Outsiders and poetry contests

Throughout my junior year of high school I continued to write poetry. It was a way of getting out all these thoughts that were bouncing around my head. They didn’t have to remain stuck in a circular loop, and I didn’t have to worry about how others would interpret the words.

I continued to share some of my writing with my English teacher from ninth grade. We worked to build a literary magazine for the school, and she encouraged me to continue writing. I’m sure she’s the one who suggested I enter a poetry contest hosted by a local college.

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Poem: Injustice

Impressionism

This poem is like looking at an impressionist painting. Looking straight on, it’s more of a blurred image, but once your eyes adjust, you can see more clearly. It’s pure imagery, so brace yourself.

I remember seeing snowflakes fall during French class and then experiencing that sense of disappointment when it all disappeared by the end of the day. And that image stuck with me while on the bus heading for a basketball game. It could be considered injustice, living in the South, that it takes a lot for the flakes to stick to the ground.

In the downtown area of where we lived, we’d walk around for festivals and stuff. And I remember noticing how when the grass was wet, it looked the same as cooked spinach. The kind of cooked spinach that comes frozen in those little boxes and, to a little kid, looks completely disgusting. So that’s what I’m referencing with “spinach blades.”

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Poem: The Lost Unknown

I wrote this as a junior in high school after participating in a Life Chain event in town. It’s a silent, prayer-filled protest against abortion while also offering a public witness of people who want change, other options. I had been joining my parents in these events for many years, even if I didn’t always fully understand what it was about. But it meant standing on the sidewalk along a busy stretch of road and holding signs, like these.

I knew abortion was wrong. I had some stereotypical ideas in mind of what might prompt people to choose to go through with an abortion. As I got older, I would come to understand more and more of why this decision is such a struggle for many.

After attending the Life Chain event this particular year, I felt inclined to write about it. I remember reaching for pen and paper on the short drive back to our house.

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4 poems: Creating a persona

One concrete example of being competent and in charge of an English class group assignment happened during 11th grade.

I was in the regular version of this English class, not AP. I remember receiving a bit of flack about that from the teacher, who was fully convinced I was taking the easy way out by not going for his AP class.

Anyway, we had a group project where we had to create a persona, create the background of a character: who this person is, what they are doing. And then somehow we needed to tie in some type of literary piece. This was an English class, after all, so it wasn’t merely about writing a paper; it required some creativity.

I know our group settled on a female student who was studying different key events in history or was at least interested in history. We decided to create a journal for her where she reacted to various moments in history. Somehow we created journal entries and then also established that she wrote poetry. Yes, I’m sure the poetry aspect was all me, but I was happy to volunteer to make that writing my responsibility.

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Governor’s School: All about sounds

lesson9-music

Paul Allen was probably my favorite of our guest instructors for Governor’s School. He focused on the sounds and rhyming of poetry, but he wasn’t interested in sing-song poetry. He showed us the impact of replicating sounds, even near-rhymes.

It was under his guidance that I produced my absolute favorite poem of the program. First, we were asked to think about an event we had experienced. We described that event in one to two sentences. From there, we chose about five to six key words. These words topped separate columns across our paper and underneath we wrote down as many words as possible that rhymed with them. We incorporated literal rhymes (church, birch) as well as capturing similar sounds (for instance the long A sound in sway, rage, fade). We used these words to craft our poems.

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Governor’s School: Structured poetry

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A simple example of rhyme

I was much more comfortable and used to free-form writing. I didn’t want rules and restrictions. I didn’t want to have to worry about following a pattern or a rhyming scheme. And yet, that’s exactly what I was introduced to for my poetry writing sessions. Our teachers introduced us to structured creativity. That sounds contradictory, but it’s really not. There may be established limits, but that’s really where you prove your skill. I didn’t want to be given a very specific writing topic that I had no experience with, but having a specific prompt meant I needed to engage in writing in a new way.

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Governor’s School: The summer program

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In the summer of 2000, between tenth and eleventh grade, I had the opportunity to attend South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. I went for the creative writing program. It was held on a campus near downtown Greenville, S.C., about 2.5 hours away from where my parents lived. Sure I’d gone to overnight Girl Scout camps, but this was the first time to be away from my parents for an extended period of time. And it marked the first time I had to live with a roommate. This was a big deal.

I was excited about going but nervous about what the experience might be like. My style of writing was mostly to wait for inspiration to strike, to have an idea or a vision of where things were going and to complete the piece at that time. There really wasn’t a concept of brainstorming and editing, no stressing over word choices and trying to make things sound better. My approach was to really wait for inspiration and pounce in the moment. It was one of the rare times when I could be spontaneous. So I was nervous about how my writing approach would be tested and shaken up, having to meet certain expectations and requirements within a set time frame.

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Poetry philosophy: Show me, don’t tell me (also struggling with compliments)

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Theodysseyonline.com

I’m not sure where the phrase “show me, don’t tell me” first originated. I think it was through exposure to creative writing exercises and other writing efforts. But I took that to heart. I took that seriously. And in many ways that influenced my approach to poetry writing.

You don’t want to just say “she was upset”; that doesn’t tell you much. But instead you describe the used tissues scattered on the bed, the box laying nearby, how her eyes are puffy. You acknowledge the remnants of a bowl of ice cream. You describe the girl curled up on a bed, clutching tight to a pillow or stuffed bear. These images offer more details, they help tell the story. She probably didn’t just screw up a pop quiz; it’s more likely that she had a fight with her boyfriend or they broke up.

I was much more interested in showing the details of a story and describing the scene versus being straightforward. I still had trouble balancing what was described and how much to describe rather than saying things outright. I often went overboard on the descriptions and imagery, especially early on, but I was trying to find my style, trying to figure out what worked. How much detail do you really have to give?

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Poem: The Golden Days

In some ways I think this is the high school version of the poem Road ahead is closed.

There will always be a sense of longing for times in the past that seemed easier. But that ease is mostly because that particular situation is now familiar and comfortable; the emotion completely overlooks how challenging and daunting it was in the moment.

This was written during tenth grade

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Applying for Governor’s School

As I’ve mentioned before, I often shared my poetry writing with the school guidance counselor. She was the one who encouraged me to another step in developing my skills.

She was the one who would hang posters on the wall of the cafeteria of scholarship contests and other scholarly opportunities. I first heard about the South Carolina Governor’s School for Arts and Humanities by spotting a poster in the cafeteria. The Governor’s School was offering a 5-week program in the summer for various visual and performance arts, music and creative writing. The poster included details about a one-day workshop at a local community college to offer a chance to work on poetry and learn more about the summer program. Even though I was attending a high school in Georgia, I remained eligible to apply because I still lived in South Carolina.

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