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Challenge, congratulations for Poetry Project students

In late March, George VanDoren, Ann E. Michael, Shirley Daluisio, and I gathered on Zoom to select poems in the 16th annual Lehigh Valley Press Student Poetry Project.

Each member in this small group has teaching and writing experience and is an advocate for poetry in schools. We met for two hours to consider 101 entries from students in 18 area elementary, middle and high schools.

The wide range of themes included: the Chimney Swifts of Bethlehem, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, pandemic exhaustion, a beloved pet, basketball, boredom, hopelessness, struggling with online school, acceptance of others as they are, love as a question and answer, nature (the sky, ocean, rain), colors, finding and defending a true identity and revising a myth in order to build a new story.

Judging poetry involves a different kind of thinking and feeling than grading a test in which there are right and wrong answers.

With poetry there are particular words placed on a page in a particular way. Those words can develop from an assignment or an experience the writer remembers and is curious or happy about, or that may have been difficult. Words can also create a vision for the future, for the writer or all of us.

The decisions concerning the poems to be selected for publication were carefully considered and difficult to make.

For those of you who submitted your writing, not winning doesn’t mean you didn’t win or that you are not able to write a poem. I have learned that when I write a poem or an essay, if my writing has given me some comfort or a new way of seeing in this quite terrible time, then it has been worth doing. What I mean is, there are different kinds of success.

Also, like playing basketball, a poem needs time to develop in the writer. If I wanted to play basketball, I would need to learn how the ball feels in my hands, to have a relationship with the basket. And to learn how to throw the ball in a way that will propel it into the basket.

Writing a poem is like any other sport. It takes practice. Some good coaching helps. Reading can help us find the right personal poetry coaches who speak to the beauty and mess of our lives in a style that works for us. For instance, do we rhyme, do we spread our words out on a page? What are the best words? What if we become discouraged?

I remember the first experience I had with poetry as if it happened this morning. A special teacher came to the 5th grade class where I sat in the second row from the front and could see the door of the classroom open and close. This special teacher talked to us about poetry and read us a few poems that rhymed.

Then I and the other 39 students (yes, 39) were told to write a poem that rhymed. At the end of 15 minutes, we were asked who had not completed a poem. A boy who sat near the window raised his hand. I raised mine as well. The special teacher sat down beside the boy and helped him complete a poem that rhymed! There was applause!

Then it was time for this teacher to take her knowledge to another classroom. I remember how quietly the door closed behind her. I remember thinking, “Wait, please help me!”

She didn’t wait and it was many years before I tried to write a poem again. I couldn’t rhyme in 5th grade and still can’t. But now poetry is a central part of my life.

I hope you can see that I’m writing this for everyone who submitted poems for The Press Student Poetry Project, and for those who wrote a poem but didn’t submit it. Poetry and other forms of writing, all kinds of self-expression in art or sports, any activity that helps us find a way forward, is especially important now.

Congratulations to the students whose poems are published this year in The Press, to those who submitted poems, and to every student who wrote a poem for the Student Poetry Project even if you did not submit it. In different ways for everyone, it was a possible beginning.

Marilyn Shoemaker Hazelton is a resident of Salisbury Township, a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts rostered teaching artist, a recipient of the 2006 Arts Ovation Award for the Literary Arts from the City of Allentown’s Arts Commission, and a published poet and essayist.