this rejection of the broader world. In verse, particularly in Spoken Word, Performance, and Slam, many young poets today reengage public culture and their responsibilities to it. The movement is outward from personal to communal space. This outreach insists on poetry’s role in the public sphere – the arena we fashion jointly and that in turn fashions us. Nowhere is this more evident than in this year’s splendid selection of prize-winning poems, especially those earning 2015 Poems of Special Merit designation.

The interchange between the personal and the public catalyzes Anastasiya Loos’  “Breakfast and Bombs,” for instance, in which the outer world’s jackbooted horror crashes a familial gathering. The poem opens with an American teen immersed in a lavish breakfast while visiting relatives in Russia. The scene serve up a cornucopia of pleasures, some gustatory – assorted yogurt, cheeses, meats, and juices – and others familial, say, “laughter” echoing “off the walls like a ditzy hummingbird.” One quick click of the television remote, however, invades this mirthful setting with the stark terror of hostilities:

There is blood and bodies and destruction.

I set my shivering mug down in fear of spilling

scalding liquid onto my lap like a searing blanket     

my brain begs no, but my heart pleads yes

I cannot look away. . . .

Ukraine is an old story, but it is new to me

Ukraine- the homeland of my family . . .

I did not know her pain until today

The speaker is haunted by this juxtaposition of happy and horrid scenes. She faces the incursion of worldly reality entangling individual and group lives. What’s more, the speaker, back home in the States, later notes another equally troubling elbow-to-elbow pair of settings. While her father numbly watches American television, the speaker is struck more by what’s not shown than by what is:

There is no blood, no bodies, no destruction

I figure breakfast and bombs are foreign to America.

Katherine Liu’s “Mooncake” enacts similar international mingling without leaving home. Sitting on the “kitchen countertop” while grandmother mixes and kneads Henan dough, the young girl listens as the woman talks of her former life. The speaker imagines the woman as elder historian, “every crease / in her eyelids laden with history as she tells me she misses / Henan, south of the river, banks awash onto curved feet and toes.” Grandmother’s story mingles love and despair, an awareness of her homeland as lost treasure as well as disquieting burden.

What could be a quaint family scene of intergenerational bliss grows knotty as grandmother kneads fresh details of her story as if working flour and egg into dough. Her talk of China’s Henan, both place and tasty treat, suddenly bristles with grander meaning. Hers is a story

about Henan and the bravery of the quiet women

who sit stifled, who roll love into bread dough

and thumb, and knead, and again.

 

The way they slip into their work clothes in the morning,

the ground swelling after rain, and did you know the sun

beats orange?

The episode’s ostensible domesticity looms fraught with fresh peril. The scene is quickly problematized by the notion of these women’s “stifled” lives as mere agents of production, women working beneath an unrelenting sun that “beats” its “orange” fist above them. The young speaker transports herself in time and place, abruptly auditioning her part in history’s larger drama, wistful with conjecture: “In a different world, perhaps I would also be brave.” Note how the trenchant choice of “perhaps” taps a wellspring of murky doubt and hope.

Eighth-grader Samantha Lasky’s “An Ugly Deck of Cards” also looks to an elder for perspective, framing an ageing speaker, a “low-life” bum, as unsettling messenger. His soliloquy pops the balloon of youthful idealism via the metaphorical pinprick of a deck of cards. His message explodes as much as it enlightens, playing off the figurative “uneven” hand that life has dealt him and others like him. His “patched-up coat,” “dog-sized apartment,” and bout with cancer contrast the vapid encouragement offered by “teachers” who promote the lie that “you could be anything, kids.”

What’s stunning is the young poet’s ability to inhabit another personality, to become a lonely and destitute old man, and to speak his disenchanting version of truth. Hers is the elemental transportive act. Refusing escapism, she instead steps outside of herself to ground herself in another human being’s earthly burden.

This acceptance of possibility and responsibility across generations also electrifies the voice of Saraj Marhawa’s eighteen-year-old speaker in “Glitter.” Released from parentally-imposed curfew (for who knows what raft of adolescent, rebellious acts?!), the speaker attends five-hour marathon scrapbooking sessions with “forty-year-old women.” Readers likely wonder if the parents’ lifting of the teen’s curfew is meant as reward for good behavior or as inventive mode of further punishment. The speaker herself appears acutely aware of the double-edged sword of her parents’ motives, attuned as she is to her outlier status amid the group:

It’s a strange kind of relationships, one of give-and-takes.

I’ve become well versed in domestic partnerships and retirement plans,

taken aback by broken familial ties and foreclosed homes.

They’ve relived the heated frenzy of turning 18.

The young speaker’s scrapbook pages feature ice skating photos, train tickets, and incremental one-two-three birthday cake photos pasted like checked-off boxes of her life register. Her compatriots glue down snapshots of husbands “past and present” as well as children both “step and nuclear.” The speaker’s incisive yet snarky application of  “nuclear” to describe these children hints at the explosiveness of her own relationship with mom and dad. Her word choice intimates she’s all too conversant with familial detonations and their aftermaths.

The speaker’s also possessed of sufficient spunk to question the motives for chronicling a life, any life, whether hers or that of her middle-aged new pals. Why “memorialize” a “failed pregnancy test,” she wonders, allowing the mystery of just whose failed test it is – hers or one of the ladies’? – to highlight the menace feeding on the frilly-edged record of any life. In the end, though, she gives tart rejoinder to the fates invading her new peers’ lives as well as her own. No matter what fortunes befall each of us, she admonishes, remember to document it all with flair:

But never

and I mean never

ever

forget to glitter.

These poets embody fundamental human connectivity across generations, cultures, and geography. They remind readers we are most human when we acknowledge our bonds with others, even when doing so discomfits more than consoles. Most importantly, these young voices model for the rest of us the considerable merit of writing in and of and for one’s own historical moment.

 

 



1 Adrienne Rich, The Fact of a Door Frame: Poems 1950-2001 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984): 101.

 

2 C. K. Williams, “The Poet and History,” TriQuarterly 72 (Spring/Summer 1988): 196.