Prize-winning poems from NYC Public High Schools, 2016

by Bonnie Walker

These prize-winning poems were written by five high school students who entered last year’s New York City’s public High School Poetry Contest, sponsored by City College’s Poetry Outreach Center.  The contest began in 1972 and that year there were but 42 entries from a dozen public high schools. Now the contest attracts thousands of entries each year from almost every public high school in the city. The award-winning students attend the annual Spring Poetry Festival to read their poems in front of hundreds of high school students and invited guests. The poems also are also printed in a book, Poetry in Performance, which is distributed throughout the NYC public school system. These activities are funded and overseen by City College’s Poetry Outreach Center under the direction of Pamela L. Laskin.

The 45th anniversary of this event will take place on May 12th 2017.

44th Annual NYC High School Poetry Contest (May 2016)

First Prize


He spends his summers with twigs between his teeth
And stones to suck.
He hand-cuts jeans to make Jean-shorts
And owns a velvet chair to watch the Olympics in.
He never speaks of what he’s seen
Makes him a big man,
Makes him a good ol’ old man
He slurps tomato sauce from penne
He sees Beautiful Dancing Girls
He talks with his son in-law in earnest
about what is in value
and he sleeps in a fabric-softener cave
To soothe his back pain.
His wrinkles shut his eyes for him,
and he is free to dream of reaching across the sheets
To choke his wife.
He wakes up at dawn
To hear floorboards creak
and life 2-ounders.
He marks time in kumquat seasons
And waits for the place
Where God is unshut.

She spends her winters chopped up under shuttered pill-splitters
And mints to chew.
She hems peeled onions
and owns socialist pearls from six-feet-under holy land
She only speaks of what she’s seen
Makes her a happy woman,
Makes her a good ol’ vain woman.
She is a prodigal gardener,
spitting into soil to make it sing.
She does handstands in the two-by-two patio,
gravel from the zen garden seeking blood from her palms,
and fat rolling down from her hips to her eyes,
shutting them close
So she is free to dream of reaching across the blankets
to maul her husband.
She calls her daughter and speaks for three hours,
inventing a language of codes,
the conversion of babbling to pleading,
telling the world that she is misunderstood,
that she loves, and would love to love.
She wakes at noon
to sleep
And marks time in breast-strokes
She sits in the garden to eat poppy seed cake,
And smiles up at the heavens,
waiting for the moment
when the Moon smiles back.

Hillel Rosenshine
The Bronx High School of Science

Second Prize
(two winners)


I saw my prince on the train the other day
he has on a salesman’s hat
and a suitcase in one hand and his hair
was buzzed off, like a shorn monk’s, and
he hadn’t showered in three days and
no one would sit next to him because his jeans
were covered with mud stains and ground coffee
I didn’t touch him. I didn’t say anything to him
I only watched him open his suitcase and take
out a notebook and a ballpoint pen. He
shook the pen three times to get the ink flowing
and he wrote with a skeleton hand
wearing skin as his fur coat and he
didn’t beg didn’t swear didn’t preach
not like those puffed-up intellectuals on their gilded seats
He only wrote. About what, I don’t know. About
whom or where or when I don’t know, only
I still see that notebook in my mind’s eye, crinkled
with last night’s rain and stained brown from
leather and the beer he bought with
his last paycheck and this is how
he decided to kill himself, not by
dicing himself into the pigeons’ next meal
or letting the East River break his neck but
by writing about beautiful
(her, always her)

and maybe he finally let go of the woman
who broke his heart—wasn’t that what it
always came down to, a woman? wasn’t that
the life of every great artist, wasn’t this man
a great artist—he was born, he fell in love,
he was scorned, he created the next great American
his lackluster sex life defining an entire generation
he—labeled ocean after the hurricane—was
a man who had given up on magnificence and youth
how he slumped, like the bullet had already reached
his spine, how he scribbled, like he had mere
minutes to live, how he moaned and drooled
and begged for mercy, giving his audience the ultimate show

well, old poets knew how to speak grand
their words covered vast expanses of untamed land but
modern poets do well if they can capture a single
moment of their lives, and if they do it stays
with them, trapped, and he didn’t have a single
clue what he was doing. I saved him from hell
by watching him, giving him a reason to
live, turning him into an animal
but better animal than inanimate
I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again
my prince, my pauper, my muse lost to
the dregs of New York coffee. goodbye, goodbye—
(even though she broke you
don’t let her go, please
never let her go)

Julia Hou
Stuyvesant High School


The world it spins and spins and we are still
Feeling not the speed at which we rotate
Freely moving captives of time’s will

A raven and a girl sit on a hill
Whilst the lost souls use stars to navigate
The world it spins and spins and they are still

From the midst of silence comes the trill
Of a bird and his mother who migrate
Freely flying captives of time’s will

A poet wakes and gets paper and quill
And writes like the morning will not wait
The world it spins and spins and does not still

On Christmas day, rituals they fulfill
Like clockwork comes the day children await
Fanciful notions of our human will

The universe does good and it does ill
And with every destruction it creates
The world it spins and spins and yet we’re still
Freely moving captives of time’s will

Sofia Grochowski
Staten Island Technical High School

Third Prize
(two winners)


We are the forgotten race too busy chasing after the American Dream
Creating doctors lawyers engineers
Constructing our lives and walking up the ladder of A’s
Climbing to success: the bamboo ceiling

We built your railroads that snake across this land
While you danced to the music of a fat Korean man horse-trotting into global consciousness
As if you needed something else to make fun of us besides our music
Our smelly food and dirty streets
Choppy accents and loud words that sound rude
Our version of “how’s the weather?” is “have you eaten yet?”
But you respond, “not dogs and cats, if that’s what you mean”

Well I can tell you that I’ve never eaten a dog or a cat
But I like frog and eel jellyfish pork belly pig ear duck tongue chicken feet
And you’re grossed about but still delirious with yellow fever
Our women so quiet so polite respectful dignified
Making congee with thousand year old eggs when we’re sick
Mom’s special recipe not like that chicken noodle soup you have
Call me disgusting one more time as you eat dry chicken breast
Tastes like death

My ancestors sit on a pile of burned paper money
Because we never stop taking care of older generations they gave us life
And you’re complaining that your mom won’t give you an iPhone
While my mom is beating me with the same broomstick she uses to sweep the graves
Hoping maybe my ancestors will smack some sense into me
You call it child abuse, we call it discipline

You criticize our factories striving for perfection
Same beautiful dark hair yellow skin small eyes seeing
That sweatshops and manufactured idols are ours and
We make your way of life tables chairs and the pedestal you’re on
As we sweat blood dripping in our rice fields with the sun beating down on our backs
We feed our families while you feed your ego

Thank you for ignoring us liberals speaking of equality
You want diversity but you don’t want us, your
“Model minority”
Wow thanks didn’t know too much of a good thing was bad
We are silent because politics are dirty it’s part of our culture to find clean jobs
We are quiet because we don’t want to make trouble just a living

We are voiceless because we made the box and you took our sound

We are here.

Angie Liao
Hunter College High School


I know where I should be
But here is where I am
On the corner of Canal street
Screeches form the slides of
Plastic wheels against the sidewalk
Provoke an aggressive, foreign dialogue
Unknown by me, or any of us.

Pops and scrapes emit from
The marriage of the asphalt
To the tails of our boards
And Elizabeth Street cries.

Children sit on the sidelines
In awe
Because, gravity doesn’t seem to apply to us
And we just can’t seem to fall hard enough

I’d like to think that at least one of them thought to themselves

“I want to float too.”

Reshawn Smith
The James Baldwin School

Pamela L. Laskin is a lecturer in the English Department, where she directs the Poetry Outreach Center. Ms. Laskin started out as a poet; consequently, hundreds of her poems have been published as well as four poetry chapbooks. Grand Central Station, a full-length collection, was published in 2003, and since that time Remembering Fireflies (Plain View Press); Secrets of Sheets (Plain View Press); Ghosts, Goblins, Gods and Geodes (World Audience); Van Gogh’s Ear; (Cervena Barva Press) and Daring Daughters/Defiant Dreams ( A Gathering of Tribes) have been published. Publish America recently published a book of children’s poetry that she co-authored with Ms. Jeanette Adams, a well-known African American children’s poet, and also Ms. Elise Buchman, Animal Crackers and Their Friends. Tudor Press published Getting to Know You, a YA novel, in 2003, and Diversion Press published Visitation Rites, an expansion of a young adult story originally published in Sassy magazine. Her published children’s books include A Wish Upon a Star (Magination Press); Historical Heroic Horses (McGraw-Hill); Music From the Heart (Bantam) and The Buried Treasure (McGraw-Hill). Dozens of her short stories have been published, too, including two YA stories, one in Young Miss and the other in SASSYSassy. She edited two collections: The Heroic Young Woman (2006), a collection of original feminist fairy tales, and Life on the Moon: My Best Friend’s Secrets (Linus Publication), a collection of young adult fiction.