Poetry month: Meet Scholastic Art & Writing Awards winners Zainab Adisa and Alixandra Wilens

Josephine Djonovic  //  Apr 14, 2017

Poetry month: Meet Scholastic Art & Writing Awards winners Zainab Adisa and Alixandra Wilens

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 Zainab Adisa, age 17 (Pittsburgh, PA) and Alixandra Wilens, age 17 (Bellmore, NY).


What inspires you to write?

There’s not one set thing that inspires me to write. Many times my words come from what I experience in everyday life, from social commentary to my culture, which leads to friends and families. There’s so much out there to explore so settling for just a few muses wouldn’t be fair.

Alixandra: I find inspiration in the stories I read and the movies I see, the strangers I meet and the people I love. Late at night, when everything is completely silent, my train of thought moves so fast from one topic to the next that I can blink and suddenly an idea will appear. I am inspired by those magical moments in nature that happen so fast that if you are not looking in the right place at the right time, you can miss them.


What do you enjoy most about writing poetry?

Zainab: What I enjoy most about writing poetry is the next level connection I feel when spilling my thoughts out onto the page. There’s something about the genre that makes me feel like the world I’m has no boundaries. In poetry I am free to use rhythm, stanzas, line breaks, metaphors etc. to create a world that helps me lay out my thoughts. 

Alixandra: I enjoy expressing myself in ways that writing prose simply does not allow. I like describing scenes and ideas in a deeper, more spiritual context, and giving a voice to those phenomena that otherwise would be forced into silence. Poetry is also a writing form that should be written for both a writer and speaker, which is a uniquely gratifying challenge.


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

Zainab: There are many literary figures I’ve discovered over the years that have been catalysts in my creative processes. I love works by Jamaica Kincaid, Aja Monet, Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes and, Allen Ginsberg to name a few. These poets used their writing to challenge their era. They were not afraid to speak their minds and step on uncharted territories. Reading their works have given me courage and in the process I’ve discovered many things about myself I may not have realized until much later. For these tools, I will be forever grateful.

Alixandra: I have been inspired by so many writers over the years. Virginia Woolf remains to this day one of the original authorities on balancing multiple narratives. John Green has a way of making his characters seem both realistic and relatable, even if in one-of-a-kind circumstances. Walt Whitman, also a native of Long Island, describes nature in a style unlike any other poet in literature.


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

Zainab: There’s no set way to write or when to do it. You should never feel like you have to uphold a certain standard when writing. The ink we use to document our lives is different for every person and all stories are important. So I leave you with these three pieces of advice, which has gotten me through the last few years: Get a journal and take it with you wherever you go— you never know where the perfect image may come from. Never apologize for your work and don’t be afraid to write what you know/ how you’re feeling. Every thought is a valid one.

Alixandra: Write down everything. Do not be afraid of a single idea. Every spark of inspiration has merit in some form or another. Keep a notebook with phrases or ideas, or at least make sure to remember the random moments of inspiration. They often become the most valuable.


Why is it important to celebrate National Poetry Month?

Zainab: It’s important to celebrate National Poetry Month because of the impact poetry has on our everyday lives. In one-way or another we’ve all been exposed to poetry— the music we listen to, the words we speak, the thoughts we think. We’ve had the opportunity to be graced with not just the words, but the lives of people such as Maya Angelo, June Jordan, Shakespeare and so many more. Poets are more than just writers, they’re role models who empower others because we live in a world where hope is all we have to look forward for. Poetry gives you these options.

Alixandra: It is important to celebrate National Poetry Month because poetry has been around since humanity could write. We are continually searching for deeper meanings of life and how we fit in the universe, and poetry is one of the most natural expressions of this journey. National Poetry Month allows us to remember the greats who have come before us and paved our understanding of what it means to be human, and it awakens in us a desire to continue their legacy.




Language Barrier by Zainab Adisa




They say, that to make the th

sound you must put the tip of your

tongue against the tip

of your two front teeth.


The th sound does not come

automatically to me like it does to you.

I was not programmed nor manufactured

to be fluent in English and my grammar

leaves a bit to be desired.


Instead the placement of my tongue

when reading aloud is forced.

And when I'm alone I settle for the sound

of  f so it sounds something like

free instead of three.




I spent the first two years of primary education in esl.

As it turns out teeth are necessary

tools when picking up a new language,

losing one is hard enough but losing two

within a week is dire.


They play Simon Says and say point

To your teeth but you can’t when you don’t have any.


In third grade I only knew

compare and contrast.


My sister's math teacher once came to me

in the hall and asked me to pronounce


I grew furious as it came out as fink.


"You're just like your sister," he said.


When my mother and I look back

at dusty school pictures she smiles with a deep chuckle

and commends me on the fact

that my two front teeth came in straight.


Yet she doesn’t know the strawberry hue

my cheeks turned when I was unable

to deliver the correct sounds.

She doesn’t know the desire to be

able to speak the words

that dominated the world around me.


My mom says our dialect

does not know the th sound.

We do not know the slick way of the tongue

that winds and slithers like

the river back home.




Heart, Blood, Lungs, Eyes, Brain by Alixandra Wilens




A clock is supposed to tell time, to be time, to hold the honorable

Tick tock tick tock

For all of eternity.

What right, what audacity, what godly power,

Does the oldest of tickers,

A timekeeper before there was time,

Have to end time?


A failure,

A monstrosity,

A detriment to society.

No wonder you hide behind skin and bones.

You had one job! One job.

Keep beating, keep beating out against the skin forever,

You were supposed to beat forever,

You were supposed to beat—


But you stopped.

You have hidden your key all this time

So your secrets would stay locked.

But it’s finally slipped.

The key can be seen, turning and turning as you tick tock tick.

And it’s slowing down.

You never said you would slow down.


The mighty Old Ticker.

How heroes fall.

You don’t carry love, do you?

You carry nothing but the incessant

Beat tock tick beat tick,

A tick of humanity.

A flaw—



No, you’re not the flaw.

You can’t be the flaw.

You’re the one that fails but tries anyway.

A sacrifice.


A martyr.

You are not the seat of love,

You are its martyr, its sacrifice so

That it knows that will not have tried in vain.

Because you will fail,

And when you do

It will question its purpose.

But you beat anyway.

You beat.

Tick tock tick tock tick of humanity is to beat,

Beat against one another,

Beat until you fail.

You fail so it was not in vain.

Or it’s a chase, a clock

Beating against a wall

Without ever breaking.

Glass was made to shatter.

You were made to beat.

You beat.

You fail.





You are the flaw,

The reason for humanity’s weakness.

You threaten to spill out at any moment,

Draining out light and life and love.

You wrap yourself around every crack and crevice to keep humans stuck on the ground.

Without you, we would be weightless.

I would be weightless.

You are why I cannot dance among the gods.



You hide in the shadows

And wait to be boiled, shooting into eyes,

Blocking clarity until you have been spilled

Or spilled the drops of another.

Will you at least come out when the light is gone?


You leave scars when you come out.

Battle scars in this war, and I am still fighting,

Until you force me to stop.

You will one day make me stop.

How could you do this to me?


You hide in the shadows.

Do you want to come out?

Do you want to see the destruction you’ve reaped?

Are you proud of what you have done?

You are so scared of the world that you do not see how good it is,

That it is worth sticking around—


You would stick to the ground.


So you remain within when you can.







You are selfish.

You want to see the world too much.

You take the world away from itself,

Take it inside, and give nothing in return.

A cycle, a balance, is worth nothing

If you take too much.

You take too much.


Two halves,

Never whole, never enough.

You are never enough, you will never be enough.

There will be nothing left of the world to taste,

And it is your entire fault.

You take up too much space,

And when you fail everything will collapse in on it because you were too selfish to be strong,

To stay strong, to stay—


You just want to taste the world.

You are so full of wonder.

Do you even realize that it will get harder and harder

Until your thirst for gulps turn into small sips?

The world tastes cold to you.

The world tastes cold.

The world is cold.




The world is burning.

You just stare.

You see everything and act on nothing.

Nothing satisfies you.

You look until you burn and then it’s too much.

And when the world is too much, what do you do?

You turn away.

You keep turning and turning,

Looking for joy in silent circles

And you can never find it.

You are never happy.


You are blind.

You look so much that you do not see.

When you see, you blink.

You close.

Do you like being closed?

Do you like the darkness?

Are you happy that you will retire there forever?

Blind to wonders of light, you have no right

To blink and turn

Blink and turn.

You just don’t see—


You are blinded by the day.

You see the good and the love and the laughs,

And the tears and the fears and the cracks.

You see the pain, blinding.

There is truth in night, in darkness.

You grow in the darkness,

Expand to the silent truth of life.

In darkness, you are free.




In darkness you have lived.

This is what you have doomed me to.

But you know of life.

You shun it.

Your world is blurry, fleeting,

More occupied with life than living.

Are you tired?

Do you want to rest?

Is that why you never told me—


You are where love exists.

You told me to live and love.

I have tried.

Love is beautiful pain.

You are in pain.

Will you still feel pain when the ticking stops?


You are dancing.

Millions of tiny lights dancing a million interlocking inter twirling interconnecting dances.

I have tried to dance as these dancers dance.

How beautiful it is to watch these dancers slowly fade, lose their grip.

How beautiful it is to watch them fail.

You watch them fail.

You weep.

You cry.