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Rethinking Language

A selection of nine poems from eight young writers

At the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, eight students presented award-winning, original poetry. The presentation was held by the Aspen Institute's Arts Program, which is led by former New York City Ballet principal Damian Woetzel.

Five of the eight were winners of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, "the nation's largest, longest-running scholarship and recognition program for creative youth [in grades 7-12]," said Virginia McEnerney, the executive director of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.

"All work is blindly judged according to our three criteria: originality, technical skill, and personal vision/voice," McEnerney said.

The remaining three students were participants in the Young Chicago Authors program.

The poems appear below.

On Hushed Sugarcane
Sojourner Ahebee
2013 National Student PoetMidwest Region

For Chichigalpa

the sugarcane comes rising above a son’s head
like God,
like the sun when banana season is in bloom;
the scent of yellow fruit that hangs
intoxicates this town that I’ve been calling home.

it is June in Nicaragua and the rain is relentless,
and my boys hack away at green stalk,
tall and haughty like the city buildings
that attempt to touch sky;
they hack just above ground level
with a machete’s force,
they hack at sweetness but know not of it,
know not that June was a woman who told a lie,
who promised sweetness,
wrapped it in the innards of a sugarcane,
beckoned them to come and find it upon a field of tall green cities,
and then asked for their kidneys in return.

i want to show you something.
look here, look at this photo:
these boys are my sons:
their brown skin taught from sunlight’s 
heavy countenance,
their brown skin the color of packed tobacco
after it’s been looped by rough hands.
these boys are my sons,
what they take from the earth
they can never give back.
and when the earth takes my sons,
it can never give back.

this is a widow town,

there are dead men everywhere.

i’ve started to lose count.

the sound of machete against cane

is a mother’s hushed grief

for a son who will be gone

for failed kidneys in the season of rain,

for the doctors who are out of answers

for a town that is blessed and cursed with sweetness.

this sound is a mother's hushed grief
for herself when the only things left are
the photographs, a mother's story of loss
spoken quietly beneath blue mountains
in a field of sugar cane
quiet and murderous like snow
with her turquoise skirt billowing in wind,
heavy with the scent of green bananas
when the rainy season is pregnant and full of itself.

Michaela Coplen
2013 National Student PoetNortheast Region

For my mother, on the occasion of her retirement from the U.S. Army, 2014

The plane’s wheels kiss the tarmac and hesitate,
pulling back achingly before pressing themselves

against it again, sighing with an almost-shudder when
the landing gear bows under the weight of a thousand

anxious stares (their eyes focused, squinting from where
they were told to stand, practicing patience with the wringing

and unwringing of hands and the quiet urgency of prayer,
their lungs wanting air in the five-minute forever of before),

then the plane stops, and the door opens wide, revealing
the sudden relief of the sound of soldiers stepping outside

as one by one, then all at once, they march toward the gate
(there a little girl waits, lurching from left to right, trying

to catch sight of her soldier through the crowd, standing on her
father’s shoulders to get a better view), and everyone searches

through the glaring light of noon for their own familiar
faces, all maintaining ranks until finally one lunges to embrace

his son—then the whole group runs together, moving
in slow motion through the loudness of banners and cheers—

and she appears, now striding by herself across
the seemingly endless divide, but pausing in the process,

inexplicably turning aside for one final look at the plane that
delivered her here, back to the children she loves with her life

and the country she loves like a child, before pivoting around
with a smile and floating, uninhibited, into the open arms of home.

Errors of the Human Body OS
Brandonlee Cruz
2014 National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Medalist

Your operating system may not
perform tasks if the memory is too full.
If your operating system receives an
overload of tasks, it may lead to crashing.

Do not interface your operating system
with another: It may learn their programming,
it may recite their algorithms and sometimes
it will save their files like backup, but

once they disconnect, your system will crash,
the AirPort off for days or weeks; and
programmers, who think they know how each
system works, can do nothing at all.

Do not worry if your operating system
saves its lover’s voice in gigabytes
and leaves no room for anything else.
It may download too much alcohol and
clear its cache.

Do not ask your operating system how
to feel, for there is no formula that
can explain why we love the sunset but
hate the ending of a magnificent day. Because

even when your operating system’s
coding is out of date and it thinks it knows
every part of its programming, there
will still be parts of it that are encrypted.

The Ghosts of Fish

Nathan Cummings

2013 National Student PoetWest Region

Since moving to Monterey,
he has become afflicted with the voices
of the ghosts of fish.

He went to the beach on his first day
and heard the song of the choir aquatic:
like a thousand birds, trapped
in a glass bowl, recorded and played backwards.

Seafood is a problem.
His girlfriend pan-fried a red snapper
for their first meal in the new apartment.

Each bite screamed at him
until he did the humane thing,
sent their dinner to its proper rest
by way of dumpster.

He lives alone now,
shut in his apartment, six miles from water,
trying to drown the whispers:
six goldfish, claimed by a tank fungus,

swallowed in the roaring maw
of the toilet in apartment 7E;
a slab of lox next door that keens
wordless things about cream cheese and capers.

He has considered moving inland,
but that would interfere with his plans,
long gestated, to infiltrate
and bomb the local SeaWorld.

He will linger a while longer.
You can visit him if you like, hear him
speak on the linguistic quirks
of the North Sea Cod dialect

that he heard in a supermarket:
a trembling gasp from under layers of ice,
its words like a lover’s secret.

Re: Think Language
Louis Lafair
2013 National Student PoetSouthwest Region

Text Message to my Girlfriend


Conversation with my Grandma

Don’t talk about the
death of language. I—you—we will die, but
language does not die.
No one can crush
that first palm riding the air
in a five fingered salute
greeting farewell
because even curled into a fist that palm feels
with the thread of human tongue.

Latin, the gasping language, is not dead, but breathing
with imperceptible vitality. Salve, it says, not
Vale, as the valedictorian speaks on. Hardly antiqua as antiquity lingers. Rather ingrained,
the roots of a tree, as its branches palm sky, reaching towards a never-ending end.

Constant change cometh, constant change comes. Language stays her, an archaic expression of here,
passing, at times, through awkward periods, like the stretched amalgamations lapsing from youth to adulthood.
Hair sprouting, lips twitching, eyes blushing.

So you see, Grandma?
That text message I sent to my girlfriend?

That was a rustled leaf, an extended limb, a baby’s,
girl’s, woman’s, mother’s, grandmother’s song.
Not the death of language, which cannot die.

Don’t you feel it?
The feigned disinterest, concealed excitement, unspoken words?
Language, breath-think-asking, living, on its own,
in that hard backed, four pronged letter K.

Don’t you understand? Standing underneath a

history, a story where words fold into words? Briefly, perhaps momentarily, that swift K

surfaces, the result of a

gradual, momentous shift in tide,

riding from text message to text mess-
age, from soul
to soul, from wave to wave.
Though small,
though seemingly meaningless, that alphabetized, un- formalized grain is part
of the story
of the shifting sands of language,
and composes an entire poem.


In Response to Patricia Smith: What It's Like To Be A Black Girl For Those Of You Who Aren't
Karlyn Boens
Young Chicago AuthorsStudent

She said being a black girl is feeling like you’re not finished She said it’s finding that space between your legs

a disturbance at your chest and not knowing what to do with the whistles ....

Is this what it means to be a woman?

To shop all day as bags clutch against your flesh: you can't wait to feel pretty. Feeling pretty is that first touch of make-up that hits your skins.

Your friends say it looks right..

It's noticing the blemishes on your face that you didn't order

It's ordering take out dishes and instantly feeling like you have arrived at 500 pounds It's arriving between rocks and hard places

Discovering your lips can do more than mommy ever told you they could

It's speaking louder than you ever imagined and not caring who hears you scream Who sees your nightmares

Who vamps with you through night

It’s that first kiss with the fella with the liquor stained kush breath. That oddly you enjoyed

It’s learning the difference from a man and a nigga. It's no longer being able to sit on daddy's lap. You’re growing up.

Not trusting anyone.

That smell of blood in your breakfast that Smith speaks of … It's fear.

It's independence.

It's happiness.

It's the life that every girl wants to live

Omari Ferrell
Young Chicago AuthorsStudent

The entire aura of this place was wonderful The balance of life was perfect ...
Beauty radiated with the mere mention of this place.

There wasn't a doubt in my mind that people would soon begin to travel miles at a time just to marvel at its beauty
And sit and watch its innocence and wonder correlate so perfectly with its


soon the legends would begin of her peaceful anarchy.

Then man came guns blazing, violently spreading darkness and pain across her land.
Stripping her of her beauty, destroying her land

Chopping down her trees drying seas leaving her land bare and eyes wet, Broken, she drops to her knees surrounded by a desert wasteland.
They destroyed a paradise and everything around it and even though they did this they call her ugly and worthless
And what's even worse is; she believes this

They give her make up, and tell her that it will make her beautiful again Burying her natural beauty under concrete, skyscrapers and sin
she is now convinced that her dark skin ..  is a cage .. her children have been caged
The stars that once shone in her eyes, have disappeared, replaced by the bright dim streetlights in her soul.
They still tell stories of this woman of this land, of the beauty that used to exist that she allowed to slip so far into an inescapable abyss unaware that they are the ones that did this … I walk on her street and look into her dying eyes ...  i take out a case containing my weapon. Of mass destruction, revealing the beauty that used to be
i begin to play a jazzy tune

She moves her hips to the beat, and dances happily for the first time.. The stars outshine the streetlights

She began to smile at me, revealing that the beauty still exists ... I love this land and all places like it
I hope someday we can take her back to the days of bb king and langston hughes poems ..
Back to the days when the jazzy beats had the same beat as her heart… Back to the days when her hair was curly and her eyes were bright … And her skin was art
back to the days of her former beauty, back to the days of the magnificent African American  peaceful anarchy ..

Tears of Acid Rain
Wayne Strange
Young Chicago AuthorsStudent

1 teacher told
2 kids there are 3 ways to make
4 quarters … Beg, Work, and Take

He told us that we were the future,
And we put our dreams in a time capsule that had toy story figures
Because we believe we had a Buzz Light year and Woody the cowboy friendship Infinity and Beyond

Today I opened that time capsule and saw I dreams flutter like butterflies Fresh out of the cocoon
Today I looked a picture that had out toothless smiles Today, my tears run like acid rain.

His eyes don’t blink as if he’s in a staring contest for all eternity
His lips so cold it felt as if he’s been kissing vampires all day
And his body lay so still, if we played freeze tag he would always lose

The executioner exemplified an execution only night terrors could imagine. That day I replay officious memories as if I were a DVD player remote.
Rewind, play … Rewind, play … Rewind, play …
Let me start your life over and This time I’ll hold the camcorder

We won’t need our teacher to be our oracle and predict our future because It could always be changed
We can always switch lanes
An animal can always be tamed
But why kill an animal before it can break out of its cage Before it can take front stage
Before it can laugh at the jocularity and be as jubilant as a teenager on a Friday

shots to the head
seconds to call the feds
foot steps away from the murder the assassin fled while 8 eye balls watch big brother lay there dead
Today our tears run like acid rain

3.7 GPA but today he paid the price as if he had big bills to give away
The inglorious coward told him to get on his knees and face the other way He wanted to show his family that he was a magician
Making big brother and oldest child disappear until they can meet in the sky one day

Even if this happened
9 times in one day
10 news channels would still say, we have more important stories to cover today.
This is what I’m talking about …

Can you smell the gun powder? Can you see the ocean of blood?
Can you hear the last breath of my dead brother?
10 news channels would see this happen 9 times in one day while
8 eyes ball watch big brother lay there dead and
7 foot steps away from the murder the assassin fled when it only took 6 seconds to call the feds … maybe those
5 shots to the head wouldn’t have happened if those 4 quarters were made by those
3 ways that those
2 students heard from that 1 teacher …
Today my tears run like acid rain.

Renga, Party of 8 (collectively composed at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival)
Michaela Coplen, Omari Ferrell, Louis Lafair, Brandonlee Cruz, Nathan Cummings, Karlyn Boens, Sojourner Ahebee and Wayne Strange

We strip to our bones
on the page and stage just to
Receive acceptance.

Or maybe not "just," maybe
we peel away the surface

finding common ground
in our hands as we write truth.
Our mouths speaks the truth.

Our mouths are an opening
of sacred, of forgot: light

reflected from suns.
Plato, Adichie and King.
Guellen. Omelas.

I wonder what poems come next
and what nations they will build.

Climbed poetic hills
Whistle blows as we proceed
With poetic drills,

Discovering what it means
to be a poet, human.

First: life is never
about finding ourselves, it's
defining ourselves.

Mirrors never can reflect
the full truth of a poet.

Only the soul can.
The universal language
of the true poet.

Our words are bridges, ladders
antidotes, weapons, prayers.

Our words are breathing
pulsing on our tongues, alive
leaping from our mouths

to roost in nooks and crannies,
wings fluttering, faces singing

an early morning
wake-up call to the people
who are slumbering

In the depths of their white sheets,
poems and bodies rising.

Second: life don't exist
in a vacuum. Here we stand:
Writing for life's sake,

finding poetry in the
beauty of a baby step.

Rebellious teenage
footprints walking on language
creating fossils.

Creating something that lasts.
Building tomorrow, right now.