In Orland Park, Ill., nine-year-old Riley Lyvers was lying on the floor in his living room, watching wood burn in the fireplace, when he thought of a phrase: slow-burning logs in the fire.
He took that phrase and turned it into a poem that earned him second place in Chicago’s 2007 Haiku Fest.
Riley won a $50 prize for his poem, but the real reward was the glory of winning second place.
Camping with my Dad
Slow burning logs in the fire
By participating in the festival, he learned to better express himself through writing — and learned that he writes well.
“It made me more confident than I was before,” Riley said, “because I didn’t know I was good at poetry.”
That’s what Haiku Fest is all about: encouraging kids to write, giving them opportunities to read their poetry and rewarding them for their hard work.
When Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks died in 2000, so did her poetry reading program that drew hundreds of students. However, she inspired someone else to fill the void that she left: Chicago poet Regina Harris Baiocchi, a published author and composer whom she had mentored.
Four years later, Haiku Fest was born. Baiocchi and her husband Greg financed the festival with the help of donors, giving kids ages 8 through 14 a place to read and write poetry. Baiocchi grew up in a home where her parents taught her at an early age to enjoy the arts, poetry and music, and she wanted other students to have the same opportunities.
Baiocchi and some of the festival judges teach haiku workshops at Chicago schools. They tell the students about Haiku Fest, and by the contest's February or March deadline, the kids submit haiku poems online.
Traditional haiku focuses on nature themes, but Baiocchi allows the kids to write about whatever they want. She said a lot of poems are about sports, love and subjects students learn in school, such as World War II.
“That’s the beauty of not limiting it to a nature topic,” Baiocchi said. “You really get to see what’s important to the students based on what they’re writing, and surprisingly, it’s about learning.”
Contestants receive a certificate of achievement and have the opportunity to read their poetry at the festival's awards ceremony in April, which is National Poetry Month. The first year, 75 students submitted poems, but the number grew to 1,300 this year.
Narrowing the haiku poems down to the top three is tough, but the eight volunteer judges recognize some poems with an honorable mention. They often encourage those authors to continue writing by giving them a small gift such as a journal. During the reading process, judges don't know the authors, their ages or what school they attend.
Technical writer Marilyn Allen judges every haiku — and she doesn't casually scan them while watching TV. She holes up in her study, where she lights candles and sips a hot cup of tea to set the mood for a night of reading the poems. She takes a week or two to read them as she checks for creativity, imagery and structure.
“It can be very grueling,” Allen said, “but at the same time, you don’t really feel it because it’s a lot of fun.”
Allen still remembers a haiku that a student wrote about ice skating. When she read the poem, she said she felt like she was on the ice with the skater, and that’s what makes a good haiku: words that paint a picture and make an emotional connection with the reader.
Painting a mental picture of stars in the heavens earned 14-year-old Catherine Adams second place in the 2009 contest.
“I saw a star in the sky,” Catherine said, “and I was so surprised because you don’t really see stars in Chicago too much, and I just decided to write a poem about it.”
She originally wrote five poems, but she had a hard time deciding which one to enter. After choosing the star poem, she kept perfecting it until the moment she turned it in. Catherine, who edits a literary magazine named Spiral at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, said she really liked the poem by this year's winner Louie Harboe — one of her classmates and the first boy to win the haiku contest.
When students see their classmates win, they realize that they actually have a shot at placing in the top three, said Amy McCue, a language arts teacher at St. Benedict Elementary School. McCue encourages her students to enter the contest, and even if they don’t, they still need to write a haiku. In 2008, 120 of the 900 kids who submitted poems attended St. Benedict’s, which won the School of the Year award and a laptop.
In McCue’s poetry class, middle school students don’t just learn about haiku; they help fourth- and fifth- graders with their poems during festival time. Students who write poems for contests such as the Haiku Fest learn to appreciate the power of words, McCue said, and become inspired to improve their writing each time they participate.
“I really want to write a good one this year," a student told McCue, "I really want to be one of the winners.”
Even kids who do not have great writing skills can come up with clever phrases for haiku, said Lisa Miller, an eighth-grade humanities teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. She requires her students to submit a poem to the Haiku Fest, and they edit each other’s work.
Miller said she enjoys watching them craft creative poems and improve their writing abilities, which will help them in whatever profession they choose.
Since the 2007 Haiku Fest, 11-year-old Riley has been racking his brain for song lyrics and continuing to write poems. This year, he sent a poem called “Sky” to Highlights and Nature Friend magazines.
Baiocchi said she hopes that the Haiku Fest gives contestants such as Riley a thirst to write that will last their lifetime.
“Haiku is our entree,” Baiocchi said. “I would just love for them to keep the word alive.”
My golden pencil
Paints gleaming silver rivers
Its pink hat dances
University of Chicago Laboratory Schools
I gaze at the stars
I pluck them out one by one
Dreams in my pocket
University of Chicago Laboratory Schools
red, small, and spotted
crawling on my fingertips
small legs tickle me
Elizabeth “Libby” Paulson
High Point School
Orland Park, Ill.
Filled with loneliness
In a heart-shaped box, it’s dark
Waiting to see light
St. Agnes of Bohemia