The Pulitzer Center congratulates the 2021 Fighting Words Poetry Contest winners and finalists!
These nineteen exceptional poets, whose work and bios appear below, were selected from among over 725 entrants in eleven countries, 20 U.S. states, and Washington, D.C. This year's contest was judged by Alissa Quart, who writes:
"'It is difficult / to get the news from poems,' William Carlos Williams famously wrote. These young poets are ensuring that that is not so. They vouch that poetry is not and will not be merely the equivalent of a beautiful vase in a case, inert and detached from the world. These poems engage with the necessity and, yes, sometimes the desperation inherent in news events. The best of these poems, like the best of documentary poems, are at once dynamic reportage and intact, refined poems.
"Many years ago, Susan Sontag wrote in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, 'Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react.' This is more the case now than when Sontag wrote this. In addition, a barrage of screeched half-truths on TV channels and sites currently pretend to offer news but simply feed the public disinformation. Now, and in the future, we will need imaginative, non-traditional ways of presenting accurate information with emotional acuity. The works of these poets have the power to cut through some of that xenophobic noise. I was heartened by these poems, filled with a sense of possibility about both the journalism and poetry to come."
(* = poem is accompanied by an audio recording)
monstered lungs by Jacklyn Vandermel
10th grade, Northern Valley Regional High School, NJ
Judge's comments: This poem is a beautifully delineated compliment to an equally forceful work of journalism and photography. The poem is deeply engaged with the documentary materials and the terrible story that inspired them but makes something pristine and new out of both. Even the way each line is broken and made to lie on the page shows great early artistry.
Sing, Sing of Our Grief by Emma Karn
12th grade, Sacred Heart Academy, PA
Judge's comments: “'We have been taught the/‘work women ‘ought to be’ engaged in’ / Sew, chant; time will flow at its pace,” writes this poet, from the POV of suffering Indian female prisoners, some of whom were themselves victims of domestic violence and other crimes. The poem uses first-person plural – the chorus—as a way to evade the way that American readers might 'other' incarcerated women, especially those on the sub-continent. Through this sleight of hand, they are 'we' and we are 'they.' The use of repetition is also strong in this poem, as in the repeat of the word 'control,' as well as the subtle poetic scheme that is deployed."
when we are at sea by Beatrix Kim
10th grade, The Pennington School, NJ
Judge's comments: This poem utilizes artful repetition, with the multiple use of the term refoulement – the forcible return of refugees. The poet also takes an intense first-person plural approach to this subject matter. By putting us right into the sensory and emotional experience of those stuck in a purgatory, between countries on a boat, this young poet deftly prevents the reader’s attempts to distance themselves from this troubling material and European culpability.
Unfatherland by Muna Agwa*
10th grade, Hathaway Brown School, OH
City of Loneliness by Ares Bandebo-Cambra*
3rd grade, Claire Lilienthal Elementary School, CA
SHE SET HERSELF ON FIRE by Oliver Lee
11th grade, Arrowhead Union High School, WI
The Sea by Kayla Maame Sarpong Kessie*
11th grade, SOS-Hermann Gmeiner International College, Ghana
four tomatoes by Emma Lee
9th grade, Stanton College Preparatory School, FL
Reckoning by Kiara Imani Adams*
12th grade, Silverado High School, NV
Remember? by Penelope Garfunkle
6th grade, St. Paul's Episcopal School, CA
The olive-tree apocalypse by Mary Roche*
11th grade, Eastchester High School, NY
Untitled by Kavana Anklekar
12th grade, The Orbis School, India
Unkindness of Ravens by Shirzad Mustafa
11th grade, Westfield High School, NJ
Hope by Zina Parker*
8th grade, North Branch School, VA
My siblings and I by Shelby Merriman
11th grade, Bear Creek High School, CO
Capturing Carbon by Taeyeon Han
11th grade, Arnold O. Beckman High School, CA
The Contact Line by Beatrix Stone
9th grade, Allendale Junior High School, Canada
Refugees in Bouncing Pink Bassinets by Savannah Powell
12th grade, Herriman High School, UT
Baksbat by Dylan Ragas*
11th grade, Germantown Friends School, PA
This contest is the result of Pulitzer Center education programming. Between March and May, education team staff led virtual workshops for over 1,600 K-12 students around the world, and teachers have guided student writing independently using this workshop guide. Fighting Words asks students to consider how journalism and poetry can be effective responses to current events and write poems in conversation with underreported news stories. Stay up to date on education opportunities and resources by signing up for our weekly education newsletter, and reach out to collaborate at email@example.com.
Entries were judged based on the success of the poem on its own terms (craft, linguistic style, emotion, etc.) and successful inclusion of lines quoted from a Pulitzer Center story. All student information except grade was removed from the poems before being presented to the judges.
In addition to Alissa Quart, thank you to our semifinal and final round judges: Shana Joseph, Marwah Shuaib, Nora Bauso, Abigail Gipson, Hayle Wesolowski, Maryel Cardenas, Donnalie Wilson, Fareed Mostoufi, Mark Schulte, Sushmita Jaya Mukherjee, and Hannah Berk.