2016-2017 IATE Poetry Contest

Listed below is the 2017 Special Merit Award Winner as well as the student's school and nominating teacher. To view the winning poem, please click on the students' name.

  • Seowon Lee, "YakGwa" / Teacher: James Barnabee / Adlai E. Stevenson High School

Kevin Stein

Illinois Poet Laureate

“Alone in Our Rooms: The Poetry of Disclosure”



            How brave we humans are alone in our rooms, the light as dim as our half-closed lids. How candid we are speaking out loud our trenchant appraisal of self and other to walls that cannot hear and, happily for us, will not respond with tart upbraiding tongue. Oh say what you will, we will say it only to ourselves and thus safely -- or say it only walking out a slammed door we intend never to open again.

            Though we wish it to, a slammed door never settles anything. Like stark light blazing just above the threshold, what fire breathes on the other side insists on getting out and into us.

            Some have thought a poem the way to say those alone-in-the-room admissions within a thing made of “stanzas.” The poem itself is made of little “rooms,” as the Italian root of stanza reminds us, prodding us onward from one space to the next until we inhabit a thing we’ve both made ourselves and fashioned of ourselves. William Carlos Williams fancies the poem a place “to wrap up one’s punishable secrets,” to closet them away and say them all at once.

            One way we fall in love with a poem is akin to how we can fall in love with a voice on the phone, never having had the chance – or the desire – to iPhone Facetime the body that speaks those words. In the essay “Nature, History, Poetry,” W.H. Auden in fact claims a poem can be a “pseudo-person” addressing the reader “person to person” through the mode of art. If its intimacy is of the alone-in-the room variety, it is relational and embracing. Most importantly, Auden suggests, the poem “cannot lie.”

            We value poems because we get the truth there, no matter if it comes askance or fisted in the face.

            Congratulations to this year’s splendid group of IATE winning poems, many of which exhibit the merits of this approach. One of them – “YakGwa” by Seowon Lee -- illustrates and extends the best qualities of fellow winning poems such as “Bury Me” by Eliza Sullivan and “The Bitter Scent of Sweet” by Estevan Rodriguez. “YakGwa” admits us to a private room as the speaker reflects on relationships familial, social, sexual, and linguistic. The poem’s reach is thus worldly as much as personal, its ambitions both global and individual.

            The poem opens with the speaker peeling away eaves of Korean YakGwa, honeyed treats saturated with sesame oil that paints the fingers glossy with each bite. In Korean and other cultures, honey is thought to bring good health, itself means to a rich life. The speaker’s mother purchased the YakGwa to serve as treat and thus to mollify the estranged speaker’s anger with her mother. A transparent excuse to bring the two together “to talk again,” the YakGwa ruse could take place at any table in any family’s home across the globe where the generations strain to tune past the usual static to hear the beloved other’s utterance:

                        And I listen to her explain again why my words pass like slivered winds,

                        my anger placated by the wheat flower saturated in honey . . .

            In the past YakGwa served as special indulgence reserved for the imperial class who sampled its delicacies on “lacquered royal tables.” Now, it’s trundled home from Jewel Osco in “plastic molds” far removed from stately affairs.

            What’s more, even the act of buying the YakGwa underlines the otherness of the speaker’s immigrant family. The mother’s grocery store complaints about price and presentation arrive “missing the, is, was, past and present participles” of English that mark them both as outliers, exotics in the American heartland.

           This awareness of language and culture – as well as how different generations negotiate such troubled social waters – shows the speaker’s worldly vision. She knows a bit about fitting in, and not fitting in. When the speaker’s associational leap takes her to the memory of her American boyfriend running her “Chinese” hair through his fingers, the speaker holds her tongue. She doesn’t rebuke or correct him in English words whose “sharp vowels” trouble her. She utters merely two words she’s learned to serve her well: “Thank you.”

            That the speaker knows what’s she doing and knows as well what others are up to by trying to manipulate her (and her culture) lends the poem maturity and confidence. We readers are not surprised to see the last two strophes’ closing gestures of empowerment and awareness.

            The speaker, it turns out, has since “devoured the alphabet” of her new home as she has consumed the delicacies of her family’s former life. And she’s mastered both by dint of open heart and welcoming intelligence. In the end the speaker conflates her culture’s logographic alphabet, the twenty-six letters of our English alphabet, her mother’s struggles, and the speaker’s own incipient ability to speak and write and make her own way in the world. For once, she sees no need to to “paint [her] words in honey.” Instead, words flow from her lips (and fingertips) like “artisan strokes” offering beauty of shape commensurate with the pure intent to speak truth of her life.