Pandemic poetry contest inspires ‘sense of community’

When the coronavirus put a halt to the Laura (Riding) Jackson Foundation’s annual Poetry and Barbeque fundraiser, the staff and board members came up with a creative way to put a voice to the pandemic. This would have been the 10th anniversary of the popular event, held each April in honor of National Poetry Month.

The nonprofit organization, which seeks to nurture a passion for the written word in writers of all ages and genres, had quite literally been on a roll since last summer.

Last July, the historic Florida “cracker” style house where the 20th century poet Laura Riding Jackson resided with husband Schuyler B. Jackson, was taken on a 12-mile journey from its former location on the grounds of the Environmental Learning Center to its new home at the Muller campus of Indian River State College. The house was officially opened to the public in January.

Adding to that, last year’s standing-room-only Cowboy Poets event at the Heritage Center was a huge success. They were hoping to build on that momentum with this year’s Neighboring States reading, featuring Southern Poets Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers, Judson Micham and Jennifer Horn. But COVID-19 put a stop to all that.

“So we started brainstorming to find ways to bring the essence of the barbecue back,” said Louise Kennedy, LRJF executive director.

Very quickly, they launched two writing contests on ‘What COVID-19 Means to You’ as a way to create a “space for community and healing.”

“We always have a platform for local writers at the event, so this was a way to build a sense of community during this period of isolation for so many people.”

Kennedy said they received more than 200 entries in the Youth Writing Competition, an all-genre, teacher-curated contest for students from sixth to 12th grade. Another 160 poems were submitted to the Indian River County Poetry Competition for adults, ages 18 and older.

She added that the teachers were all receptive to the idea, explaining that with classes by then being held online, teachers and students alike had a sense of unmooring.

“A lot of the teachers really wanted to do it; they were looking for some way for students to channel their feelings,” said Kennedy. “Teachers were happy to have this as a platform; as a way to get their students to explore the experience.”

For the Youth Writing Competition, six names were drawn to receive gift cards from the top submissions selected. Their work, along with the other top entries, will be included in a publication currently being worked on by LRJF.

In the Adult Competition, although cash prizes were only awarded to Indian River County residents, they received numerous submissions from all around the country and the world.

“We got such an outpouring. We had submissions from Britain, India, African nations; sometimes poems in different languages,” said Kennedy. “We were finding this interesting pull from the community; a sense of community at a time when everything felt so isolated. It confirms for us the role of art and the role of writing. People were looking for ways to connect.”

The judging committee consisted of Sean Sexton, Indian River County Poet Laureate; Janna Schledorn, assistant professor of Communications at Eastern Florida State College in Melbourne; and Carrie Adams, Language Arts teacher at Vero Beach High School. Entries were numbered to ensure impartiality.

“I was looking for absolute magic, honestly,” said Sexton, when asked what he was looking for in the entries. “We wanted to definitely address the COVID condition; that was the criteria.”

Mark Hinkley, a member of the LRJF Tuesday Writers group, won for his touching poem “Monarchs,” which he said was inspired by the images he experienced when his brother and more recently his father-in-law died while in nursing homes.

“I tried to bring out the indignities of old age; he was 92,” said Hinkley, noting that while his father-in-law’s death was not caused by the coronavirus, they were unable to be with him because of it. “I look at it that when words fail, poetry is the next hopeful form of expression.”

To document the experience, Kennedy said they are currently working on a publication that will feature some 60 submissions, representing adults and children. They expect the book to be available in August, for a suggested $10 donation, at the Vero Beach Book Center and LRJF Writing Center on 14th Avenue in Downtown Vero Beach.

The works of the first- and second-place winners, three runners-up, and a selection of others can be viewed now on the LRJF website under the ‘Featured Poets’ tab.

Kennedy said they are continuing to build more online content to keep the community engaged in the writing process. While the LRJF Writing Center is not currently open, the Porch Poets continue to meet at the open-air Pole Barn at the house, and the Tuesday Writers meet via Zoom.

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