Maria Carillo sophomore wins top prize in statewide poetry contest

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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.”

One of Ahmed’s favorite poems to recite is “If They Come for Us,” by Fatimah Asghar, a Pakistani-Kashmiri-American poet and screenwriter. In the poem, Asghar reaches out to “my people,” as a way of embracing all the world’s immigrants who feel under threat, whether through rhetoric or real violence.

As a Muslim, Ahmed relates to the poem’s message of being targeted by “Islamophobia,” a topic she has addressed as a member of the varsity speech team at Maria Carrillo.

“In every round I went to, people teared up at the poem,” she said.

Win school, county levels

“The kids at school were shook up. At state, a lot of my competitors were crying.”

To get to Sacramento, the sophomore had to win her schoolwide Poetry Out Loud contest, then come out on top of the countywide competition on Feb. 11 at the Central Library.

As the Sonoma County Poetry Out Loud champion, she joined 51 other county finalists on March 10 and 11 at the state-wide competition and was one of the 16 finalists who made it through to the final round.

A Marin County actress, Tamalpais High junior Lily Bogas, took home the top prize for Poetry Out Loud and will go on to Washington, D.C., for the national finals in April.

This year was the first time the California Poetry Out Loud contest also included a creative writing contest, Poetry Ourselves, open to each of the 52 county champions.

During the awards ceremony, Ahmed was named the first-place winner of Poetry Ourselves. In addition to a $100 prize and trophy, she was invited to recite her original poem to the crowd gathered in the State Capitol Senate Chambers.

“When I was reading, a lady next to my dad was really touched,” she said. “At the end, my mom dissolves away — it’s also my grandmother, who helped raise me, and passed away when I was in seventh grade.”

As a personal gift, Gioia gave Ahmed a copy of “Best American Poetry 2018,” which he edited. In the fall, Ahmed will share her award-winning poem with Sonoma County when she joins Gioia onstage for a Sixth Street Playhouse benefit.

Poet Phyllis Meshulam, who coordinates the Poetry Out Loud contest in Sonoma County, said she admires all the “sensory details” of Ahmed’s poem and views the creative writing contest as natural evolution in the competition.

“Poetry Out Loud gets them to internalize these poems by others,” she said. “They get a chance to speak very profound and sometimes humorous truths … they learn a lot about the inner lives of other people. But it’s also exciting to see them having a chance to be recognized for their own poetry.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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