The Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Contest takes place every year in which both Upper and Middle School students can participate. Any student can take part in the contest by submitting up to three poems. Three student poems will be selected from the Upper School as winners and three students from the Middle School. Each winner receives a $50 reward. This year’s Upper School winners were junior Juanita Asapokhai, and seniors Dan Carroll and Elise Gendrich.
Juanita has won the contest for three years in a row now and is a very experienced writer. Juanita’s winning piece was called the “MONEY POEM [on paying God].” She said that the inspiration for this poem came from her childhood memories of her parents telling her stories about when they emigrated to America. She remembers her dad telling her a story of how he was basically hustling. “There was a line in a poem that says a three wall home, a reflection of time where my family didn’t have a lot of money,” she said.
Juanita submitted three poems in total. One of the other poems was about colorism and people weaponizing their skin tones in communities against other black people. The third poem was about an ultrasound and a mother. It’s about how people didn’t think she was capable of having a kid, but an ultrasound was evidence that she is capable.
Juanita said that her winning poem was the best because it had a clear concept, it was the most identifiable, and she could play around more using creative metaphors. “I know what I am drawing and have a creative freedom for the colors I use; the other ones were more elusive,” she said. “It is a deviation from my usual style; my intention was to try to create a lyric tone. Each line of it reads a statement, not one long sentence.” Juanita said that she feels very appreciative of being selected amongst such talented writers like Dan and Elise.
Dan’s winning poem was titled “The Night Britney Spears Shaved Her Head.” “It’s about Britney Spears shaving her head, and the other things that happen at 2 a.m.,” he said. Dan said that he was inspired to write this piece due to his love for Britney Spears’ first album, the one with “Baby One More Time” and “Email My Heart” and “You Drive Me Crazy.” He said that also at that time he was reading a lot of Hanif Abdurraqib writing, who writes a lot of poems using songs and albums as inspiration, so Dan wanted to do something like that. “So I would play one of those three songs on repeat, and my rule was that I couldn’t stop listening until I had written a new stanza. I was on some Leonard Cohen ‘Hallelujah’ stuff,” he said. “There were a lot of scrapped verses.”
Dan said that he’s interested in how pop culture references can be used as shorthand for specific interest, but he’s also challenged by how to include them in poetry without making it awkward or clunky. “Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem ‘Monica’ is a good example of this,” he said. “I think I did a good job with this one, so that’s my favorite part. Maybe this one has opened the door for the Criss Angel poem I’ve been kicking around.”
Dan submitted two other poems as well. One of them was inspired by Deem Spencer, who’s a rapper that writes really peaceful and quiet songs that Dan really likes. The other one was about waking up on a friend’s couch. This is Dan’s first time winning, though he has been submitting work to the contest for the past three years. “Last year, back when I thought my pain was special and unique, I submitted a poem about Twitter and mental health,” he said. “I don’t remember what I wrote sophomore year. Probably something about being in the closet, honestly.”
Elise’s winning poem was titled “21st Century Floriography.” She said that it’s about her relationship in stages with her boyfriend, junior Elan Stadelmann, and each stage is a different stanza of the poem. She said that floriography is the act of sending messages through flowers; for example, a daisy could stand for friendship. “My relationship with Elan was my inspiration for writing it. The idea just popped in my head, and I thought this would be good,” she said.
Elise submitted two other poems as well, but she said that they weren’t nearly as good, and she had written them a few years ago and just wanted someone to read them. She said that her favorite part of the winning poem was the line about sunflowers. The lines were, “Now they bloom into lovely sunflowers. Bending toward the sun and each other,/Brilliant colors shining through clouds, days,/ Soft petals on their way to love.”
Elise said that she doesn’t consider herself a major writer, but just wanted to write and wanted someone to read it. “I showed it to Elan, and he thought it was really accurate. My comparison was correct,” she said. “I was surprised, out of my three poems, this one was definitely the best, but I usually don’t expect to be in the ranks of writers like Juanita, Dan and Janvi who have won it in the past.”