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Natural Awakenings Northwest Florida

POETRY MATTERS: Poetry Contest Offers Rare Insight into Students’ Lives

Aug 05, 2016 06:09PM ● By Charlotte Crane

Poetry matters. It empowers the alphabet and can change lives. It rhymes with the world.

Teachers and students at schools participating in the West Florida Literary Federation (WFLF) student poetry program are discovering just that—as in some cases youngsters barely out of kindergarten win prizes, while in others parents read their children’s works and realize that, until now, they barely knew them. 

Susan Lewis, who has directed WFLF’s student poetry contest for the past seven years, saw what poetry can mean to family relationships when she received a call from the father of a third-grade poetry prizewinner. He asked to her to read his daughter’s poem aloud, and only then did he learn how the child felt about her parents’ divorce. 

Susan Lewis and poetry winner“He was so grateful that he now knew,’’ Lewis says. “He felt she was reaching out, finally.’’

In another case, the mother of a young man with Asperger syndrome cried when Lewis informed her that her son’s poem was a winner, and then by reading it, shared his thoughts concerning his disability that he had communicated through poetry. Said the mother, through tears, “I had no idea.”

Founded in the mid-1980s by poet Ora Wills, WFLF and the Friends of the Library, the contest attracted 415 entries this past year, from just shy of a dozen Escambia County schools; 35 poems were judged winners.

The contest has grown significantly, from 270 entries last year, and it could grow even more as it becomes better known: Escambia County alone has 51 public schools and 32 private schools, and schools in neighboring counties are likely to become interested in the contest once they are aware of it.

Teachers of participating classes note that poetry writing is an aid to education. 

“I really do love it for students who struggle with prose. It takes away some of the limits and conventions—makes it more of an art form,’’ says Jill Robinson, a sixth- and seventh-grade teacher at Episcopal Grade School. “One of the best things it does is encourage the students to really explore their own ability to create without limit; there are no real restrictions on what a poem has to be, or feel like.’’ 

All 50 students in Robinson’s classrooms participated in the poetry contest; seven were winners.

Cynthia Sarikaya, who teaches 10th grade English at Tate High School, says 130 of her students participated in the 2015 contest. “I think they will have a new appreciation for poetry now,” she says, “and some will realize they have a skill that they didn’t realize they have.’’

One of her students, Jeremiah Hodge, wrote a story about bullying to tie in with this year’s contest theme, “When I’m Alone’’—even though, he says, “I have never been bullied except by my little brother, and I have never bullied anybody.” But he’s had friends who were bullied, and he “stepped in and helped them out a bit.” 

Hodge’s poem, “The Hurt,’’ won a Director’s Selection award. Among the lines: “When I am alone I hide, I hide not only from the darkness and silence of being alone, from the pain and discomfort of having no one … help me for I am not just one, I am ‘that kid’ whom you overlook, I am the bully and the bullied. I am Hurt.” 

        Writing poetry “helps me get all my thoughts and perspectives together,” he says. “When you go through the day, everything gets jumbled; writing poetry helps suggest, ‘Sit by yourself, relax and go over what’s on your mind.’’’ His poem and other winning entries will be printed in books that will be presented and available for purchase at an awards ceremony this fall.

       Lewis, who is a WFLF board member, the wife of a military veteran and the mother of three children, also teaches poetry writing to school children as a volunteer. She says what impresses her most about the student poets, especially in the case of this year’s challenging contest theme, “is the sheer gutsiness to write down exactly what has taken a razor to their little hearts. That takes some serious backbone. This year’s entries contained an extreme display of quality and emotion, which left the judges stunned. Emotionally charged and technically impressive, the future poets of Florida are indeed brilliant.’’  

Teachers and school administrators who are interested in learning more about the program can meet with Susan Lewis, who will explain how to participate, what they will need and how she can help them get started. Contact her at SusanLewis [email protected].

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