Children, adults read poetry in front of poet laureate at EPL


Stephanie Kelly/The Daily Northwestern

Ten-year-old Rachel Gelhausen reads her poem “From a Cat’s Eyes” to an audience at the Evanston Public Library. Gelhausen is one of many children and adults who read their work at the event.

Stephanie Kelly, Reporter

A 10-year-old stood next to the Illinois poet laureate and before about 100 people, nervous but excited to read her poetry for the first time in public.

“Right before I did it, I felt my throat kind of dry, and I got nervous. It was really fun and exciting,” Rachel Gelhausen said.

The 36th annual Jo-Anne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Awards, judged by Illinois poet laureate Kevin Stein were open to elementary, middle and high school students and unpublished adults. The more than 20 winners of the competition were invited to read their poetry aloud during a ceremony at the Evanston Public Library.

Library director Karen Danczak Lyons said various age groups can enter to bring their love of poetry to an audience .

“Some of them continue to compete as they grow up,” Lyons said.

As the judge, Stein spoke at the event and read selections from his own work. He said he was blown away by all the poems he discovered, especially those written by the younger contestants.

“I like all of them, but the youth poems just strike me nuts,” Stein told The Daily. “I just can’t believe that young people are so good.”

During the ceremony, Stein said poets should write for themselves and for the enjoyment that poetry brings instead of for awards. Kurt Gelhausen, Rachel’s father, said he sees that joy in his daughter.

“She just made some poems and wrote those fairly quickly over a few days, just enjoying the process, and she submitted them,” her father said.

Gelhausen said she was ecstatic to have received her honorable mention in the category for elementary school students.

“When my mom told me, I really freaked out because I did it last year, and I didn’t win anything,” the fifth-grader said.

She said she was stunned when Stein was at the ceremony in person.

“I didn’t actually think he was going to show up,” Gelhausen said. “I thought it was just him choosing, so I was surprised and very, very excited that I could read in front of such an important person.”

Stein said he was thrilled he had the chance to hear the winners he picked read their work. Seeing a young person reading aloud, thinking of himself differently, is thrilling, he said. When eighth grader Max Newman read his poem about spitting, Stein said he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“He thinks of art and verse as a medium to say pretty provocative things,” Stein said. “That’s really exciting.”

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