"You'd be surprised at how moving some of the poetry is," said Grace Theater Artistic Director for the Grace Theater Lucio Fernandez, in a pre-show interview.
The Grace Theater, according to an informational pamphlet handed out at the event, "is a not-for-profit inner-city theatrical organization whose mission is to enhance the cultural climate of Hudson County, New Jersey. Our children's educational program offers free dance, acting, singing, reading and playwriting classes, as well as performing opportunities."
The poetry contest began last year and, according to Fernandez, the sheer number of submissions was quite shocking.
Said Fernandez, "The first year, we received 800 submissions." The trend continues to grow as, according to Fernandez, this year's submissions topped 900. Said Fernandez, "It just keeps growing."
Winners are selected, according to Fernandez, by a panel of teachers who work outside Hudson County. "That does away with any bias," said Fernandez. The poems are judged on a curve according to age. "This has to be, said Ferandez, "or we'd have all 16-year-olds winning." The poems are judged on structure, use of language and how well the student gets the idea or feeling of the poem across.
What is somewhat surprising is that the success was accomplished without much publicity. Said Fernandez, "We sent letters to the schools [announcing the contest], and to a couple of newspapers in the area, including The Hudson Reporter, and we're really surprised at the response."
Last week's festivities were held at the Roosevelt School in Union City. The move from last year's location, the Grace Church in Union City, was necessitated by the increase in respondents and a place to put their family members. There was easily over 1,000 present at the Roosevelt School last week.
The event was opened by the 2002 First Place poetry contest winner, Jaimee Chasmer, 13, of Union City, who attends Immaculate Conception School in Secaucus. Chasmer read her moving poem Five Minutes from my Home:
My teacher babbled on about nouns and prepositions/
As the world was changing/ in a city/ five minutes from my home/
The wall phone rang, her voice changed, there was real concern/
An assembly was called and parents arrived early/
As the world was changing/in a city/five minutes from my home/
This missive on the effect of the September 11 terrorist attacks highlighted the kind of work produced by the many students who entered. The author said after her performance, "The Grace Theater Workshop is really professional, and as I want to be an actress when I grow up, this really gives one a real sense of what it will be like."
According to Megan Smith, co-artistic director of the Grace Theater Workshop, "I think it's great. It gives the kids a chance to express themselves, and it also puts them in front of a crowd."
Out of the 34 poems read at the Roosevelt last week, three were announced as winners.
First place was taken by 13-year-old Union City resident Lynette Rodriguez, who attends the Woodrow Wilson School. Her poem, a dark bit of verse about the dangers of drunk driving called That Cold Evening, left the audience spellbound with lines such as "If I wasn't so stupid/If I wasn't so blind/Maybe this little girl would have lived to be nine/Ryan took her hand and wished she was alive/This is what happens when you drink and drive."
Second Place was awarded to another Union City resident, 16-year-old Cathey Roa. Roa attends HighTech High School in North Bergen. Her poem Prey seemed to capture all the nightmares people have ever had about being chased and knowing they can't escape. Lines like, "I could feel them speeding up their pace/My life was the price of this race/My legs were giving up from the pain/And out of nowhere it started to rain/I tried to wash away my fears/I couldn't tell which were drops or tears" proved that verse is alive in the minds of local children.
Third place was awarded to Guttenberg resident and High Tech High School student 16-year-old Loila Molina, whose piece entitled Drifting continued the overall melancholy feeling of Roa's poem. The title of the piece is a perfect adjective to describe the dream-like verses; "Floating in mists/Hidden in clouds/No one notices me/Behind these shrouds/Drifting slowly away/Disappearing from space/Ignored and invisible/Tears stain my face."
Said Artistic Director Fernandez, "This is a great forum for local kids. This is a true local thing. We had a great time, and judging from how it's grown, I can say it will only get bigger."
If that's the case, the Grace Theater Workshop will be hunting for an even bigger venue for next year's event.