Last month, I was fortunate to be part of a Colorado Academy contingent that attended the NSK Neustadt Award festivities at the University of OkNeustadt Awarlahoma in Norman. This year’s recipient, Naomi Shihab Nye, is a wonderful writer and humanitarian whose work is well known to us, not only because our students annually read her poetry and prose, but also because she visited our campus and worked with students of all ages six years ago. (We are hoping to bring her back next year, as well.)

The connection between CA and the NSK goes much deeper, however; the “K” in NSK is Kathy Neustadt, parent of sophomore Tess Hankin. Kathy and her two sisters have been administering this award since 2003 to recognize the achievement of an author or illustrator of children’s literature. Another prize, the Neustadt Literary Award, goes back even further. As noted on the website, “The Neustadt International Prize for Literature is a biennial award sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today. The Prize consists of $50,000, a replica of an eagle feather cast in silver, and a certificate. A neustadt-prizegenerous endowment from the Neustadt family of Ardmore, Oklahoma, and Dallas, Texas, ensures the award in perpetuity. The prize was established in 1969 as the Books Abroad International Prize for Literature, then renamed the Books Abroad/Neustadt Prize before assuming its present name in 1976, The Neustadt International Prize for Literature.” Today, this award is generally considered an American version of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Past recipients include Octavia Paz, Elizabeth Bishop, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Rohinton Mistry, author of the Indian novel, A Fine Balance.

Thanks to the generosity of the Neustadt family, Tom Thorpe, Betsey Coleman and I were brought to the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman, along with Tess Hankin and the two students–Tatiana Goderstad ’15 and Allison Dennis ’17– who each won CA-sponsored student contests. The girls both wrote several brilliant poems based on the work of Naomi Shihab Nye. For the contest, several students in grades 10-12 were invited by their teachers to submit their poems for consideration; Tatiana’s were chosen as the best in that group. Meanwhile, in their English classes this year, all ninth graders wrote poetry inspired by Nye’s poems. Allison’s were selected as the best in the entire grade. As their reward, both students were able to attend the Neustadt Festival and rub elbows (quite literally) with Naomi and the other assembled authors, including Palestinian memoirist Ibtisam Barakat and Nathan Brown, the poet laureate of Oklahoma.

The Neustadt festival brings many current authors to campus as part of the week-long celebration. These authors serve as the jurors for the selection of the next award–in this case the Neustadt International Prize for 2014. On Thursday night, we were able to hear readings from these amazing authors directly, as they highlighted some of their best work. Among this group, coincidentally, was our old friend Andrew Lam, whom we will welcome back to CA for the third time this month. Lam read from his most recent collection Birds of Paradise Lost.

Betsey Coleman also had the distinction of moderating a panel discussion of contemporary literature that featured Naomi Shihab Nye and Ibtisam Barakat.  The panel was well attended, primarily by a contingent of library and resource specialists in the area and included some lively discussion on the literary scene today and the issue of including multiple voices in the arts.

The next day, Shihab Nye and Barakat led an additional student presentation at OU, and then on Friday evening there was a banquet at which Naomi’s poems “Kindness” and “Gate 4-A” (which she read) were the perfect capstones for the evening. If you have ever been in a room full of creative people, you can attest that there is a certain energy and hopefulness that pervades the space. The events we all attended were testament to those feelings. We left Oklahoma full of gratitude and inspiration.

For their part our two student contest-winners went immediately to work, both attempting to take on the November novel-writing challenge (1,000 words a day for the whole month!). Click here to read poetry samples from CA student Allison Dennis.

CA student Allison Dennis was recognized at the Neustadt Literary Prize for her poetry Inspired by and modeled after Naomi Shihab Nye’s work.

“Doll”
by Allison Dennis

My mother gave me her skin
thrown across time
to cradle my bones.

She stitched into my cheek
the dimple that shows
when I smile just so.

My father stuffed in my vocal chords
which stutter, shake
and shiver. 

He sewed a question mark
on my brain
and a heart on my sleeve. 

They tacked onto my legs
lead heavy feet that
stumble and trip.

And fastened on hair
that will never stay parted
or brushed.

They ingrained in my soul
an unnerving love for strangers
and misfit toys.

In my eyes
he placed the stars,
and the mountains, and the clouds.

With a swipe of her brush
she painted a smile with
an ever present flicker.

But it was me who
ripped off the sleeves of my jacket
and demanded to be bit by the cold.

It was me who slipped out the stitches
just to see
what it would feel like to fall apart.

It was them who put me together
but it is me who can
separate the strings.

 

“The Little Things”
by Allison Dennis

She wanted to be remembered for the little things,
for how she was never afraid
of the monsters under her bed.

For the way she could draw her heart
in a journal
and swore she could hear it beat.

For how every year on Valentine’s day
she got a card for everyone
and sealed each with a kiss.

But she never got one back.

No love notes found their way
through the slits in her locker.

No kisses were snuck to her
under the dusty bleachers.

Instead she got sharp words
pressed into cold keyboards
and whispers behind hands.

she got bruises
masked by full length sleeves
and scars that didn’t get the time to heal.

She is not remembered for the little things.

She is remembered for
the small town
making the news.

For causing the school wide assembly
in her honor
where everyone shed false tears.

For the pills snuck from the bathroom
and tears too late
to be acknowledged.

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