So Many Words in Just One Instant: 2023 Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards Ceremony
By Hannah Kucharzak
Read Time 4 minutes
September 18, 2023
For more than 31 years, lauded poet Gwendolyn Brooks held a poetry competition for young people until she passed away in 2000. Illinois Humanities had the honor of continuing that legacy and reviving the Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards (GBYPA) in 2017, in partnership with the Poetry Foundation, Brooks Permissions, and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Now in its seventh year, the awards have risen to new heights as one of Illinois’ most renowned poetry awards for young people.
This year’s submissions reached a record-breaking level. Illinois Humanities received more than 800 poems from young people all across the state. Two awardees and one honorable mention per school grade were honored at the awards ceremony on September 9, 2023, at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in Chicago, where Illinois prizewinners gathered to recite their poems.
Follow along as we relive the event, and be sure to check out the photo album by GlitterGuts!
Butterflies amid the buzz
Students and their families filed into the main performance hall at the Logan Center for the commemorative afternoon ceremony. Amid their nervous butterflies, students nonetheless had a buzzing energy of excitement as they met their peers across districts, counties, and a multitude of backgrounds. Young people were encouraged to write single lines of poetry on two oversized post-it notes—one read “All May Enter the realm of the poem!” at the top in hot pink marker. This collaborative piece was later recited on stage to wrap up the end of the reading, bookending the ceremony in connection and creative unity.
Emcee Denzel Burke, a past GBYPA winner and co-founder of the R.E.A.L. Youth Initiative, kicked off the ceremony; young people in grades K-12 then took to the stage in sequential order, gracing the audience with their original words. Some recited their poem from memory, and others proudly clutched a print chapbook containing all the 7th annual prizewinning poems, assembled and published by Illinois Humanities—the chapbook can be viewed and downloaded here.
So many words in just one instant
Honorary guest and Gwendolyn Brooks’s daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, took to the podium halfway through the recitations, delivering a presentation that embodied the vibrant spirit of Gwendolyn Brooks. A purse that she curiously brought on stage was revealed to be her mother’s actual bag, containing items she carried with her in daily life.
A screening of “We Real Cool,” a video created by Manual Cinema for Brooks’s centennial, then played on the massive, on-stage screen. Using illuminated paper cutout puppets, the delightful and innovative piece recalls the inception of Brooks’s canonical poem of the same title.
Recently appointed Chicago Poet Laureate, avery r. young, read aloud from some of the first poems he wrote as a young poet, eliciting laughter from everyone, yet serving as a simple reminder that even the best poets of our time need to start somewhere—not unlike the awardees in the audience. Illinois Poet Laureate Angela Jackson, recipient of a 2022 Ruth Lilly Poetry Award that honors lifetime achievement, also took to the podium to read her poem specifically written for the occasion, titled “Something Happens.”
The event concluded with a performance of a reading from the previously mentioned group poem post-its, in which emcee Denzel Burke recited the poem with the help of four volunteers, the sheets of paper comically engulfing the stature of the young poets who held them up. The final lines of the poem read: “So many words in just one instant, / take a breath, / And take in the beautiful scene / Think first / Breathe deep.” These lines coincidentally and magically encapsulated the spirit of the awards ceremony—the audience was bestowed with so many inspiring words in just one afternoon, where attendees breathed together, thought together, and took it all in.
Congratulations to this year's winners
On behalf of Illinois Humanities, the Poetry Foundation, Brooks Permissions, and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, we wish congratulations to all recipients of the Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards! The caliber of expression, emotion, vulnerability, and discovery was unmatched, and we’re honored to have given them the opportunity to share their work with readers of all ages.
Looking ahead, we’re eager to read submissions for next year’s 2024 awards! Submissions open on November 1, 2023 to all K-12 students in Illinois. If you or someone you know is an educator, librarian, youth worker, or even if you have a budding poet at home, please encourage the young people in your life to submit their work for the chance to earn a Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Award. All winners receive a monetary prize, as well as publication in a chapbook, and their work held in the archival history of this prestigious tradition.
About the Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards
This annual competition honors the legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks and the creativity of K-12 writers in Illinois by creating a platform for the next generation of poets to share their voices and develop their craft. Submissions open in November and awards are announced the following summer. Winners receive a prize package and are invited to celebrate at an awards ceremony in Chicago.