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Young Voices Fan Poetry's Fire


April 18, 2008

Poetry has been very, very good to me. It didn't make me rich and famous like baseball did for Sammy Sosa, but it has enriched my life immeasurably. Poetry books are rarely, if ever, bestsellers. But for many, writing, reading and listening to poetry is the most meaningful form of expression. Poetry unifies people in a special way, regardless of educational, gender or ethnic differences.

I am always in awe of how vibrant poetry is, particularly at a time when there is such a wide range of other art forms and entertainment competing for our attention. While I doubt we will have an "American Idol: The Poets" any time soon, it is worth noting that on any given day in Connecticut there are readings at bookstores, universities, libraries and other venues.

We are lucky to have groups such as the Connecticut Poetry Society, created and run by volunteers, with chapters all over the state. Many others keep poetry alive by spending countless hours editing and publishing poetry and literary magazines that will serve as archives of the issues we cared about during our lifetime.

For a delicious sample, try stopping by the Sanctuary in East Haddam on the first Sunday of each month to hear poets Edwina Trenthan, former state poet laureate Marilyn Nelson and others who host a "Poetry Potluck."

A few weeks ago, I was invited by the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, along with poets Kate Rushin and Dick Allen, to be the judges for the program "Poetry Out Loud," a national recitation competition for high school students. The program, developed by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, seeks to promote poetry not only within schools but to bring poetry out into the community.

Before the finals held in the auditorium at the Artists Collective in Hartford the tension and energy was palpable. I thought about what the UConn Huskies' locker room must feel like before a game. Eighteen high school champion poets had been training for weeks, working closely with their teachers and coaches toward the goal of reciting for the state championship.

As each took the stage to perform, their teachers, parents and friends cheered them. For the next four hours, the audience and judges marveled at the poise, maturity and focus of the teenagers. They devoted themselves, lending their bodies and voices, to becoming the instruments through which contemporary poems and others, written centuries ago, would come to life.

At a time when all we seem to hear about teenagers are the crimes they have committed or their deaths resulting from reckless driving, these students from Rocky Hill, Vernon, Wolcott, Fairfield, Madison, Hartford, Windsor, Newtown, Middletown, West Hartford, Newington, Oxford, Waterford, Avon, Bloomfield, Bolton, New London and Berlin were reminders of all the positive contributions teens make to society. The schools participating in this program should be commended for nurturing their students' interest in poetry; something that can sustain them for a lifetime.

This year, Attallah Sheppard, a junior at Waterford High School, was named the state's champion. As I watched her on stage, I knew she would make a great competitor when she represents Connecticut at the National Finals on April 29 in Washington, D.C .

Another group of students from Windham High School and Windham Academy called "The Young Poets" charmed, impressed and amazed me this month during an open mike at the Eastern Perk Cafe on Main Street in Willimantic. They performed poems they have written and published. Their poems can be read and listened to on www.whsliteracyzone.com. This group is mentored and coached by Lynn Frazier, a Freedom Writer teacher. The group is seeking donations to match the $2,000 grant it received from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism to support its programs.

At the Eastern Perk, the youngest poet participating was 7-year-old Kit Anderson. The future of poetry is certainly secure.

Bessy Reyna is a free-lance writer whose column appears the third Friday of every month. To leave her a comment about this article, please call 860-241-3165.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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