One of the great programs that Illinois Humanities presented this year was the revitalization of the Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards. When the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet passed away in 2000, the statewide youth poetry contest she’d created 30 years earlier ended.
The program — one of the numerous that was part of the Our Miss Brooks 100 (OMB 100) celebration of the centennial of Ms. Brooks’ birth — is the brainchild of Quraysh Ali Lansana, head of OMB 100 who approached Illinois Humanities to revive the program that celebrates poetry and youth voices statewide. There were 260 entries, from K-12, with 83 (32%) from outside the city of Chicago. There are 19 winners, and 26 honorable mentions.
On Saturday, Oct 7, the poets, teachers, families and guests gathered to celebrate their accomplishments and hear the winning poems. The program was the opening of a day-long celebration for the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.
Bill Michel, director of the Reva and David Logan Center expressed that a youth poetry awards celebration was the perfect opening for the 5th year celebration of the center, which aims to celebrate the “Great cultural and artistic vitality of the south side of Chicago.”
“This is part of forming one’s ideas, one’s identity, and one’s voice and this kind of self-discovery leads directly to civic engagement,” said Angel Ysaguirre, Executive Director of Illinois Humanities. He also said the poetry contest bridges two of the organization’s core priorities – a strong commitment to the arts, but also to schools, lifelong learning, and engaging young people in activities like creative writing.
The program included remarks by Nora Brooks Blakely, the daughter of the famed poet. Blakely described how her mother created the contest, personally mimeographed letters and sent them to schools across the state, did all of the judging herself and paid for the prizes out of her own pocket.
“And the young people came, yes they did, eyes bright, souls amazed that all these people were actually here to listen to them, their thoughts, dreams, their tragedies, their joys, ” Blakely remembered.
Poet Angela Jackson, who recently published a biography of Brooks titled “A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks” described how her mother jumped with joy as Jackson, then a third grader read her first poem “How lucky you and I are to be poets,” Jackson said during the ceremony. “I salute you, my fellow poets.”
Lansana, one of Brooks’ last students, described the spirited generosity that she showed in personally administering the poetry awards each year. He recalled that she would announce that there would be 28 winners, but inevitably she’d end up honoring more than 40 students. Year after year.
But the stars of the morning, were the young poets, beginning with Sally Weinberg, of Evanston, Ill., the winner of the kindergarten category and finishing with high school senior Daniel Hill each of the winning poets read their own works from the stage. Later during an open-mic session winners of the honorable mentions category read their poems in the Café Logan.
The program ended with a celebration of teachers.
Poet and teaching artist Timothy Rey described participating in a talent showcase in elementary school, and the sting he felt when a teacher told him that she didn’t believe the poems were his. However, he also described how other key teachers over the years would say just enough supportive things to keep him motivated. This included Gwendolyn Brooks, who during a visit to his school told him, “If you want to be a writer, write.”
“The fact that you are here today,” Rey told the audience, “tells me you have some good experiences with teachers, parents, caregivers and cheerleaders.”
The final applause of the day was for the teachers who help Illinois Humanities revive the youth poetry awards.
Special thanks to sponsors Chicago Community Trust, the Poetry Foundation, the Fry Foundation, and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in helping to make this year’s contest possible.
Check out more pictures from the ceremony on our Facebook page.