Maria Carillo sophomore wins top prize in statewide poetry contest
With a deadline ticking late into a Friday night, Maria Carrillo High sophomore Zoya Ahmed sat down at her desk and penned an original poem, “A Concerto of Spice.”
“I wrote it in about a half hour,” said Ahmed, sitting in a Santa Rosa coffeehouse. “I did grammar checks, then I sent it to my poetry coach … she made it flow better.”
Despite being written quickly under pressure, the poem soared to first place in a statewide original poetry contest last month as part of the California Poetry Out Loud competition, an “American Idol”-style contest for teen poets across the nation.
For the poem, which blends aromas from her Pakistani mother’s kitchen with musical terms from her band director, Ahmed wove together a sensual tapestry redolent of her culture’s spices that also honors the women cooks who came before her.
“Since I was a young girl, there has been a big focus on home cooking,” she said. “All these family recipes are passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me. I started cooking at age 5.”
Ahmed’s literary feat seems even more remarkable when she reveals that English is her third language. She learned to speak Urdu and Hindi from her parents, both immigrants from Pakistan with family roots in India. She took ESL in kindergarten.
Now an Advanced Placement student in both the sciences and math, Ahmed has her heart set on medicine as a career, following the path of her father, who works as a geriatric doctor for the Santa Rosa VA Clinic.
“From birth, I knew I would become a doctor … I want to be a heart surgeon,” she said. “Writing was never my strong suit.”
51 other finalists
And yet, like the treble notes of the flute she picked up in elementary school, “A Concerto of Spice” rose magically to the top, fluttering above the other 51 finalists from across the state.
“Zoya’s poem was a remarkable piece of writing for a teen-ager,” said Dana Gioia of Windsor, a poet who launched the Poetry Out Loud contest while serving as the National Endowment for the Arts chairman in 2006.
“It isn’t full of the usual teenage angst and drama. It is a celebration of the English language, her family roots and the joys of Pakistani cookery. It is also a quiet but glorious tribute to her mother.”
Gioia, who traveled to all 58 counties in California after being named the Golden State’s Poet Laureate in 2015, has read “mountains of high school poems” during his career.
“Zoya’s is among the very best,” he said.
Poetry Out Loud is a National Recitation Contest that involves nearly half a million high school students across the country and awards $50,000 in scholarships.
The contest, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts administered statewide by the California Arts Council, encourages high school students to learn about poetry through memorization, performance and competition.
“More students participate in Poetry Out Loud in Sonoma County than in any other county in California,” Gioia said proudly.
“Just getting to Sacramento was a huge achievement for Zoya. For her to win the statewide original poetry contest was a triumph.”