Student poets read winning poems selected by guest reader at annual competition
By Stephen Wilson
Poetry, in some regards, seems to be the work of seeing the future by mining the past in order to better understand the present.
Guest poet and judge at the 2021 Jean E. Corrie Poetry Prize, Edgar Kunz, introducing one of his poems, “After the Hurricane,” explained it as this: Preparing himself for things he would soon go through, mainly his father’s death, unaware that he was doing such work.
That poem closely observes his father as he makes a van his home following a hurricane and dreams of repairing a broken relationship.
Kunz read from his prize-winning book Tap Out and also a few new pieces that ranged from his work as a food taster at McCormick Spices to his observations of ugly heron.
He also served as judge, selecting a winner and runner-up from over 50 submissions of first-, second-, and third-year student poets.
Shirley Liu ’23 took the top prize for their poem entitled 黄, the Chinese character pronounced huang, which translates to yellow in English. The poem explores the complex relationship between cultures, skin colors, and self-acceptance.
“I’ve never really written poetry before this piece, so hearing that people like my poetry and that a place for my voice exists has been hugely encouraging in my decision to continue pursuing writing,” says Liu.
Fatimata Cham ’23 also was recognized for her poem “Mr. President.” Unlike Liu, Cham has not only written poetry but also read it in notable places, like the United Nations.
“I love writing poetry to express my feelings, comprehend the world around me, and also spread awareness about the issues I see happening around the world,” says Cham. “This poem in particular addresses the importance of community work regardless of who’s in office. The importance of uplifting those around me and my experience being a Black child in America.”
Liu adds, “I’m really honored not only to be recognized but to be recognized alongside Fatimata, who I already respect so much as a poet.”
Here are the poems:
Shirley Liu ’23
My local hardware store offers 112 swatches in
white, chantilly and ivory and eggshell.
I choose panna cotta because I have a sweet tooth
and because it is two shades lighter than my palms.
I don’t remember when the sun became
something to avoid, just that I would scrub
the dirt in my complexion with steel
wool until my skin turned raw and
bloody. There are 293 swatches in
red, heirloom tomato and cayenne and ruby port.
I am seven when I tell my mom to stop
speaking Chinese to me. I was in love with a boy and his
eggshell skin. There are 267 swatches in
yellow, straw hat and cornmeal and hollandaise.
I keep scrubbing.
I am sixteen when I start learning Chinese
again. The syllables set my tongue on fire.
What color does that look like? Yellow in
Mandarin is pronounced huang. I scour the
store for a swatch with the same name.
A salesperson suggests eggshell.
Fatimata Cham ’23
I am very pleased to
My father always taught me to
Speak truth even when
Your life’s on the line
So today I took pen to paper
And wrote my truth
My name is
Fellow organizer, middle class, 9-5, student loan debt, learner, child of immigrants, south Bronx,
I know all too well
The smell of air pollution and
And the harrowing noises of
Know all too well
The difference a dollar makes
Know all too well
The phrases go back to your country
And take that hideous scarf off of your head
Know all too well
How happiness is a distant memory
My happiness has never stemmed from this democracy
Because only right here
Can I die while sleeping, jogging, playing in a park, in my car, in a classroom, at a protest, in my home
We have broken the glass ceiling
But how far will that take me
I’m standing seeing my reflection
In the feeling
We have gotten you to office
The Black women in Georgia
We the youth
We Black women across the nation
Although this country
Seems polarized too many
I a young Black child
Know all too well
That this has always been America
America for me
Has never been split into two
Like the Dead Sea
But rather a harrowing image of reality
We learned this past summer 17 more ways
You can die while being black in America
Hands up don’t shoot
We learned how complacency, and lack of accountability can heighten this harrowing image
Will you plague us with your empty promises too
Will you fill your cabinet with diversity
To portray this image of change
Or will their be action
Because Flint still doesn’t have water
And indigenous women keep going missing
The Middle East is still being disrupted
The Congo is still being exploited
People are still in detention centers
Black women are still dying
Is the Black agenda at the top of your list
Are we dead dead last again
We speak of light and truth
My light was stolen long ago
As I child I found myself placing
My hand across my chest
Singing in anthem
Singing to a flag
Covered in blood
Not fully knowing
What it all meant
It is not amiss to me
That the lawn you walk on
The halls you walk through
We’re crafted by the hands
I don’t need your words to reassure me
Because it’s the community I wear on my heart
That has always gotten my back
My liberation will not come your presidency
Or the past 45
I am rendered speechless
Because although it’s not another 4 years
Of Mr.Ex President
I don’t have much faith
The only faith and courage I rely on
So I will end by saying
As we part ways
I hope you find a cure to
The malignant tumor that is growing
And know that it lies not in the policies or politics
You have worked on before
It lies in the hearts of communities