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Poetic License

Self-expression and the power of poetry



Words wound and words heal. They can divide a nation or transform a dream into a movement. “Handle them carefully,” cautions writer Pearl Strachan Hurd, “for words have more power than atom bombs.” In 2005 explosive words were scrawled across student lockers at Wilton High School. But even after the racial graffiti was wiped away, the scars of prejudice lingered. 

Disturbed by the slurs, the library’s head of teen services, Susan Lauricella, and her colleagues resolved to broaden the discussion of diversity and tolerance among the community’s youth. That winter Poetry in Motion was born. Students in grades seven through 12 were invited to submit original poems that expressed their thoughts, experiences, and feelings about age, religion, race, sexuality, and gender discrimination. Fifty-five students responded, submitting 67 poems.

We are told Eye for Eye!
Meeting sins with more sins
But when the whole world
    is eyeless
Who really wins? 

                           —Michael Garland

A student board and adult advisors pored over the poems short and long, introspective and whimsical, and debated the merits of each. Some presented a global perspective, exploring issues taking place in Israel, Beirut, and the Sudan. Others afforded a glimpse into what it means to be an outsider within their own community. And several offered hope for a better world. 

I want to hear a poem
That is not like any other poem
I want to hear a poem not   
   about
What will happen tomorrow
But how we will change today
About how we will make a difference in someone’s life
Or how we will increase our  
   compassion for each other 

                                              —Edwin Carbajal 

During the ensuing months, students refined their work with help from Heather Candels and other teachers. Then Regie Gibson arrived. Professional slam poet, songwriter, author and educator, Gibson traveled from Boston to coach the teens on performance technique. Collaborating with creative and music directors, students then took to the stage for rehearsals. 

“We were putting on a show, a play of sorts, that unfolded from one poet to the next,” says former Poetry in Motion board member and ABC scholar Edwin Carbajal, who graduated from Princeton in 2014. “It’s a wonderful way to voice your views to the community—an accomplishment that you’ve worked on throughout the year. There’s a real satisfaction in that.”

The program is not limited to poets. Student photography, artwork, music, dance, and acting often accompany the poetry, offering creative interpretation. The collaboration culminates in two performances in the library’s Brubeck Room. 

Presenting one’s beliefs takes courage—especially for youth in the throes of identity development and intense social pressures. “Many students are sharing their own world, their own thoughts,” observes Lauricella. “It’s not easy, and often very raw. I give them a lot of credit.” 

Running  away from stereo-       
types
“You’re short, so you must
   be weak”
Chasing away tears as the world
passes me by 

                       —Mia Lupo

“When I started high school, I was searching for ways to be creative and express my thoughts,” recalls WHS junior Claire Vocke. “Writing and reciting poems through this program makes me feel like I have a voice in society and an outlet to express my feelings. It has been a huge stress reliever and an amazing learning experience.”

It’s also impacted the trajectory of some students’ academic careers. One eighth-grader submitted a poem but didn’t want to get up on stage, so Lauricella offered to recruit a theater student to perform it for him. By the end of the editing session, the fledgling poet agreed to do it himself. Emboldened by his experience, the teen went on to star in several WHS plays and is now majoring in theater at college.

Middlebrook student and Poetry in Motion board member Ryan McElroy encourages others to get involved. “I tell them ‘Don’t be discouraged because you’ve never gotten up on stage or are shy,” he says. “It’s a really safe environment for kids to test themselves and improve on what they know.” Each year, the board selects a theme and how the poets interpret it is as varied as the students themselves. 

Poetry in Motion is a labor of love, requiring significant effort and funding. “It’s the best-kept secret in town, which is part of the problem,” says Lauricella. “Part of me wants to see it go on forever, but we need parental and community support in order to continue.” 

Last year, Poetry in Motion celebrated a decade of giving voice to often challenging topics through performance art. More than 100 poems were submitted. This year’s performances, scheduled for March 24 and 25, address the theme “But Wait, There’s More …” Attend, and experience for yourself the power of poetry.

Shedding the roles of audience
   member and performer
What was empty is now full.
All because one of us dared to say, “Hello.’ 

                                                               —Molly Hoch

From top to bottom: Poetry slam participants Stepanie Xie, Tor Aronson, Shayna Goldberg, Kaitlin McNamara.

Photos Courtesy Wilton Library

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