How do you get to Carnegie Hall? For Olivia Howe, the answer is "Write a poem."
On June 2, 2016, in a ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Howe, daughter of Alice Charkes and Greg Howe, and a rising junior at Brattleboro Union High School, received an American Voices Medal from the national Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for her poem, "Land's End to John O'Groats: An Abecedarium."
As defined by the Academy of American Poets, an abecedarium (also called an abecedarian) is an ancient poetic form in which the first line of the poem begins with the first letter of the alphabet, each subsequent line beginning with each successive letter in order until the final letter is reached. In the English alphabet of 26 letters, the challenge is always what to do with "X" and "Z."
The inspiration for Howe's poem grew out of the bicycle trip she and her mother took in the summer of 2015. Over three weeks, the two cycled approximately a thousand miles from Land's End, the southwestern tip of England, to John O'Groats at the northern tip of Scotland. Howe said her mother spent nine months creating the itinerary.
Howe had never been to Europe before except for a trip to France "when I was two," she said. "This was my first exposure to another culture. It was awe-inspiring and life-changing. You can't do something that colossal and not feel different after."
The effect on Howe was a combination of the contemporary and the historical. In light of the jokes about accents and tea, "it was interesting to see how they live," she said. "And because it's Europe, history dates back to early human civilizations. We visited ancient sites, not Stonehenge, but other stone circles. I loved it. Based on the things I was seeing, I had lines of poetry floating around in my head."
Back home, Howe thought more about what to do with those lines of poetry.
"I really admire writer and illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000)," she said. "He's known for his macabre works, dark stories about children who have unfortunate ends. He often writes abecedariums, and I thought it would be fun to try his style. I looked through my pictures of England to refresh my memory."
According to the SA&W website, the organization was started in 1923 by Maurice R. Robinson, founder and chairman of Scholastic Magazines Inc., who believed it was important " to give those high school students who demonstrate superior talent and achievement in things of the spirit and of the mind at least a fraction of the honors and rewards accorded to their athletic classmates for demonstrating their bodily skills."
Students in grades 7 through 12 can enter work in 29 different categories. Entries are judged anonymously — jurors do not know the identities of the student artists and authors. Jurors look for works that excel in originality, technical skill, and emergence of a personal voice or vision. Work at the regional level can earn one of three awards: Gold Key, Silver Key, or Honorable Mention. Gold Key winners are automatically entered into the national judging, where the awards are Gold Medal or Silver Medal. A panel of esteemed jurors selects the best of the Gold Medal winners for American Voices Medals (writing) and American Visions Medals (art).
Through the SA&W Awards, students receive opportunities for recognition, exhibition, publication, and scholarships. The Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center is the Vermont affiliate for the program.
Howe, who has been writing since she was three, entered the SA&W Awards competition as a seventh grader, the first year she was eligible. Her novel won a Silver Key at the regional level. The next year she felt more confident about her entries but didn't win anything.
"Rejection is always frustrating," she said, "but every year it's a new round of people. That's just how it is. You can't do anything about it."
As a ninth grader, Howe's writing won two Gold Keys, three Silver Keys, and seven Honorable Mentions at the regional level.
This year, as a tenth grader, she entered 18 pieces in the SA&W competition: poetry, prose, and a play. Six of her pieces received regional Gold Keys, nine Silver Keys, and three Honorable Mentions. The deadline for the competition is in December, but notification isn't mailed until the following April, "a long time to wait," Howe said.
Three of Howe's pieces won Gold Medals at the national level: two poems (the "Land's End " poem and one about a homeless teen in Chicago, and a piece of "flash fiction" (under 1,000 words) about a Chinese immigrant working in a nail salon.
"Every time you send your work out, it's a little scary," Howe said. "There's no feedback from the SA&W judges, but they are professionals, so you can trust it when they approve of your work."
Various experiences have contributed to Howe's development as a writer. As a fifth and sixth grader, she participated in the Maple Leaf Writing Project, an enrichment program and competition for students in Brattleboro elementary schools, which gives all interested students the opportunity to write a short story of about 3,000 words, over a three-month period, guided by local children's book authors who mentor them. Howe was a finalist in fifth grade and earned second place in sixth grade.
"Jessie Haas and Michael Daley taught me how to finish a story," Howe said. "That's an extremely valuable skill. I would start out with a lot of description. I love description, but nothing really happened. You have to have conflict. It's basic and necessary."
In the Governor's Institutes Winter Weekend 2016, Howe participated in the fiction-writing workshop with author Ken Harvey, who lives in Toronto. Mostly, though, Howe said her mom is her editor, and "she's very tough."
The national awards ceremony is always at Carnegie Hall in early June, Howe said. This year's special guests included Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, who received a SA&W award when he was 17; Tim Gunn, Project Runway mentor; actor Alec Baldwin; Sonia Manzano, who played Maria on "Sesame Street"; and Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States.
"They celebrate us," Howe said. "Everyone was kind and encouraging. They're embracing what we can do and believing that we have something to share. They're looking for the fresh talent of the new generation."
Nancy A. Olson can be reached at email@example.com.