Students, adults share poetry in library’s annual contest

Campbell Roth

Nineteen years ago, when a magazine published two of Susan Hahn’s poems, she knew she had made it as a poet.

Hahn can remember the phone call in 1983 from Joseph Parisi, the editor of “Poetry Magazine,” that had her “literally dancing in the streets,” she said.

“I’ll follow that man around for the rest of my life. He saw something in me,” said Hahn, who has since published five books of poetry and is the editor of Northwestern’s TriQuarterly magazine. “He made me believe in myself, and that’s all it took.”

Gratification like that, Hahn said, is why contests like the Jo-Anne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Awards, held Sunday afternoon at Evanston Public Library, are so important. Hahn was the judge of the 24th annual poetry contest that honored poets in elementary, high school and unpublished adult categories.

“Poetry is alive and well and flourishing in the elementary schools, in the high schools and among adults,” Hahn told a group of about 100.

The contest is sponsored by Hyman and Pearl Hirshfield, whose daughter Jo-Anne was an amateur poet before she died in 1978.

“She liked poetry and she wrote poetry and she enjoyed poetry,” Pearl Hirshfield said of Jo-Anne. “(The honorees’) work is extraordinary and I hope they continue working with wonderful phrases and words, just as they have been.”

Library Director Neal Ney said 575 poems were entered in the contest. Monetary awards were given for first, second and third prizes in each category; three poets in each category also received honorable mentions.

At Sunday’s ceremony honorees read poems before listening to Hahn read 11 of her own.

“The written word takes on a life of its own when spoken aloud,” Hahn said. “Writing poetry alone in your room is very different than reading it to a group of people.”

Hahn said she was struck by the quality of the poetry in the contest and surprised at the similarities in subject matter.

“In every category, the poems dealt with current issues, politics, issues of loss,” said Hahn, who said she wanted to be a judge in order to read students’ poems. “I wanted to see what kids are writing about.”

Larry Gardner, a 13-year-old student at Chute Middle School, said winning third place for his poem “The Sound of the Way” motivated him to continue writing.

“I’ve been writing poetry since I was in kindergarten,” Gardner said. “After I got the award, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to keep writing.'”

Evanston resident Diane dos Santos said three years of writing poetry and taking workshops have been the encouragement she needed.

“They’re all stepping stones,” dos Santos said. “(The encouragement) reflects back to me and gives me confidence about my poetry.”

Dos Santos won first place in the adult category for “Bayou,” and an honorable mention for “Gather Yourself.”