Poetry month: Meet Scholastic Art & Writing Awards winner Carissa Chen

It's National Poetry Month and we want to introduce you to the some very talented teen writers this month.

This year's 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards recognized 16 high school seniors who received the program’s highest national honor, the Gold Medal Portfolio, which includes a $10,000 scholarship.

Throughout April, we will showcase a poem from this year's writing portfolio winners. This week, we are celebrating the work of Carissa Chen, age 17 (Exeter, NH).

 

What inspires you to write?

Carissa: My love of writing and stories stems from my grandfather. Sitting by our blue formica kitchen table, he’d lift his wrinkled hands and describe his childhood. As a teenager, my grandfather was separated from his parents when enemy soldiers invaded his hometown during World War II. Despite the hardship my grandfather encountered, he also reminded me of the importance of art and stories. He wrote to heal, to observe. He read every night in the library, and six years later, he graduated from the local university. Books taught him how to understand the tragedies he had witnessed as a child. My grandfather inspired me to love stories and reading. Ever since I was little, I’ve loved to write, to paint, and my grandfather reminds me that the act of creating can carry a deeper, human purpose.

 

What do you enjoy most about writing poetry?

Carissa: When I first started writing, I thought of each sentence as a practice in honesty. As I grew older, my perception of writing continued to grow. Fiction became surprising connections. Poems became monuments, memorials, prayers, temples. Memoir became a precarious dance between the private and the public. The reasons why I enjoy writing poetry have changed as I’ve changed and grown older. Throughout the various reasons, I’ve always loved that poetry allows us to think in new ways  – poetry morphs logic and allows us to tell unique stories. It’s creative and emotional; it creates an authentic space for empathy.

 

Is there a poet, a writer or another creative individual whose work has inspired the way you think about art and writing?

Carissa: Toni Morrison inspires me to be fearless in my writing and Frida Kahlo inspires me with her power of creating authentically. My favorite Shakespeare plays taught me that stories are timeless and that, as humans, we’re all fundamentally the same.

 

What advice do you have for new poets and writers or people who want to start writing?

Carissa: Write a lot! And find friends who love poetry as well - there’s something so encouraging about having a community of artists and writers to share with. Find your unique writing voice by traveling and reading a variety of authors.

 

Why is it important to celebrate National Poetry Month?

Carissa: 

In a recent New Yorker article, Andrew Solomon explains: "With twenty-six shapes arranged in varying patterns, we can tell every story known to mankind, and make up all the new ones.  If you can give language to experiences previously starved for it, you can make the world a better place.".

The power of writing to restore dignity is evident in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s eloquent persuasion for feminism, her ability to use words to crack the single-story. It’s in the way JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series have been shown to foster empathy and promote acceptance of the LGBT community. But the power of stories are just as evident in our own smaller communities, from the power of an obituary in a school newspaper to your friend’s changed gender status on Facebook. Stories are infectious.

It’s important to celebrate National Poetry Month because poetry and the arts form the backbone of our culture. Writing is a way of defining who we are as individuals, as a community, as a nation.

 

Idyll, Musings by Carissa Chen

 

She taught me to arrange the fake bones

in a perfect circle, five year-old fingers

cradling calcium as if only circles would trap the

moon by white.

This was the summer all the girls in

my class claimed they saw the same ghost,

the summer of burning tea leaves,

the summer we listened to bleating radios

sing of panacea. Penumbra summer and her

brother held a 9mm Rueger to the chest,

pointed and pulled as sliding

a quarter into the Ruby Diner’s gumball machine.

Perfect blue, man-made sky, the jukebox

in the parlor singing staticky Sex Pistols

and the salt on the fries so sweet, so sticky.

By September, the black girl’s seat was

beneath Ms. Koken’s class confederate

flag and she called it nostalgia.

 

Nostalgia,

 

and years later, I lay still beneath the

same willow on the hill’s skull,

the roots now, protruding as a split in

the lip - and here we buried her

brother beneath, the dogs ripped

the skirt off the black girl beneath,

searching for him and her in the birds that

fly tethered to this small town’s starred, striped sky.

Somebody once explained to me the ruthless grip on all

our necks and still,

I have not yet learned to stay my caked nails

from digging through these roots

instead carving

perfect tunnels

into the center of the earth,

learning to sink.

Here, kneel with me,

I’ve come to apologize to the dirt.